Harnessing the Power of the Pause

Alan Ludmer is the president of ARL, LLC; specializing in individual career transitions, outplacement, and career and executive coaching, search/recruitment, corporate marketing and branding. He is the lead consultant for the JF&CS LifeLine Program which has helped numerous members of the St. Louis Community successfully navigate difficult career transitions.  He is a frequent speaker and author on career transitions,  employment issues, and entrepreneurship. For more information contact [email protected] or visit his blog at stljewishlight.com/ludmer.

Alan R. Ludmer

In business and in life, the ability to negotiate  is critical.  From buying a house or a car, to seeking a new job or promotion, negotiation skill is essential.  A critical component of mastering negotiation skill is harnessing the power of the pause.  Learn to pause, and you have an enormously valuable negotiating technique.

Here is an interesting experiment.  At your next meeting, wait for a pause in conversation and try to measure how long it lasts. Chances are – especially among English speakers – it will be a second or two at most.  Why?  In our western culture, we tend to be most uncomfortable with long gaps in a conversation.

English speakers tend to be most uncomfortable with long gaps in a discussion. And yet, knowing when to be tight-lipped can give you the upper hand in everything from sales deals and pay negotiations to presentations and staff development. Silence really is golden.



The fact that English speakers are generally so awkward around silence is partly why it can be such a powerful tool.

Sales expert Gavin Presman consistently pauses after making a pitch – after reading that counselors should wait five seconds after a patient finishes speaking. “In business, five seconds might be too long, so I leave three seconds and what happens is remarkable,” says Presman, director of UK-based training and development provider Inspire.

Recently, a potential customer told him, “You’re very expensive and I’m not sure if we can afford that.” Presman said he understood, and then waited. Ten seconds later the other party said he saw the value of the training and wanted to go ahead. “We often think that silence is people simply not speaking,” says Presman. “But it allows both people to settle down and reflect a bit deeper.”

Silence is the hardest technique to learn. It’s against our instincts. We want to fill in the blanks

There is an old business adage, ‘He who speaks first, loses.’  A well known consultant was once 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.

More than product knowledge or anything else, silence is the hardest technique to learn, it’s against our instincts. We want to fill in the blanks.

I have always recommended to my clients, that rather than waiting until a tough negotiation, practice with friends and colleagues. Ask a simple question, like what did you do at the weekend?’ And then shut up. Once you’ve practiced keeping quiet it’s very useful throughout your whole life, from hanging out with friends to buying a house.”

When to speak up

Of course, there are times when it’s better to speak up. Silence can sometimes be misinterpreted.  In the workplace that can mean a manager announcing a decision and assuming that if staff are unhappy they will speak up. The employees, however, may see no point in saying anything because the boss has made up their mind. That’s a very dangerous difference.

Learning how to face silence is an important skill, especially when working across cultures.  Chinese negotiators are very, very aware that Americans like to fill silences and they are trained to stay silent and impassive because that will make the Americans uncomfortable and possibly make concessions without the Chinese having to do anything.

So, what’s the best response? Grit your teeth and wait it out. Don’t offer a compromise or concession just because they are not speaking. If you have to say something, ask a direct question, such as ‘What’s your initial reaction to that offer?’  Once a silence is getting into 45 seconds you could say, ‘Let’s come back to that in a minute and proceed with the next part of our negotiation.

In presentations, silence can be far more effective than dramatic passion.  Before starting, look at the audience and be silent for a moment because that says, ‘I’m in control. I know what I’m doing. I’m confident.’”

Give people a moment of silence to get beyond the emotional response and to start thinking cognitively

A classic example was when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone. He introduced pauses so that you didn’t miss his key points. Because silence makes us nervous, our instinctive reaction is that we’d better pay attention, there’s something going on here.

Equally, when giving feedback to staff or trainees, pauses count, especially if there are negatives. If you keep talking you’re spoon feeding. Give people a moment of silence to get beyond the emotional response and to start thinking cognitively and processing.

Silence can be a very powerful focal point for understanding ourselves, understanding others, for developing better mutual understanding and more productive outcomes and that applies to business, politics, education, law, medicine, every realm of human life.