Can silence help you negotiate a pay rise?

Beautiful young businesswoman with hand on chin using laptop in office

Silence can be an important tool in helping you get what you want. Photo: Getty

Asking your employer for a pay rise can be nerve-wracking, so much so that many people will avoid requesting a salary change altogether. As the old adage states, though: If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

There are certain approaches and best practices that work in your favour when asking for a pay rise. Even though your manager is likely to be aware of the hard work you’ve been doing, you still need to present your case for why you deserve a higher salary and you need to be prepared to negotiate.

However, there is another tool that may help you put forward your request: Silence.

Many people are uncomfortable with silence. We tend to talk on top of one another, with little pause between point and counterpoint – and when the conversation stops, we tend to find something to say for the sake of it. However, embracing silence can be a helpful negotiation skill.

Learning to sit through a period of silence gives us a chance to truly listen to what the other person is saying, something we struggle with. When someone is speaking, we tend to prepare our own responses rather than listen. However, allowing a few moments of silence in negotiation before responding can help you listen more effectively — and consider what the person is saying.

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Now, new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds that pausing for at least three seconds during a negotiation can work in your favour.

In a series of studies in which pay negotiations were simulated in conversation, the researchers found that periods of silence interrupt “default, zero-sum thinking” to help foster a more “reflective, deliberative” mindset. In turn, this is likely to lead to the recognition of “golden” opportunities, the researchers found.

In other words, a period of silence gives the person time to think more deeply about the issue at hand. And this pause helps them see the discussion as less of a “tug of war” and consider more favourable outcomes.

“When put on the spot to respond to a tricky question or comment, negotiators often feel as though they must reply immediately so as not to appear weak or disrupt the flow of the negotiation,” says Jared Curhan, an associate professor of work and organisation studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who led the study.

“However, our research suggests that pausing silently can be a simple yet very effective tool to help negotiators shift from fixed pie thinking to a more reflective state of mind. This, in turn, leads to the recognition of golden opportunities to expand the proverbial pie and create value for both sides.”

In the first study, the research team explored the effect of silence as it occurs naturally in a negotiation. Participants were randomly assigned to the role of candidate or recruiter in a negotiation simulation regarding the candidate’s pay.

Using a computer algorithm to measure intervals of silence lasting at least three seconds, the team found that periods of silence tended to precede breakthroughs in the negotiation. In fact, breakthroughs were more likely to occur after silent pauses than at any other point in the negotiation.

The three other experiments explored how people can use deliberate silence as a tool for negotiation. Again, participants were randomly assigned roles in an employment discussion, but one person in the pair was told to add purposeful silent pauses to their negotiation.

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The researchers found that when silence was used as a tactic, the silence user tended to adopt a deliberative mindset and was more likely to recognise opportunities for both sides to get more of what they wanted.

“In conventional wisdom, negotiation is seen as a tug of war – any gain to one side reflects a loss to the other,” said Curhan.

“But it doesn’t have to be a battle and the pie isn’t necessarily fixed. There are creative ways to address conflicts and there is more room for agreement than people assume. Our study shows that one way to find that room and spark that resourcefulness is through silence.”

Watch: How to negotiate a pay rise