Eventually, just about every job interview turns into a question-and-answer session.
You ask a question. The candidate answers as you check a mental tick-box: good answer or bad? Then you move on to the next question. And the next question. And the next.
We all do it; there's too little time and too much ground to cover. Besides, the more questions we ask, the more we learn about the candidate, right?
The same is true when an employee comes to you with a problem, a concern, or an idea. She talks. You listen. You jump in. You ask questions. You seek clarity. You keep the conversation moving. You drive towards results and resolution. You're focused and on-point and eager to GSD (get s--t done) because that's what leaders do, right?
According to Michael Bungay Stanier, a senior partner at Box of Crayons and the author of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever (it's really good) as well as the bestselling Do More Great Work, instead of hurrying to the next question, there's a better interviewing technique: Don't fill the silence. Instead of desperately filling the void when an employee you're coaching is thinking, don't fill the silence.
Instead, give her the time and space to formulate an answer. Give her the time to think.
Will sitting silently be comfortable for you? Nope. Waiting three of four seconds before you speak might feel like an eternity, because our instinct is to fill a void with the sound of our own voice.
But 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 she's already said or she'll go in a different direction. Either way, she's expanding her response, and you get a clearer view into her head and heart.
Giving other people sufficient psychological breathing room works wonders. When you're conducting an interview and you control your natural impatience to keep things moving, most people will be more open to sharing greater detail and insight. When you treat an interview more like a discussion with a purpose than like an interrogation, the tone of the exchange softens. Now it's a conversation.
The same is true when you're coaching an employee. Your goal is to find out what the employee really thinks, really needs, or really wants. That means allowing her the time and space to express how she really thinks and feels--and silence is the perfect tool to do so.
Try using silence more often. Ask a question that gives the other person room for self-analysis or introspection, and after the initial answer, pause. Don't worry, they'll fill the space: with an additional example, a more detailed explanation, or a completely different perspective on the original question.
Once you give people a silent hole to fill, they'll fill it, often in unexpected and surprising ways. A shy job candidate may fill the silence by sharing positive information she wouldn't have otherwise shared. An unsure direct report who came prepared with a "perfect" solution to a problem may fill the silence with other ideas he never intended to delve into.
No matter what the purpose of the conversation, everyone will open up and speak more freely when they realize you're not just asking questions, you're listening--because silence is a clear indication you're doing just that.