The Sound of Silence
Learning the art of the pause will earn you more trust
The Simon & Garfunkel song Sound of Silence was thought by many to be a reaction to the assassination of US President, John F. Kennedy. Paul Simon had written the song about the same time and the haunting lyrics evoke the alienation many felt after Kennedy’s untimely death.
However, the song was about something else entirely. It was a song about our inability to communicate as people anymore. Just ponder these lyrics and consider if you think in some sense there is truth in this statement, particularly in the current US political climate:
“People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening.”
Early in my career, I had jumped into becoming a software engineer. I enjoyed the opportunity to build, create, and launch products. But I also yearned for time away from coding to talk to users and customers. Sometimes the sales reps needed a technical expert to join them on customer calls, so I joined their meetings as the sales engineer.
Most of the sales reps had a good command of managing the conversations. There was an ebb and flow to the meetings where everyone had an opportunity to speak and listen. These were meetings that everyone found valuable and productive. And then there was Morty*.
Morty enjoyed talking. He enjoyed his own stories. He also enjoyed telling those stories over and over again, cackling at every punchline. Morty would manage to find a way to evaporate every single nanosecond of empty space in a conversation and fill it with words and sounds.
A meeting with Morty was exhausting. There was no flow to the conversations. There was no exchange of value or knowledge. Most customers either looked annoyed or were slumped over in their chairs with eyes glazed over. And because Morty never once stopped talking, he never paused long enough to read the room to see he was losing the interest of customers.
We all have experienced people like this in our lives, whether in our families or at work. They simply do not shut up. What’s worse, they do not realize they are sucking up all the energy in the room with their incessant chatter. Fortunately, this is also a very small percentage of people that are afflicted with acute “talk-itis” syndrome.
For most of us, being overly talkative is more a symptom of nervousness. This is especially true in situations where we feel we are not in control or feel like we may be exposed in some way. Our natural response is to keep control of the conversation and not give opportunities to others to potentially ask uncomfortable questions or provide negative feedback.
Of course, taking over the dialogue in such a forcible way does the complete opposite of gaining control. You appear less credible, you lose trust of your customers, and you potentially introduce more conflict into the discussion. You cannot brute force your way into control.
Real control happens through influence. If you have read the book by Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference, the key learning from years of FBI hostage negotiations is that you control high risk situations through influencing the aggressors. With influence comes trust, which defuses the situation and resolves the conflict peacefully.
How does one create influence then? There were a number of useful suggestions from the book like encouraging the other party to speak more by asking thoughtful “how” questions and using a soothing “late night DJ voice”. However, the most powerful technique I have found to work consistently is the strategic use of silence.
Our human instinct is always to jump in to fill voids in a conversation. Our hyperactive minds think that silence is a threat and equate it with no interest or understanding. Silence though gives us two powerful mechanisms for influencing those in a discussion. The first is to open the dialogue to encourage others to speak. The second is providing you “think time” to formulate a more thoughtful response or comment.
Giving space to customers to openly speak during a meeting might seem like dangerous territory. Who knows what they might ask? However we have enough data gathered on seller conversations that convincingly shows that when customers are doing the majority of speaking, there is higher probability of close rates.
We only know what customers actually care about when they are the ones speaking. They can then openly share their perspectives on the problem to solve, the challenges they face, the motivation to change, and the perceptions they have of your solution. If we are doing all the talking, then we never get to hear those things and thus have to fill our understanding of the customer situation based on our own biases and assumptions.
Just as important as silence is for spurring customers to do more talking, the silence also gives us the momentary mental breathing room to provide thoughtful responses. The first thing in our minds and out our mouths is not necessarily the best thing to say. How often have you experienced answering a question too quickly and managing to put your foot in your mouth?
In all conversations when I am asked complex or probing questions, I introduce a long pause. This is usually at least five seconds and sometimes up to ten seconds. What am I doing during that time? I am making a checklist of itemized responses or comments to determine the best one to use based on the message or idea I want to convey.
Conversely, because I momentarily pause, sometimes I realize the best response is asking a clarifying question. Our immediate reaction to any question is to provide an answer as that seems like the most polite approach. However, the most valuable discussions are when you can probe deeper into the “why” behind a question. This is why pausing matters, you break that natural tendency and instead go down a path that leads to more fruitful and value creating conversation.
I fully realize that this is hard to do in the heat of the moment. The best way to build a habit of introducing more pauses into your sales conversations is to do so in non-stressful ways. It can be with friends, co-workers, and in other casual social settings. I can assure you this will feel awkward as hell, and others may think you have some sort of mental tic. When you try this consistently though, you will become more confident and skillful in using this technique.
Speaking of long pauses, I am going to take a bit of a pause on this newsletter to focus on some major projects in my job. At the same time, I am contemplating a return to in-person Enterprise Sales Forum events in a limited set of cities with the focus on NYC, San Francisco, and Singapore. If you wish to get involved in leading a chapter or if you want to contribute to writing in this newsletter (you would get full credit for your post), give me a shout!
Happy selling (and use those pauses),
Mark Birch, Founder of Enterprise Sales Forum
*To protect the guilty, names have been changed for this story
The Enterprise Sales Forum is a professional community championing the practice of sales through monthly sales talks at chapters globally. Our chapters provide an open, collaborative and diverse environment to share new ideas, network and learn actionable insights for professional sales development.
Hi Mark, I feel sales teams in Singapore are particularly guilty of non-stop talking. Any thoughts and experience around this?
two ears one mouth