The importance of saying nothing

Misconceptions on the practice of interviewing, and why listening is the foundation of asking good questions.
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

How do you run an interview? For some of us, we act like we’re performing a tooth extraction (“OK, next question. Getting a little personal here…”). For the rest of us, we pretend it’s a friendly conversation (“Haha, yeah, that reminds me of the time…”).

Misconception #1: An interview is a friendly conversation, and to encourage your interviewee and make them feel comfortable, you should relate similar experiences and engage with them like a friend.

I get it. It’s natural and human to seek rapport. But you may be surprised to learn that social instinct to relate — to put yourself in the interview — might actually be working against you.

Here's why: if you're looking for stories, if you're looking for insights, a good interview is not like having a friendly conversation. Friendly conversation is often filled with surface-level answers. You generally accept what someone tells you. You won't go deeper, because quite frankly, that can get uncomfortable. It's against social norms. Friendly conversation is a back and forth interaction between two people where harmony is the status quo.

But harmony is not the goal of an interview. Rather, an interview places the spotlight on the interviewee for the sake of unearthing insights that can only exists in their words.

This is not permission for you to be a jerk. In fact, being patient and non-judgmental is incredibly important to be being a good interviewer.

If your goal is to get the truth, you don’t want to bias your interviewee’s responses — and you’ll likely find that many interviewees will subconsciously look to you for assurance that they’re doing well. How do you avoid influencing their answers one way or another? Focus the spotlight back on them.

Misconception #2: Interviewing is about a list of questions. After all, questions are what comes to mind when we think of interviews.

But in reality, the question is just the beginning. Your job is to be a sieve. Listen and pay attention, so you know where there’s potentially a deeper story they’re not saying. Then nudge them in that direction. That’s the art of the follow-up question.

What’s nice about an interview is that these kinds of questions can force us to confront inconsistencies and discover opinions we didn’t even know existed.

If posing challenging follow-up questions makes you uncomfortable, consider this: when we’re confronted with an inconsistency, we have to reconcile it somehow because our brains don’t like it (a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance). In doing so we have an opportunity to define ourselves and our values. And that is invaluable.

the challenge of focused listening

Only interviewing is hard because ignoring the urge to fill up a long silence (trust me, they're just thinking) or rephrase a question you're not quite sure your interviewee understood (still thinking) can make anyone want to jump in a hole.

Saying nothing is hard. Listening is hard.

Maybe because as social creatures, we’re hardwired to engage. The temptation to relate, interpret, and add ourselves into the conversation inhibits the interviewee’s exploration of their values.

Maybe because we’re not used to figuring out when to push, when to move on, and when to say nothing. I recommend checking out The Art of Listening as a resource for rethinking what it means to listen. A favorite of mine: “Being a good listener is like being a good editor in a publishing house.” It’s a good rule of thumb. As an interviewer, we actively edit the conversation. But we’re only the editors, not the writers.

It’s not easy, but saying nothing has its benefits.

P.S. You’ll get it when you’ve asked a question and all the interviewee needs to run with it is the space of silence. It’s even better when they end with, “Wow, I had no idea I felt so strongly about that.”