There’s all kinds of advice out there, about what to say in certain work situations. But sometimes, the best option is to not say anything at all.
By creating a space in a conversation for people to think and process, silence can be an incredibly useful tool.
Silence can also be uncomfortable, which is what makes it so powerful. If you pause for several seconds after you ask a question or make a statement, other people will feel compelled to fill the silence, which can work to your benefit.
To be clear, there are times when silence is absolutely not the answer. If you face harassment or assault or witness something unethical or illegal, it is imperative to speak up, and we hope you can do so in a way that is safe for you.
But in other situations, like the next three, silence can work in your favor.
When you negotiate your salary
Beyond researching a reasonable salary range and knowing your bottom line, being silent can be the most powerful salary negotiation tactic. After you give your salary range, pause for several seconds and wait for a response. Staying silent after stating your desired salary helps you maintain an upper hand in the negotiation. It forces them to respond to your opening offer, and then you can make the next move based on that.
While silence may feel uncomfortable, it’s not as bad as it seems. And sitting in silence for a few seconds—it really is only a few seconds, even it feels like eternity—is much better than rushing in with language that undermines your ask, like:
“I hope I’m not asking for too much.”
“If that seems like too much, I’d be willing to go lower.”
“If you need to give me less vacation time to make that salary work, that’s okay with me.”
To help you resist the urge to fill the silence, count to 10 in your head after you say your piece. Counting can give you something else to focus on besides the quiet, and it can calm your nerves while you wait for the hiring manager to respond.
When you get angry or frustrated at work
Counting in your head is also a good strategy when you’re trying to keep your cool in response to a frustrating comment or situation.
This isn’t to say you should bury your feelings and ignore the things that anger or offend you. But staying silent at first will give you time to regain your composure and lead to a more productive conversation about what upset you.
Practicing silence in the face of strong emotions is also a good way to improve your emotional intelligence, a set of five traits associated with strong leadership.
If you need more than 10 seconds to reset your emotions, try taking a short walk, listening to calming music, or journaling.
When you ask for a donation
If you don’t work in fundraising you may not encounter this situation often. But fundraising is a good skill to develop if you want to move up into nonprofit management, so pay attention to this last tip even if you’re not currently a development professional.
Sometimes in the nonprofit world, you’ll be face to face with a donor and you’ll ask them to give a certain amount. Similar to a salary negotiation, you need to stay silent after you make the ask and resist the urge to fill the silence with undermining language.
Andy Robinson, author of How to Raise $500 to $5000 from Almost Anyone, writes that your silence gives the donor enough time to sort through all the thoughts in their head as they weigh your request. Silence doesn’t mean they are going to say no; in fact, if you give them enough quiet time to deal with their internal monologue, they’ll likely say yes! But if you let the silence get to you and cut off their internal monologue with phrases like, “I know that’s a lot of money,” or “You don’t have to decide right now,” then you’ll drastically reduce your chances of getting a yes.
When not to be silent
Again, while silence may serve you well in the above three situations, it isn’t always the answer. If you’re asked to do something illegal or unethical or if you experience harassment or assault, please find a way to speak up safely.
You can go to your organization’s human resources department, but keep in mind that HR ultimately exists to protect the organization. Speaking up as a group of colleagues can help protect you from retaliation, and in some cases, retaliation is illegal.
To learn more about your rights, browse resources from Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping individuals and organizations navigate employment law and related issues.
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As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.