Chris St. Hilaire – Don’t be afraid of the silence

Chris St. Hilaire, Founder, President and CEO, Jury Impact and M4 Strategies

Chris St. Hilaire, Founder, President and CEO, Jury Impact and M4 Strategies

Imagine you had a secret power that could calm frazzled colleagues, foster teamwork and help you manage conflict. Not only would this power be versatile, it would also be invisible. To ignite this power, you would merely need to do … nothing.

That’s the power of silence.

The best politicians know all about silence; just watch them being interviewed. Notice how they pause after a difficult question, appear to think about it, and then finally give an answer. That pause makes the audience believe that the politician listens to others and thinks very carefully before responding. As a longtime political consultant, I can assure you that seasoned politicians have been briefed on every possible question and have prepared their answers well in advance. They’re using silence to create a specific effect.

Communication pros, such as salespeople, reporters and trial attorneys, all consider silence to be one of their most effective tools, as I explain in my book, “27 Powers of Persuasion.” Here are six ways silence can help you communicate, negotiate, mediate or persuade. And the power of silence works not only with colleagues but also with your friends and family.

Use silence to build consensus for your idea

If you’re presenting a plan to a group, chances are you already know what some of their objections might be. Rather than blurt out an instant response, take a page from the politician’s book. Listen. Pause for a moment. Then say, “That’s a good point. What if we handle it this way …” When others feel heard, they are much more likely to listen to you in return.

Use silence to get a better answer

Reporters never settle for the first answer they get from an interviewee. If you’re interviewing a potential hire, inquiring about a plan of action or otherwise trying to ascertain reliable information, let the person respond to your question, then wait. Don’t say anything. They will fill in the silence with a more complete answer. If you then murmur something vaguely encouraging — for instance, nod and say, “Hmmm” — they will dig even deeper. Many reporters believe that the third answer is the most revealing and valuable.

Use silence to gain advantage in an argument

When you’re having a disagreement, the natural tendency is to respond to an attack. Instead, nod and say nothing. Ninety percent of the time, the other person will moderate his or her own position.

Use silence to negotiate

Car salesmen do it all the time. You make an offer on a car. He frowns and says nothing. The silence builds. Finally, you can’t stand it any longer and say, “Maybe I could go a little higher.” You’ve just increased your own bid. In any negotiation, the first one to speak after an offer loses.

Use silence to regain control of a conversation

If someone else is dominating a discussion, wait until he or she is done, then pause for a few seconds before you say your piece. Silence always feels longer to the person who has just been speaking, so if you wait, a subtle advantage swings your way.

Use silence to buy time while appearing thoughtful

In the midst of a conversation, you may need a few seconds to think. When that happens, gaze down and take the time you need. Our research has shown that when people look downward, they are perceived to be thoughtful and intelligent. When they gaze upward, they look like they’re searching in the air for answers.

The other side of silence is knowing how to interpret it. In general, don’t assume that the silence is a bad sign and don’t take it personally. There could be many reasons why a room is quiet after your presentation. The audience could be confused or bored, but they could also be completely satisfied. When it happens to me, I like to say, “Judging from the silence, I must have covered this topic brilliantly.” The line always gets a laugh, and sometimes it’s even true.

Chris St. Hilaire is the author (with Lynette Padwa) of “27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences and Win Allies” (Prentice Hall Press). He is an award-winning message strategist who has developed communications programs for some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, legal teams and politicians.