When to Keep Silent in a Fee Negotiation

4 November 2015

Ian Motley discusses body language, the power of silence and how architects can turn these tactics to their advantage.

It’s often what we don’t say, rather than what we do, that gives us the biggest advantage in a fee negotiation. However, remaining quiet can be one of the most challenging negotiation tactics to master. Why do we find remaining quite so difficult?

It is important to recognise that during fee negotiations we shouldn’t just listen to our clients – we should also watch how they respond to the issues being discussed.

Research published in Albert Mehrabian’s 1971 book Silent Messages argues that a whopping 55% of communication is conveyed by our body language, 38% is conveyed by our voice, its quality, use of tone and inflections, and just 7% is conveyed by the words we use choose to use. Statistics such as these are the subject of much debate, however,  I think we can agree that a large part of our communication is nonverbal.

The fee negotiation arena is perhaps one of the best examples of just how powerful non-verbal communication can be. To help demonstrate the power of non-verbal communication let’s look at an example.

Imagine, for a moment, that you find yourself in a negotiation meeting discussing your proposal for a new and exciting project. During the meeting the client looks you in the eye and says, “Your fees are higher than other firms in the area, would you be prepared to reduce your fee? If so by how much?”

It’s an uncomfortable but common situation – you’ve invested much of your time and effort trying to build a relationships and suddenly you find yourself in a very precarious position. If you respond with a ‘no’ then you’re in danger of losing the project and the client. However, if you respond with a ‘yes’, how much of a reduction are you prepared to offer?

In attempt to resolve the situation you reluctantly agree to reduce your fee – you suggest what you consider to be a generous reduction of 10%, hoping that it will be met with enthusiasm and conclude this emotionally volatile situation.

However, to your surprise, the moment the words leave your mouth the client crosses his arms, leans back in his chair and stares at you from across the table with a look that’s less than satisfactory.

He hasn’t yet uttered a word, however, you interpret his change in posture in the only way possible – as disapproval of your proposal. You feel even more uncomfortable and, in an effort to win back the clients approval, you quickly take action. You flick through your proposal and, with immense discomfort, say, “well of course although we wouldn’t usually do this we could, perhaps, on this occasion, offer you a slightly better reduction of say 15% …” You then look up to gauge the client’s response hoping for a sign of approval.

Still the client remains silent, so you continue to talk. Before you know where you are, your first offer has doubled in size and the client has yet to say anything.

What just happened here? Well unfortunately you just fell victim to a combination of the ‘power of silence’ and ‘body language’ negotiation tactics. The client was able to negotiate the best deal possible without saying anything.

So, what can we do as design professionals to avoid falling victim to this tactic?

There is one simple question that we should always ask after putting a proposal on the table. That question is “What do you think of my offer?

Once we’ve asked the question, we should sit back, relax and wait for the client’s response. Whatever we do, we shouldn’t start talking at this point because once we start talking we;

  • weaken our credibility,
  • dilute the message we are trying to convey, and
  • distract the attention of both parties.

So, instead of offering up concessions for nothing, put the ball back in the client’s court with a gentle question and then wait for their response – be patient and remember don’t start offering any concessions until the client has explicitly stated their position on your proposal.

Silence (in the fee negotiation arena) doesn’t have to be the architect’s enemy. Like many negotiation tactics it can be our best friend if we understand how it works and how to respond to it in a professional and productive manner.


Ian Motley is a design fee consultant with Blue Turtle Consulting. Blue Turtle Consulting is conducting Fee Proposal Workshops during November 2015 for Architects and Design Professional who want to learn about the art and science of writing more successful fee proposals.

If you’d like to avoid falling victim to common negotiation tactics and tricks then check out the video at blue Turtle  http://blueturtlemc.com/blog/episode-7-design-fee-negotiations (it’s currently available to watchfree).