We’ve all been there: what we thought was an excellent interview quickly degrades as we sit with the hiring manager in silence—left only to wonder what we have done wrong to encourage our colleague to stop speaking entirely. (Talk about awkward!) And so, we get it: “The silence in an interview is rough,” says job search and career expert J. T. O’Donnell, and not only because we perceive the hiring manager to be in charge of the interview and flow of the conversation. “If there is a silence, we don't want to take over the situation and try to fill it,” commiserates O’Donnell. “Sometimes the hiring manager is taking notes. Whatever the case, we need to just be patient, take a deep breath and wait for them to re-engage.”
But when that’s not the case—when a hiring manager doesn’t take the lead and fill that odd void—you can step up. Here are five ways you can overcome awkward interview silence.
1. Don’t break the silence.
It will be tough to grin and bear that awkward moment, but O’Donnell encourages you to lean into the silence. “Try to smile at the hiring manager and stay still in [your] seat,” she encourages. “The more fidgety you are, the more distracting it is. Show your ability to stay calm and composed.” To push through that silence—and stay silent—O’Donnell says you should “focus your thoughts on what you believe are your best traits,” which will help “your mindset will stay positive and your natural facial expressions will convey that positivity. Just because you don't speak doesn't mean you can't speak in a silence showing a confident, happy person in your body language and facial expressions.”
You may be thinking, why would I stay silent in an interview? But here’s the thing: “Some silence is [always] part of natural conversation,” says career coach Hallie Crawford. And a pause here or there in an interview is not only OK, but it’s expected. “Pausing is part of the normal rhythm of conversation,” Crawford says. And, “in this case, show that you are still engaged in the conversation by sitting tall, smiling, and making eye contact,” she advises.
2. Take your time.
You may not realize it, but how you are behaving could create those uber-awkward silent moments. “There may be awkward periods of silence if you are nervous and rushing too quickly through your answers,” points out Crawford. But luckily, there is an easy fix, according to Crawford: “Try to calm your nerves and your thoughts by taking deep breaths and speaking at your normal pace,” Crawford says. “It is also helpful to take a few seconds to process a question before you reply. If you aren't sure how to reply after a brief pause, then you can ask the hiring manager for a moment before you respond.”
3. Ask for clarification.
Picture it: you give a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark answer, but you are still met with crickets. Karen Elizaga, an executive coach and author of Find Your Sweet Spot, says you should “take this opportunity to be proactive.” Aske, “would you like me to clarify what I just mentioned?” Elizaga suggests, or say, “Given what I’ve just explained, how do you think that might work here?” That puts the onus on the manager to respond.
4. Identify the cause of the awkward silence.
“Is your hiring manager taking a long time looking at your resume or your portfolio?” asks Crawford. If so, now is the time to speak up and ask if you can address any potential issues. “Try something like, ‘Do you have any hesitations about my qualifications I can address?’” Crawford suggests. “Or, if they’re taking long time after you’ve shared one of your star stories, try something like, ‘Is there a part of the example I gave that you would like me to clarify?’ It provides you with an opportunity to keep the conversation moving and address anything the manager has an issue with.”
5. Begin a related thought.
When that awkward silence becomes too loud to bear, “take the opportunity to expand on the answer you’ve just given or to answer the interviewer’s question in a different way that allows you to flex your muscle and share the diversity of your experience,: suggests Elizaga. Say something like, “In thinking about it some more…,” she says to begin, “and then share an insight related to the question on which you’re on.”
6. Ask your own questions.
If you’re sitting in an uncomfortable silence, it’s time to ask your own questions to fill that quiet. After all, the silence may be the manager’s way of “providing you with an opportunity to ask questions or make comments,” points out Crawford. So, “take advantage of the opportunity to address any concerns you might have about the position, the work environment, or something else that might have come up during the interview. You can also take the unexpected silence as a time to let the manager know you’re excited about the position and the possibility of working for the organization.”