Silence is Golden

We all know the awkward feeling when conversation is disrupted by a brief silence. During your next meeting, wait for a pause in conversation and try to measure how long it lasts. There’s a high probability, especially amongst English speakers, it will be one or two seconds max.

In Western cultures, studies show that we’ll leave a fraction of a second between taking turns to talk. What might be seen as a universal pattern here in Australia, differs dramatically across cultures, which is particularly crucial if you’re doing business overseas.

According to a 2011 Dutch study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, awkward silences are “particularly disturbing if they disrupt the conversational flow.”. Participants reported feeling “more anxious, rejected and less self-assured.”.

While long gaps in a discussion may make you feel uncomfortable, knowing when to ‘shut-it’ can give you the upper hand in everything from negotiations, sales deals to presentations and staff development.

Cultural Nuances

In an American study, participants subjected to an extended silence up to four seconds, started to feel unsettled. Whereas in Japan, a study of business meetings found silences up to 8.2 seconds were completely acceptable to participants – more than twice the length of the American study. What one culture finds to be an awkward pause, others see as a moment to reflect and a sign of respect for the last speaker.

‘Haragei’ in Japanese translates to “the art of the stomach”. While many Japanese people may not know this phrase, they are familiar with what it represents. It’s the art of understanding what someone means in conversation without necessarily having to say it aloud. Japanese society is homogeneous which makes Haragei possible. Having to speak means there is a communication breakdown, seen as brusque or even uneducated.

The lack of homogeneity in colonial societies or societies with high multi-cultural populations may explain the lack of common understanding or awkwardness when faced with conversational silences. If you consider being around close friends or family, it’s often easier to sit in silence than it would be in most everyday situations including workplace interactions.

Extended silences may be uncomfortable, but they can actually be a powerful tool

Sales expert Gavin Presman consistently pauses after making a pitch, after reading that counsellors 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.”

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.


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

Rather than waiting until a tough negotiation, she recommends practising with friends and colleagues. “Ask a simple question, like ‘What did you do at the weekend?’ And then shut up. Once you’ve practised 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, says Dr. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in the US. Researchers of courtroom interaction found lawyers advised clients giving testimony to think before answering and not jump in immediately. However,  juries often suspected that a silence before speaking meant the person was concocting a lie, she says. “The intention and the effect of silence are often different.”

In the workplace that can mean a manager announcing a decision and assuming that if staff are unhappy they will speak up, she explains. The employees, however, may see no point in saying anything because the boss has made up their mind. “That’s a very dangerous difference,” she says.

Learning how to face silence is an important skill, says Matthew MacLachlan of UK-based Learnlight, a language and soft skills training provider, 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,” he says.

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, he adds. “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.’”

A classic example was when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone, says MacLachlan. “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,” says MacLachlan.

"Silence can be an inward-focused thoughtful activity or an outward stillness where you give yourself the time to watch and think and listen to the world around you", says Donal Carbaugh, a professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Having observed the use of silence in Finland and also among the Blackfeet Nation, a North American Indian tribe in northern Montana in the US, he says he sees benefits far beyond wheeling and dealing.

“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.”


5 take outs

While there’s no denying the awkward feeling when faced with an extended silence in conversation, practice using it to your advantage. Take time to listen, digest and reflect before verbalising a response. Remember the following five points to improve your communication skills:

  1. Pausing allows you to breathe. Providing the brain with oxygen helps clarity and alertness. Not only does it improve mental clarity, it helps calm nerves and improves voice projection.

  2. Silences are awkward. People generally don’t like silences, which can be particularly useful in a negotiation situation. The other party may unintentionally fill the gap with words or reveal more information than they had intended.

  3. Credibility. Pausing demonstrates you are thinking and will make you sound more articulate and in control. Practise active thinking or considered pausing.

  4. Keeping the other party engaged. Considered pauses allow the other party or audience to digest what is being said.

  5. Dialogue is only part of the message. Body language and tone of voice go a long way in conveying your message. According to Professor Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA, the three elements of communication account for; 7% words, 38% tone of voice and 55% for body language.

Article Sources:

Yappari, As I Thought: Listener Talk in Japanese Communication

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

The Subtle Power of Uncomfortable Silences BBC - Lennox Morrison

Haragei - Art of the Stomach

Awkward Silences: 4 Seconds Is All It Takes to Feel Rejected

The Power of the Pause. 5 reasons why pausing can be your most powerful communication tool

Albert Mehrabian