A Moment of Silence
There are few meetings with more inherent pressure than a job interview, and worse, most of that pressure is weighing on only one of the people (how unfair!). When you’re interviewing for a job, two or three short seconds can feel like a lifetime. They’re not, though, and allowing them to pass in silence can make a big difference to the quality of an answer – possibly one that could make or break your interview.
There’s a reason why the phrase ‘awkward silence’ exists in our vocabulary. Silence can be awkward for many people and in many situations. It can be especially uncomfortable when there’s pressure hanging in the moment. A reunion with a friend or family member after a long time away, for example, when you want to reconnect but have no idea where to begin. Certainly on a date with someone you’ve only just started getting to know.
But avoiding the awkwardness of silence can be a mistake.
Too many times to count (and more than I’d want to), I’ve listened as a candidate bulldozed ahead too quickly with an answer they didn’t think through. When it ends badly, it can end really badly. Some candidates have started telling a story and then backpedaled when they realized that the ending isn’t a good one. Some have given an answer that didn’t really address the question I had asked in the first place, because they weren’t really listening. Still others have lost their train of thought entirely, and have had to stop and ask me if I could repeat the question.
I’m pretty forgiving in interviews because I understand human nature under pressure, so none of these have ever been a deal-breaker. But if it happens too many times in an interview, it could be. And more importantly, how much would you regret giving a mediocre answer to a question if you realize afterwards that you could have given a really good one?
If you prepare yourself well before an interview, you should be able to answer most questions pretty readily. If you take the time to rehearse your answers to common interview questions, and think about and practice your answers to more difficult questions you might be asked, you’ll be ready to start answering most questions fairly confidently and quickly, without a pause.
There almost certainly will come a time when you’re caught off guard in an interview, though, with a question you didn’t anticipate, or one that’s just a bit more difficult for some reason. (And then there are trick questions, but don’t get me started on that.) In those cases, I want to leave you with two possible ways to respond.
The first is simply to take a moment of silence. Those two or three seconds feel like an eternity, but they’re not. Trust me when I tell you that on my side of the table, time passes more quickly than it does on yours (explain that, Einstein!). Practice active listening when the interviewer is speaking so you fully understand the question that’s being asked, and give yourself time to give the answer that you really want to give.
If you really get thrown off your game, there’s another strategy that you can use once in an interview. Only once, though; more than that and it comes off as staged and inauthentic. Memorize this phrase: “That’s a really interesting question. Let me think for a second.” And then take that time and plan your answer. It still requires some quick thinking, but it buys you a bit of time, and it shows me you’re taking the question (and, in turn, the interview) seriously.
Here’s to future silences that are just a bit less awkward.