Imagine two people are playing poker.
One plays with his cards close to his chest, giving nothing away.
The other plays with his cards splayed out on the table.
Who stands the best chance of winning?
When it comes to the hiring process, not using silence when necessary is like preemptively revealing your cards. In fact, sometimes it’s the only piece of leverage you have when negotiating with an employer. For example, they don’t know if you have other offers on the table, or precisely what you were making at your last job, or how importantly you weigh salary vs. stock options, or even whether you’ll ultimately say YES to an offer based on predominantly logical (ex. hard-line numbers) or emotional (ex. workplace culture) reasons. Maintaining uncertainty can be hugely beneficial in this types of situations, and can often result in better-than-expected outcomes.
Here are 3 situations when it’s better to let silence do the talking for you:
Right After You Make a Counteroffer
Let’s say you’ve just received an offer. Step 1 is to ask for some time to consider it (and if a company refuses to do so, don’t treat it as a serious offer).
Now you’re back in the interview room, or on the phone. First, make it clear how excited you are about joining the team and solving the truly interesting challenges ahead. Then frame the counteroffer along the lines of,
“Everything about this offer is workable. The base salary is certainly within range, but based on my years of experience and expertise with [MENTION 1 or 2 unique, value-added skills you bring to the table] I was hoping for something closer to [PROPOSED HIGHER SALARY].”
Do not say another word. Anything you say immediately after giving out a number will cost you money, because you’ll essentially be negotiating against yourself.
Now…if they agree, answer, “Great!” and move onto negotiating non-salary details.
But if they say no, first reassure them that you’ll be able to come to a fair arrangement. Now, suggest an alternative (say, lower base salary but with a 1-time signing bonus) and again, use silence.
When a Recruiter of Hiring Manager Makes a Positive (But Wrong) Assumption About You
Employers regularly commit the “sin of omission” when interviewing a new hire. They’ll avoid mentioning the internal power struggle that’s currently going on in your future department (which you’ll definitely have to deal with on start), or the secret talks leadership has been having about selling off to a competitor. If they mentioned these things at the outset, you’d probably think twice about moving forward. So they don’t.
The same principle can be used by you.
Let’s say a hiring manager assumes the scope of your responsibilities at a previous job was wider than it really was. Or they’re assuming you made $20K higher than you really did at your last job, and don’t have a problem with moving forward with that as their baseline. On a personal level, perhaps a key hiring decision-maker makes a passing comment about shared experiences as a Dad…and you don’t have any children.
Is now the time to get radically honest?
If you feel instantly uncomfortable by the assumption, then perhaps it is.
Otherwise, I would ask myself the following. First, is there any harm done from them believing this? And second, will I have to prove or otherwise defend this assumption down the line?
If the answer to both questions is no, leave it as-is.
Also read: 3 Mindset Shifts to Rock Your Job Interview
When You’re Asked a Rude or Insulting Question
While it’s your responsibility to establish unique worth during the hiring process, the employer is going for the exact opposite. They want to poke holes in your experience, get you on the defensive, and ideally, turn you into a “commodity candidate” who can easily be compared to others. This is all a means of preemptively driving down an offer (in the event that one is made).
Going silent is a way to reset the power balance. Let’s say you’re asked one of the following questions:
“We have a lot of talented candidates to consider, what makes you different?”
“What’s been your biggest failure to date?”
“What would your last boss say about you?”
“What’s the lowest salary you’ll accept?”
The first tactic is to deploy HUMOR. “My biggest failure? Probably my chronic inability to do the dishes- at least according to my wife!”
Treating the question as a joke allows you to deflect without making things awkward. But be warned: it really only works once. If they persist with the rude questions, meet them with silence. Let the pause hang in the air for a few moments, then get things back on track by sharing a relevant story from your career.
Deploying silence will feel strange, even aggressive, to those who aren’t used to it. Do your best to maintain eye contact through it, but if you must break, be sure to keep the rest of your body engaged in the conversation.