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The Sound of Silence

David Bannister
Negotiation Sound Of Silence [Converted]
© Adobe Stock

You would have to live in a remote corner of the world to be unaware of the controversy surrounding the British Royal Family as it has unfolded over the last two years. During that time the Duke of Sussex and his wife have participated in an interview with Oprah Winfrey and a six-part television series about themselves. The Duke, Prince Harry, has written an autobiographical book, with some assistance, and appeared in revelatory television interviews to promote its publication. Other books and articles have been written about the pair either with their approval and collaboration or not. During all of this time, the King, the Queen Consort and other members of the family who have been the main subjects of the stories and complaints from the Sussexes have remained almost entirely silent save for the now Prince of Wales declaring that the family was “definitely not racist”.

Silence in Negotiation

Prince Harry has complained about that silence in his most recent interview (I read about this, I have not watched it). This moved me to think about silence as a negotiating tactic (no, I am not about to advocate that the King opens a negotiation between London and Montecito – that is a very different tactical matter). However, when we negotiate, two of the key questions for us to ask ourselves are: how much do we disclose to the counterparty and what do we need to ask to complete, as well as we can, our knowledge and intelligence about them? Generally, to be able to define what in Scotwork we call “The Bargaining Arena” we need to establish by questions and disclosure that area of common interest wherein, if there is to be an agreement, it can be built and finalised. An essential part of negotiating is this information exchange to manage expectations and indicate areas where there may be or will not be flexibility. As the former US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld said: “There are known knowns – the things we know we know; there are known unknowns - the things we know we don’t know and there are unknown unknowns – the things we don’t know we don’t know.” This has always struck me as insightful: untested assumptions and incomplete knowledge can be damaging to negotiators, taking them off along a track leading to no mutually beneficial end which, at best, lengthens the process and, at worst, may even lead to deadlock where an outcome might have been achievable.

What about silence, though? Some years ago, an academic told me that silence can be used to advantage in negotiating. He told me that in most cases a lack of reaction on the part of a negotiator can cause the counterparty to behave in certain ways and he particularly pointed out that maintaining silence by failing to respond could lead to the original party talking too much to fill the empty space of the silence. That filling of the void may be intended to provide the opportunity for repeating and weakening previous arguments, contradictions and even untruths. The very fact of a lack of reaction to an argument or a negotiating point can cause an assumption to be made about why it is met with silence (such assumptions are usually wrong, the academic contended) and so the void gets filled with more justification diluting what may have been a perfectly strong and defensible position. Contemplating the Sussex communications, I thought that the Prince has, to a degree, proved that point – recently, he accused his stepmother, Camilla, among a host of other allegations, of leaking information to the press about his brother’s first meeting with her – this is evidentially untrue and the culprit resigned when the source of the unintentional leak was found. A respected historian and journalist has responded saying: “If he can get that wrong…then one wonders how much else in the book is imagined rather than real.” One error which seems to be deliberate to reinforce a view about one person, subjects the whole “mission” to possible compromise. So it can be when we negotiate.

The academic was making important tactical points about negotiating here: some people will allow you to respond to their silence by filling the void and weakening the arguments you have used and then attack the weak points which you add on. The risk then is that if your weak arguments fall – will your stronger ones follow them in the “We can’t believe a word they say…” tradition? Which may be exactly what the counterparty wants to happen – to make it all go away.

Royal Lessons

Thanks, then to our royal case study for teaching us these lessons – be sure that you identify the important and influential things of which your counterparty needs to be aware and which support your position. Make sure that you make these points forcefully and assertively. Never give the opportunity to allow an attack on a weakened argument by misconstruing silence to mean disagreement and diluting your position. Say what you planned to say and then ask what they think. I will leave you to decide if the repetitions and embellishments coming from California strengthen the position of the Sussexes in the minds of those whom they are trying to convince – polls suggest not. Maybe the lesson is that we should never, ever be afraid of the sound of silence –it can be the most effective response sometimes.

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