9 Steps to Breaking the Silence in Negotiation

This blog is based on CEDR’s #askanegotiator podcast series in which Philip Williams, former Hostage and Crisis Negotiator, answers Negotiation questions and challenges submitted by listeners.

This blog tackles a question from a listener, who as a lawyer and mediator, wanted help with the following scenario:

How do you talk to someone who does not want to talk to you?

A not uncommon situation – facing a hostile other side in a commercial negotiation.

Drawing on his experience of negotiating in incredibly difficult situations where often human life was at stake, here are 9 steps to help you break the silence with your opposing side.

1. People Like to Talk

Fundamentally, people like to talk, especially if the subject is important to them, which, if it is a commercial negotiation, it most likely will be.

It is something we have been doing since childhood and is a habit that is not easily broken.

So, take heart in the fact that although they may not be speaking initially, talking to others is something that comes naturally to us all and in getting them to speak, you are tapping into an already long-ingrained and established behaviour.

2. Adopt the ‘Listening Position’

To use a sports analogy, think of it like running a race, hitting a golf ball, kicking a football or preparing to receive a tennis serve.

You adopt a position/stance that is conducive to you performing an action effectively – you are ready.

The same principle applies to listening.

If you are laid back, arms-crossed, possibly slouching, you do not look attentive, alert or interested. This resonates with the person and does not engender engagement.

Hostage and Crisis Negotiators instead use the power of ‘forward leaning’. It is very simple and is exactly what it says on the tin.

The reason it works is because as your body adopts different positions using your muscles, the nerves within those muscles inform your brain what is happening. Subsequently, the positions we adopt resonate with feelings in the emotional part of our brain.

For example, if someone smiles at you, this makes you feel good, if they frown, you feel uncomfortable or upset.

This is the principle behind ‘forward leaning’.

Interestingly, it also works over the phone. Philip has witnessed hostage-takers tell a Hostage Negotiator that they were not taking them seriously and it was because the latter was sitting in the wrong position while on the phone. Their complacency and lack of physical engagement leaked into the tone of their voice.

3. Take Bite-Size Chunks

The good news about the other side not wanting to talk to you is that you have all the space in which to do the talking.

The question is, how are you going to fill that space?

Most of the time we talk too quickly and bombard people with our opinions, ideas and suggestions leaving them with too much information to process.

The tendency when confronted with silence is to fill the void, but even more so in these situations, we need to slow down and deliver bite-sized messages and sentences.

Take pauses, don’t overload them and give them space to respond.

4. Keep it Simple

Keep your language and messages as simple as possible.

If they are being unresponsive, now is not the time to complicate things both in terms of what you are saying or how you say it.

There will be a time to discuss more complicated things but that is once the dialogue is flowing.

5. Vary your Rhythm and Tone

While keeping your language and messages simple, you should still look to be conscious of how you are coming across.

Varying your tone, injecting energy when trying to make a point and then slowing down to perhaps deal with an emotional issue, all contributes to how engaging you are.

Akin to the ‘listening position’, you want to show you are interested and what they think and say matters to you.

6. Emotional Labelling

This is one of the most effective tools for unlocking silence.

It is your sense of what they are feeling in that moment. Combine this with an ‘I’ message which is much less confrontational than starting with ‘you’.

For example,

“Philip, I get the sense that you are really frustrated and angry at how the negotiations have gone so far…”

It is likely they will either confirm or deny, whichever it is, the silence is broken.

7. Risk of ‘Loss’

From previous #askanegotiator podcasts, we know that the risk of ‘loss’ is roughly twice as influential as the prospect of gain.

We are always keen to point out the positives of getting a deal, or in this scenario of talking, but if that isn’t working try pointing out what they risk losing if you don’t start to make progress.

For a proper explanation of ‘loss’, listen to this podcast.

8. The ‘No’ Question

It is best explained with an example.

“Is it ridiculous of me to ask whether you still want to wake up tomorrow with this issue weighing over your head…?”

This is another silence breaking tool. We are so used to people trying to get us to say “yes” that when you use this technique which (hopefully) invites a “no” answer, it is reassuringly comforting.

It is another tool in your arsenal of how to get the conversation going, and once they have said “no” their mind now has to focus on what they will need to do next.

9. The ‘Accusation Audit’

This technique is so-called by Chris Voss who was part of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit.

As part of Philip’s hostage and crisis negotiation training, it was referred to as “what are they saying about us behind our backs?”.

Again, best illustrated with an example.

“Philip, I suspect you think me heartless and unfair with the proposal I have put forward today.”

Whether they confirm or deny, you have once again started the conversation and from a potentially useful point.

In the business context it is a good thing for any company to ask themselves, and to seek to understand, what do our clients really think about us?

Because, if the impression is not good then this is a situation you need to seek to rectify as it will impact heavily on their decision-making and interactions with you.

By saying “I wouldn’t be surprised if you think we are….”  you are actively bringing to the surface what other may be thinking. It creates a start point for a healing conversation.

Be bold and ‘over egg’ what they may be thinking so that you give them space to retreat into safer ground; after all, they are there to negotiate a deal!

Final Thoughts

The last four steps detailed above are tools you can use for breaking the silence in negotiation:

  • Emotional labelling
  • Suggesting the risk of loss
  • ‘No’ questions
  • The ‘Accusation Audit’

In order to deploy these effectively, ensure you are conscious of the five building blocks:

  • People like to talk
  • The ‘Listening Position’
  • Bite-Size Chunks
  • Simplicity
  • Rhythm and Tone

The next time you are confronted with silence and an uncooperative party in a negotiation, see if one of these techniques can get the ball rolling and foster the beginnings of a productive dialogue.

If you would like to receive the regular #askanegotiator podcasts, you can sign-up here, under ‘Negotiation’.

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