This little-used communication tactic can save your next international business deal

As an international business coach, I often advise clients on cross-cultural communication, including an aspect of communication that many Americans often neglect: silence.

Recently, a client of mine, a US multinational company, was negotiating a large business deal with a potential client in Japan. Back and forth they went until the two sides were left to the issue of pricing. They decided to formally meet in person in Tokyo.

Both parties sat at a long table, with the Japanese team on one side and the US reps on the other. They started with a pleasant exchange, then jumped right into the terms of the agreement.

Eventually, the US side made an offer. The Japanese side responded with complete silence. They didn’t even make eye contact with the US side.

At this point, most Americans would start chattering — simply to fill the air or to offer different terms to try to close the deal.

But not this team. And not on this day.

Before traveling to Japan, the team and I had discussed the role silence can play in cross-cultural communication and negotiations. They learned the importance of extended silence and the value of remaining aware that silence is not always a bad thing.

Don’t push it, don’t jump in, and don’t do a thing. Just be patient. So they did.

They waited and waited for almost 20 minutes. Eventually, the senior executive from Japan stood up, looked at the highest-ranking US executive, extended his hand across the table, and said, “Deal.”

What happened?

The Japanese side wanted to wait and see if the offer from the US side was final. Since the US side didn’t say anything and respected the silence, they ended up with a fantastic deal.

Their preparation before the meeting and their disciplined behavior saved the day.

There are tremendous differences between Asian and American cultures. Understanding these differences is crucial to successful business relationships and negotiations. It could literally be the difference in closing (or losing) a deal.

So, how do we strategically deal with silence?

First, we must understand how other cultures regard silence. Periods of silence could mean a number of different things, including:

1. Not understanding the question.

Silence might be indicative of not fully understanding a question due to the language barrier. They might be processing the question or just thinking. It is not necessarily evident of agreement or disagreement.

2. Hierarchical tendencies.

Asian culture is more hierarchical than most western cultures. Therefore, silence might just mean they are heeding to authority and waiting for a response from a superior in the room.

3. Disagreement.

Silence may be evidence of disagreement. In Asian culture, people might remain silent as a way to disagree with an opinion without creating external conflict.

American culture has a different attitude towards silence. A non-response or shrug might mean agreement. Many Americans feel the need to fill in “dead air” with commentary or statements. Silence can be really uncomfortable, so they break the silence because they are wired to do so.

So how should we approach cross-culture attitudes towards a topic like silence? Here are a few tips to help both Asians and Americans to bridge the gap:

1. Be patient.

You can repeat or rephrase a question, but try not to ask, “Do you understand what I am saying?” This can come across as condescending. For Asians working with Americans, don’t be afraid to ask someone to repeat the question. This can offer some helpful time to think about your response.

2. Address the right person.

When dealing with hierarchical cultures, Americans can benefit from first doing their homework to understand who is senior at the meeting. If you direct your question to that person, you’ll be more likely to get an answer. Senior managers from the Asian culture should speak up and not allow silence to fill the room, which can confuse the issue for both sides.

3. Be aware of disagreement.

Recognize that people might disagree but aren’t always willing to speak up. Take a close look at body language, and lighten the situation by discussing some of their perceived concerns. You could even take the conversation offline, following up after an in-person meeting with a more direct line of communication.

Cross-cultural lines will continue to blur with global expansion. Developing into a strategic listener can be a tremendous and potentially crucial asset for both you and your business.

We all want to close the deal. Understanding the use of silence will help do just that. They say, “Silence is golden.” But the more appropriate cliché is probably, “Silence is worth its weight in gold.”

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