Job Interviews: When Silence is Golden

Have you ever put your foot in your mouth, figuratively speaking, and then wished you could take back what you said? That’s an uncomfortable experience in any situation, but it’s potentially disastrous in a job interview. Once the words are out of your mouth, you can’t un-say them.

That’s why the title of this blog post is “Job Interviews: When Silence is Golden.” Now, don’t get me wrong: When you prepare for a job interview properly, it means that among other things, you’re doing your homework–on the company, the job, hopefully the person or people you’ll be interviewing with, and so on. That’s so you can say the right things at the right time.

However, to increase your interview effectiveness and avoid missteps, you also need to learn to use silence as one of your interview tools.

Two Kinds of Silence in Job Interviews

Like the positive and negative ends of a battery, there are basically two kinds of silence in job interviews. One is what I call the deer-in-the-headlights silence. That’s when the interviewer can immediately tell that you have no clue what to say in response to his/her question. This is awkward, to say the least.

Some job seekers have more trouble with this type of silence than others. Their mind seems to go blank when they’re asked something–especially if it’s not one of the topics they’ve carefully rehearsed beforehand. Even if you’re one of those people, though, you can and should work on avoiding this kind of silence in your job interviews.

The other kind of silence is one that’s thoughtful, reflective–and short! When you use silence as an interview tool, it means you’re giving yourself a brief mental pause before taking whatever the next step is.

For example, if you’re not 100% sure what the interviewer’s question meant (what he/she was really asking), you can pause for a couple of seconds to get your thoughts in order. That might lead to a question of your own, such as, “It sounds to me as if you’re asking….Is that correct?” The interviewer should either agree or make some sort of clarification of the question. Either way, you’re better prepared to answer it appropriately.

Speech versus Silence in Job Interviews

Part of the problem job seekers have is knowing when to talk and when to be silent. While there’s no hard-and-fast rule about it, I like to think of it this way: If you’re asked a question and you’re clear about what your answer should be, you don’t need to use silence. If you feel uncertain, take a few seconds to get squared away. It’s not mandatory that you start speaking the moment the interviewer stops talking. Also, if you don’t want to appear too eager about something, you can pause briefly and then make your comment. That enables you to appear interested but not desperate.

Where Did “Silence is Golden”Come From?

My limited research on this quote indicates that there’s considerable uncertainty about its origins, but it apparently dates back centuries, at least in some form. One longer version was “Speech is silver, silence is golden.” That suggests to me that speech has its place, its value, but that silence can be even more powerful if used appropriately. Think about this concept the next time you’re engaged in job interview preparation.

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