I was in a sales call once and, at a pivotal moment, a senior salesperson asked the client if our service fit their needs. There was only silence on the other end of the line. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Nothing. Maybe the client didn’t hear the question? Four Mississippi. Five Mississippi.
Sensing that I might interject, the salesperson raised their hand to stop me. At last, the client responded. I had just experienced my first “golden silence” — a sales technique used to guide a conversation towards a resolution. Here’s a look at how it works, and how to spot when it’s being used on you.
How the golden silence works
The “golden silence” is a sales concept developed by Miller Heiman, a sales training company. In practice, it’s quite simple: after you ask a question, wait at least four seconds for the answer (or more, depending on the situation). It’s “golden” because — as the company puts it — a well-placed silence will “significantly improve the quality and the quantity of the information the salesperson receives.”
Why would that be? People find pauses in conversation so uncomfortable that they can be subtly encouraged to break the silence. Research has found that this phenomenon is particularly acute with English speakers, as they will start to feel unsettled after about four seconds of silence (for Japanese speakers, it’s twice as long). Plus, a sales call is really about understanding the client’s needs, something that doesn’t happen when the salesperson is doing all the talking. A well-placed conversation can ensure that the client is actually being heard. It’s just like the old adage: “Slow down and you’ll get there faster.”
How a golden silence can also help you negotiate
A well-placed silence isn’t just for sales calls, either, as it can be useful in pretty much any situation that requires negotiation. Since it’s hard to read people’s minds, silence while bargaining can signal a position strength, a willingness to walk away from a negotiation if you get your way. Plus, by not talking, the other party might rush to fill the void by saying stuff that’s not fully thought out, perhaps even compromising their position. The BBC has a good example of how this can work:
Katie Donovan adheres to the adage, ‘He who speaks first, loses.’ Early in her career, the founder of US-based consultancy Equal Pay Negotiations interviewed for a job in sales and was offered it on the spot. When the interviewer named a salary, she said she’d get back to him next week and then sat quietly. He raised the offer. She repeated her tactic. Finally, he made a third offer of 20% more than the first. She accepted.
Don’t overuse the golden silence
The golden silence is a bit of a one-trick pony. When it works well, it can either strengthen your position or encourage discussion, but when it’s overused it can be annoying and feel manipulative to the other party, especially if they’re aware of the tactic. Instead of thinking of silence as a gimmick that will “win” a conversation, think of it as a way to communicate more effectively, especially if you’re an undisciplined speaker that cedes ground by talking too much.