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The Power & Necessity of Silence In Sales - Especially Virtually

· negotiations,trust,behavioral science,confidence

In the English dictionary, the definition of "conversation" doesn't quite cover it...

The word “conversation” is so much more than "a talk", where "news and ideas are exchanged".

It’s a cooperative social activity. It takes coordination, harmony and fluidity. When you think about it, it's almost like a dance when turns are taken smoothly.

At least that’s how our brains perceive them…

When conversational flow is optimal, those in it feel a heightened sense of belonging. There’s social validation, bonding and even building of self-esteem.

We, as human beings, crave being a part of a group. There’s safety in packs, and in situations where bonds had not previously existed, conversational flow is a key subconscious indicator of those participants’ feeling of belonging, in a group, or even just between two people.

When we’re hanging out with our family or best friends, where bonds are strong, silence is NOT uncomfortable.

But in a sales environment, we don't have family-and-friend-like-bonds with our customers or prospects - not even close. As a result, silence is awkward. Silence is uncomfortable. Silence is a warning to our subconscious, and our brain screams to itself, “It must be stopped!”

Uncertainty: It Makes Us Crazy

Certainty & control - two of the core optimal human states.

When there’s synchronous interaction, that’s a sign to the brain of certainty.

When there’s not, uncertainty elevates.

And what happens to our brains when we're uncertain and lacking of control? We automatically run for certainty & control! (i.e, see March of 2020...when we all ran to the store to buy up all the toilet paper).

Silence, or even worse, unexpected silence, can be a signal of confrontation and can even erode trust. And when that silence happens, it signals to our brains that maybe there is no connection...which then can signal to the brain a feeling of social rejection and social exclusion.

You are likely now thinking,

“Ok, nerd! Thanks for the nerdery. What are you actually telling me?”

Two core pieces of advice. In the digital world, embracing silence is a requirement...there is no choice. And, in any world, recognizing the role of silence in delivering terms, or in just listening, is a first step to some powerful results!

1) Zoooooooom

In a sales environment, you’re working with clients, doing discoveries, presentations, demos, or even negotiating. The bonds that are building with your prospects and clients in no way match those of with your friends or family. As a result, as discussed above, your brain is seeking the fluidity of a normal conversation.

However - that fluidity is impossible to replicate virtually.

For example, you’re doing a demo or a presentation over Zoom.

You ask the audience, “Any questions?”

[wait 2 seconds]


“Ok, I’ll keep going.”

You try to fill the open space. Two seconds feels like twenty. Four seconds seems like forever (and, according to a study1, four seconds is our breaking point).

You can’t see the audience’s body language. Is anyone leaning in to ask something? Has anyone made eye contact? You can’t see any of the queues, so you keep going.

However...imagine being on the other side.

You have a question. You decide to ask it.

You find your mouse.

You find the pointer.

You aim for the “unmute” button.

You click it.

You assess how to best interrupt.

But four seconds have passed. Remember above? The speaker only waited two seconds. Your opportunity passed, and now you're disengaged, potentially lost, and likely a bit frustrated.

Before the presentation or demonstration starts, teach the audience about this issue.

“As I go through this, I’m going to stop for questions periodically. And while it may seem like forever, on Zoom, participants typically need a few more seconds to hit the unmute button and start asking. So, when I ask, we're gonna wait - and there may be some uncomfortable silences.”

Joke about it. Set that expectation upfront. Your audience may not even realize why you’re waiting longer unless you educate them, and they will otherwise feel the awkwardness of the silence.

2) Delivering Terms

There are books on this topic. I will not attempt to go deep here, but I will deliver a "step 1", which will get you 90% of the way there...

Step 1: Recognize your own subconscious desire to fill silent space - to achieve certainty - to desire a synchronous conversation which signals a building connection with the individual you are communicating with.

Ok, now to our pricing. Our solution, based on your configuration, comes to $126,000………….(one second)..............(two seconds)........bbbut there’s some wiggle room!” {catches breath}

When you deliver an important term or message, allow for the recipient of that message to process & configure.

Deliver it with confidence, then wait. This human need is mutual - it's not just you! Often the other person will feel the same need to fill space, and you want them to speak first. You'll be surprised at the power of allowing the recipient of the message to speak first!

Got it?

"Well, Todd, what if they read this article, too. What if we just sit there staring at each other all day long?"

(And, keep in mind, in some cultures, the gap to discomfort is 2-3x ours.)2

Count to five, then it's ok to ask, “What is your initial reaction?”

But don’t jump on a need to appease. Resist the urge to run for certainty.

Silence can be very powerful.

Remember, to your brain, silence can feel like you’re being ostracized. A fluid conversation, on the other hand, feels like validation.

However, in a virtual world, we must recognize that fluidity in a conversation is restricted by the technology. Set the expectation, and allow for it!

And, in a discussion with a client where negotiation matters, we must also recognize our own human desire to fill space, and resist it.

1Koudenburg, N., et al., Disrupting the flow: How brief silences in group conversations affect social needs, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2011)

2Yamada, Haru (2015) "Yappari, As I Thought: Listener Talk in Japanese Communication," Global Advances in Business and Communications Conference & Journal: Vol. 4: Iss. 1, Article 3

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