Silence is golden
I like to keep quiet... if you know me, you will agree that this is not always the case. But as a mediator, as a coach, and even as a business consultant I like to use the 'power of silence'.
Conscious silence helps me to learn more about the other side and to really listen actively to what people are saying (or not saying, for that matter).
In business consulting and coaching, you mostly need to ask the right questions before you can listen to the answers and dig deeper to uncover the yet unknown. In mediation, using silence as a powerful tool is possible without even asking a question - just listening to the parties during a mediation and not saying anything as a mediator can help to uncover interesting things.
Silence slows down the process in mediation - it decelerates it - and helps the mediating parties to better reflect on what has been said and thus to understand it better. Even without the mediator intervening.
This is not a new technique and is often used actively by coaches, mediators, and by many trainers. We are happy to just wait and see, overcoming the urge to say something and thus to fill the silence.
Of course, being silent takes some practice, as we all 'fear' the awkward pauses in conversations, the risk of being perceived as ignorant and 'speechless', or just don't want to interrupt the 'flow' of the negotiation - by being silent.
A 2021 study by the MIT Sloan School of Management [Jared R. Curhan, MIT Sloan School of Management (2021, 03 25); retrieved from MIT Sloan Website: https://mitsloan.mit.edu/press/silence-golden-new-research-out-mits-sloan-school-management-suggests-extended-silence- during-negotiations-leads-to-better-results-both-parties] provides scientific proof of the benefit of silence. According to this study, silence in negotiations leads to better results for all parties involved. Intentional pauses have a positive influence on those involved and lead to them moving away from the 'predetermined, fixed pie' towards a greater willingness to negotiate. This allows to 'increase the pie' and create additional value - for both sides.
The study shows that many 'breakthroughs' in negotiations were preceded by at least three seconds of silence. Furthermore - when silence was used strategically - parties acted and proceeded more thoughtfully and intentionally and were therefore better able to identify opportunities to reach their goals.
So what do we learn from the study that can be applied in mediation? Successful mediation is not about winning and getting your point across. On the contrary, it is about understanding the other side and accepting their point of view. Active listening - up to not saying anything - can help, because this leads to deeper reflection and to more creative solutions. And in the end, these usually represent a win for everyone.
My personal take away from the results of the study is to continue listening and being silent. Not wanting to fill pauses in conversation at any price is the right approach. Enduring the sometimes uncomfortable silence is absolutely correct, because it helps to bring the mediation closer to a successful conclusion - i.e. an agreement. And the same is true for coaching conversations, where silence can help my clients to gain valuable insights. And even as a consultant, I'm very aware that I often learn more by listening - before I provide most valuable advice!
A version of this blog post was originally published on April 12, 2021 by Beatrice Herrmann on commercialmediation.ch.