“Sometimes the best thing to say during a negotiation is nothing”

Have you ever had a conversation at a party or while you’re on a first / second date where the conversation starts to flag and there is a conspicuous moment of silence?  You’re kind of stuck there wondering what to say next or trying to determine what the other person is thinking (hopefully with an alcoholic beverage in your hand to pass the time)?  Do you remember how awkward that was?  The same thing often happens during a negotiation as well.

A good pressure tactic I have used quite often during negotiations is right at the moment when a deal may potentially be struck I stop talking.  I’ll let the other side see I’m doing something, but I simply won’t say anything.  The key here is that in a negotiation when one side stops talking the other side starts asking themselves “Why did they stop talking?  No one is saying anything.  Wow this is really awkward - and I don’t have a beer in my hand to help me pass the time.  I better start talking in order to continue this negotiation.”  

The further along the negotiation is and / or the closer the negotiation seemed to be complete, the more invested people become in having the negotiation complete successfully.  And what you will find is that if only one side is doing all the talking, that side will eventually start making more and more concessions in order to finish the negotiation.

I’ll give you a good example of this in action - so here is the scenario: my next door neighbor and I had two trees that we needed to get cut down because they were both dead as can be.  One of the trees was right on our shared property line and the other was completely in his backyard so we agreed to split the cost of the first tree and he would take 100% of the cost of the second one.  Now we needed to find someone to come out and take down both trees.

The first vendor my neighbor called in quoted him $2000 to remove both trees - which seemed rather high to me (based on the size of the trees, I was aiming for $1000 to $1200 total).  A second vendor that my wife called came in and quoted $800 for both.  A potentially great deal, but after some due diligence I found out the second vendor didn’t have any insurance.  Visions of someone falling out of a tree and breaking their leg (and the subsequent lawsuit) flashed through my mind - so that wasn’t an option.  I then reached out to a third vendor to come out for a quote.

Before the third vendor came out, I went over and talked to my neighbor and told him “OK let me handle the negotiation - just stand there and only give him one or two word answers if he directly asks you a question.”

On the day of the estimate, the third vendor comes rolling into the neighborhood in his custom painted company truck and strolled over to my neighbor and I.  After exchanging pleasantries and discussing the situation, the tree vendor gave each dead tree a once over and came back with his estimate.

“$1600 for both trees” he said plainly.

“$1600?  Hmm”  I casually responded.  And then I started to walk around the first tree and start investigating it closely - picking at its bark and giving it a soft kick every once in a while.

Now have you ever seen someone not say anything and just start poking / kicking at a tree for a couple of minutes?  It’s a little unnerving to say the least.  For about the first 45 seconds of me doing this, no one else said or did anything.  Just me walking around and occasionally poking at the tree.  Then the tree vendor couldn’t take the silence any more and that’s when he started talking.  At first, he did the standard talking up of his company and their service - about how many trees they take down in the area, their spotless accident record, etc.  Occasionally I would look at him and give him just an arched eyebrow of recognition, but most of the time I carried on with my detailed analysis of this dead tree without saying anything.

That’s when the continuing silence caused him to cave in.  “OK - how about $1200 for both trees?”

At that point, I knew I had him in my trap.  Now I just needed to see how low he would go.  I stopped my faux inspection of the tree and turned to him and simply said, “$1200?  Hmm - I’ll have to give that one some thought.  I’m going to have to check my sofa for loose change to see if I can raise the funds.  I tell you what - do you have a business card?  We can call you back after I finish shaking my sofa.”

This was another layer in my trap.  Have you ever heard a salesperson say “What would it take for you to buy this [car / boat / trinket you really don’t need] today?”  The reason they implement this pressure tactic is because they want you to sign on the dotted line as soon as possible - if you walk away without buying, the odds of you coming back to buy the [car / boat / trinket you really don’t need] drop dramatically.  I was just using this same tactic in reverse.  If I let this tree vendor go without agreeing to a deal immediately, he knew the odds of me calling him back were not good.

The tree vendor handed me his business card and I simply looked at it with a glum expression.  Then I turned back to the first tree and started to shake my head.  At that point, the tree vendor just couldn’t take it anymore.  “OK - I’ll do it for $1000 total both trees, but we have to do it tomorrow as I have a crew ready to go.” (which was fine by me - the earlier the better)


And with that, I had used the power of silence to win the negotiation - something my neighbor and I celebrated over a cold beer.

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