Most job interviews follow the same rhythm. You ask a question. The candidate answers. Maybe with a few sentences. Maybe longer. Regardless, you can quickly tell by the candidate’s tone of voice and body language when their answer is “done.”
And you quickly move on to the next question. After all, there’s a lot of ground to cover–and the more questions you get to ask, the more you learn about the candidate.
Especially if you embrace the law of uncomfortable pauses.
The law of uncomfortable pauses is simple: Ask a good question. Listen thoughtfully to the answer. And when the candidate has answered the question, count to five before you ask another question. Don’t look at your notes. Don’t look away as if you’re thinking. Maintain eye contact, and count to five.
Granted, that five seconds will seem like forever.
Especially to the candidate. Which means she’ll expand on what she just said. She’ll offer further detail. Provide another example. Share another perspective.
Or go in a completely different direction.
All of which are good things.
Granted, using the law of uncomfortable pauses as a job interviewer could sound manipulative–but it’s not, especially where great candidates are concerned.
When you withstand your natural temptation to keep the interview moving, you give candidates more time to reflect. You give the interview more time to breathe. You help candidates feel more comfortable with exploring, with disclosing, and even with being a little more vulnerable.
All of which helps turn what usually feels like an interrogation into a conversation–because now you’re two people talking, and listening, and giving each other time to think before speaking.
Of course, weaker candidates will struggle with the occasional uncomfortable pause; your silence implies you expect more of an answer. Their rush to fill the silence forces them past prepared answers and canned responses.
Filling the silence means giving you “more,” and weaker candidates typically don’t have “more.”
How to Use the Law of Uncomfortable Pauses
Keep in mind you’ll need to use uncomfortable pauses judiciously.
For example, say you ask a candidate for a higher-level leadership role, “How many people have you hired from a company you previously worked for?” (Great employees like to work for great bosses, so when people change jobs to work for you, that can speak volumes about your leadership and people skills.)
If a candidate answers, “Three,” and you sit silently for five seconds…that pause implies you don’t believe her.
So yeah: Pausing for five seconds after you ask a factual question will make you both feel awkward.
Instead, pick a few questions that give candidates room for analysis or introspection. Like, “Tell me about a few of the toughest decisions you’ve made in the last six months.” After the initial answer, pause for five seconds.
Every candidate will fill the silence.
Great candidates will fill the uncomfortable pause with an additional example, a more detailed explanation, and a sometimes surprisingly different perspective on the question.
Great but shy candidates may fill the silence by offering positive information they wouldn’t have otherwise shared–and you would never have learned.
Great candidates who are short on experience but long on attitude, work ethic, and interpersonal skills will get the opportunity to discuss attributes that often matter more than skill.
Weaker candidates who came prepared with “perfect” answers to commonly-asked interview questions will often fill the silence with details they never intended to disclose. Or that their “extensive track record” is actually a track built of just one or two railroad ties.
Either way, every candidate will open up and speak more freely when they realize you’re happy to give them the time to think, reflect, and answer in a thoughtful, considered way.
Because you’re not just asking a series of questions.