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The sounds of silence, job interview edition

Interviewing for a job takes skill; knowing when to be quiet is one of them.
Interviewing for a job takes skill; knowing when to be quiet is one of them.
Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

There’s one big word that applies to interviews; it’s one that can help you land a job, or at least keep you from torpedoing your chances of landing one. And what is that one big word? Sssshhhhh.

Really? Yes. At the risk of annoying my HR colleagues, I’m going to let you in on a little interviewing secret: Interviewers will sometimes purposely sit silently and look at you after you answer a question. Why? Well, the answer is two-fold. First, because the person being interviewed will likely think the silence means they need to provide more of an answer than they did. And second, silences are awkward – and as the interviewee has already ceded home field advantage to the interviewer, it’s the interviewee who most often feels the need to fill that silence.

And what comes out? Things that are often times best left unsaid: Blaming others for work problems in a way that looks defensive. Offering an unfavorable and unfiltered opinion of a former employer or boss. Giving personal details that an interviewer cannot legally ask about, but is under no obligation to shut you up over if you go there on your own. Little good can come of any of this, but a lot of bad can. It’s best not to go there.

OK, we’ve covered the “sssshhhhh” part. But what should you do if this technique is used on you? Well, you could just sit there and look politely back at the interviewer. Unfortunately, this would tend to intensify the awkward feeling of the silence; since you’re the one being judged, that may not be such a good idea. Too much silence is not golden; the better approach would be to use this opportunity to ask a question of your own. If you can relate it to the question you just answered, so much the better.

If none of the questions you had prepared for the interview seem to fit (you had prepared some questions, hadn’t you?), it’s time to improvise. Being able to think on your feet is often a prized attribute by employers - so show you can do that. Come up with a reasonable question that ties in to the one you just answered. For example, if you were just asked how you would handle a specific problem, you could ask “has this been an issue here?”

The trick is, don’t be aggressive with the question. Don’t jump in too soon. Give the silence a couple of beats and then ask away, making it seem like a natural follow up within the conversation. You might get a valuable answer, you might not. You might gain respect as a quick thinker, you might not. But unless the interviewer is none too bright, after one or two of these situations, they’ll stop trying to put you on the spot.

And by doing this, you’ll have quietly gained some measure of control over your interviewing fate.

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