The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming HarperCollins book, Mastering the Hire: 12 Strategies to Improve Your Odds of Finding the Best Hire. Based on scientific research and first-hand interview experience with thousands of candidates, the book provides proven strategies that help employers consistently make great hires.
Within the CIA there is an entity called the Center for the Study of Intelligence (CSI). This group manages classified and unclassified materials on the history and methodology of intelligence gathering. The CSI publishes Studies in Intelligence, a quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal. In the archives of this journal lives an article explaining interview tactics used by investigators to break a suspect without physically breaking them.
The approaches include various types of psychological pressure. The majority do not apply to the process of interviewing candidates, except for one—the use of silence to gain more information.
As job interviewers, we’ve been conditioned to associate interviewing with questioning, conversation, and interaction. We rarely think of the opposite. Of all the weapons in the interviewer’s arsenal, silence is an underutilized one. It’s not just the CIA that knows this. Some of the most famous interviewers of our time use silence as a tactic and make no secret of it.
Famed talk show host Dick Cavett often interviewed celebrities who were hesitant to provide details of a story. In those moments, Cavett used an approach he described as, “holding someone with silence and making them go on.” He would simply pause after an answer was given and leave a long empty space. The person across the table would invariably begin to say things they were not planning to share.
News anchor and political debate moderator Jim Lehrer has similar advice for interviewers:
If you resist the temptation to respond too quickly to the answer, you’ll discover something almost magical. The other person will either expand on what he’s already said, or he’ll go in a different direction. Either way, he’s expanding his response, and you get a clear view into his head and heart.
As an interviewer, you should strategically use silence when interviewing a candidate. When you ask an initial question, sometimes you need to rephrase it for clarity. But when asking any follow-up question after that, let it hang between the two of you. Resist the urge to fill that silence. Train yourself to mentally count to five. The silence is a challenge that will draw in the candidate. It is a vacuum that pulls at whatever is in their heart and mind.
Five seconds will feel like an eternity and takes practice because most of us are uncomfortable with silence. Use that to your advantage. Mentally counting puts you in control during the pause. Meanwhile the candidate isn’t sure how to interpret it. Let them give in to that desire to end discomfort. If they don’t talk, then you can move on to the next question. Odds are, they will talk. The more they talk, the more information you are gathering. More importantly, that information will be increasingly unrehearsed.
Improved Executive Function
There is more to this technique than simply hoping pressure makes the candidate fill open space with something useful. Part of the practice is to help the candidate fill that space with deeper insight you wouldn’t normally get. Science tells us that silence helps with that as well, because it actually improves how the brain operates.
A study at the University of Pavia in Italy was conducted to learn more about how music makes the brain relax. During the experiment, researchers played different types of music and measured the psychological and physiological impact. What they learned about silence happened quite by accident.
There were short pauses between the musical tracks, during which the metrics continued to be measured. They found that music did relax the brain, but to everyone’s surprise what relaxed the brain more than anything was the silence between the musical tracks.
During an interview, candidates use the part of their brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is known as executive function and controls the ability to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, future consequences of current activities, and prediction of outcomes. These are exactly the types of self-assessment you want from the candidate. Ceaseless questions can drain this part of the brain and lead to less insight. Silence relaxes the mind and restores those cognitive resources.
To get the most useful information out of a candidate, you can’t pound them with question after question. You need to provide their brain with restorative pauses. Use silence specifically after the candidate has provided an answer that was too shallow or not quite what you needed. After they complete their answer, say nothing. Let it take on a life of its own. If you don’t let the question breathe, the answer will die. If you talk, you are filling that silence with information for them to process.
Instead, get out of the way so they can fill the void with a moment of restoration, then reflection, and then more information. The silence compels them to dig deeper. To step up to the challenge. The truth that tumbles out is more insightful and purer than anything you could have said to elicit an answer.
Chaka Booker is a leadership development expert and author of Mastering the Hire: 12 Strategies to Improve Your Odds of Finding the Best Hire.