Very often, instead of observing and listening, people talk too much, especially when they feel nervous. In audition situations, people can go into overdrive, trying so hard to impress and to show what they know that they wind up babbling. It's not persuasive, and it can be very hard to stop once you've got started.
Partly, overtalking is driven by a fear of dead air. Many people rush to fill an awkward silence, especially when they feel they have the least power in the room. A pause in the conversation is often read as a sign that the meeting is going downhill, and people respond by tap dancing furiously to try to reverse the slide. But actually, silence isn't your enemy. In fact, it can work in your favour. It can be extremely useful in terms of drawing other people out and eliciting the kind of information and reactions that will help you understand them better. If you can tolerate a lull in the conversation, very frequently the other person will step in to fill it — often by saying something he would never have volunteered otherwise. Silence has a way of making people dig deeper and reveal more.
So it's frequently a mistake to try to paper over an awkward silence with chatter. And in six specific instances, you should actively try to create a pause in the conversation so that you can regain control of its direction.
When it feels like a trick question
If you're thrown by a question, don't let your nerves take over. Resist the urge to jump in with an answer. This is exactly the time to consider your response carefully. Simply say, “That's one I need to think about for a moment.” Then think about it — starting with why you're being asked this particular question. What is the other person really looking for? Sometimes, people throw out an off-topic question just to see how you'll handle it — whether you'll stay calm or get flustered. The other day, for instance, in the middle of an on-air interview, a journalist suddenly asked me, “Fur or no fur?” It had absolutely nothing to do with what we'd been talking about. I paused for a moment, realized this was probably an attempt to catch me off guard, then said, “That's a very furry question.”
Don't worry that taking a brief mental time out will make it seem as though you don't know how to answer the question. It's much worse to start responding with no real idea where you're headed, since you'll likely just get increasingly more rattled. Think of Sarah Palin's famous interview, the one where Katie Couric asked her which news publications she read; Palin was unable to name a single one. She rushed to answer, though she was clearly drawing a blank, rather than taking a few seconds to come up with the name of a newspaper or two. Even if she hadn't been able to remember any, she probably could've come up with something like “That's not how I get my news.” Now, I'm not suggesting you're anything like Sarah Palin. You're obviously a reader! But if it feels like a trick question, pause before you answer and ask yourself, Why am I being asked this?
When someone asks a nosy question
More than once, in the middle of a conversation, someone has suddenly asked me, “So, how much money do you have, anyway?” I've learned that when a question feels intrusive, it's a good idea to extend the pause for a few seconds before you answer. Otherwise, you may inadvertently volunteer more information than you want to, or respond emotionally rather than calmly. I count to five in my head, then say, “That's a very private question, and I'm just not comfortable answering it.” If the person persists, pause again, if only to emphasize that you are taken aback, and try to force him to reflect on whether this is an appropriate topic. Then tell the truth, pleasantly but firmly: “That's the last thing I want to talk about right now. As I was saying …” Never feel compelled to answer an inappropriate question just because someone has asked it, whether you're in a business situation or a social setting like a cocktail party. Silence is an effective way to ensure your boundaries are respected.
When you're asked a complicated or convoluted question
Do not leap to answer a question before you fully understand what's being asked. Sometimes the question is needlessly complex because the other person is trying to sound smart. Other times, the question is convoluted because even the questioner isn't quite sure what he's asking. In either case, simply pause and say, “I'm sorry, I'm not sure exactly what you're asking. Could you please explain the question?” Getting the other person to break down the question and distill it is usually helpful to both of you and moves the conversation along. If, however, the question is still a little baffling even after it's rephrased, try to break it down into parts yourself, and answer the simplest ones first. If you're forced to think out loud, this will help you reason through the answer logically.
When you have an instinctive, negative emotional response
Sometimes at the beginning of a meeting, someone says something to me like “Wow, you're thinner than you look on TV.” I used to feel offended and think, “Is that your way of saying I look fat on TV?” A few times I was so taken aback that I blurted out, “What are you saying, exactly?” I've learned to take a breath, then say something that takes the spotlight off me, acknowledges the other person's interest, and gets her talking: “I'm so glad you like the show. Are you an entrepreneur?”
If you charge in when someone makes a remark that strikes a nerve, you're likely to lead with your emotions and come off sounding brittle or hurt. So take a moment. It's possible that you've read something into the comment that wasn't there. Mentally rewind to be sure you've heard properly. If you feel under attack or that you're being put down in some way, you want to be certain you're calm when you respond. You need to collect your thoughts, so give yourself something to do — take a note, for instance, or say something that focuses outward and gets the other person talking — and wait out the pause in the conversation until either the other person volunteers more information or you're confident you can continue in a measured way.
When you're negotiating
There's a significant benefit to silence when you're negotiating, as is seen quite frequently on Dragons' Den. One of the dragons will make an offer, just put it out there, then go quiet. You need to let an offer sit for a minute, without explaining further and without appearing willing to move or compromise. As soon as you begin elaborating, you reveal that you're prepared to negotiate further.
You want the other person to consider what you've said and to feel that it might well be your final offer. It's not about hiding your cards but about saying, “That's my bid, and I want you to think carefully about it.” The longer you remain silent, the more likely the other person is to compromise.
When you've ventured an opinion you're not sure will be embraced
After making a definitive statement of some sort, especially one that's controversial, remaining silent can confer an emotional benefit. Remember that people process information differently. Some like to sift through it very quickly; others prefer to wallow in it a bit. In either case it's a good idea to remain quiet and give the other person a chance to process whatever you just said. You don't sound anxious or overeager, and she feels she's in control because you're not pounding her with more information, telling her what to think and why. A lot of people shut down or put up walls when they feel there's too much information coming in too quickly, especially if they believe someone is trying to force a response. When you give the other person a chance to contemplate rather than pushing them forward as hard as you can, you are more likely to be persuasive.
In quite a few situations, then, particularly ones where you feel you've been put on the spot, strategic silence is often more effective than words. Frequently, too, when you're quiet, others will assume that you're being thoughtful and will be more likely to pay attention when you do speak. And, of course, when you're quiet, you create room for others to speak and to commit themselves — and a chance for yourself to listen carefully and closely, to try to figure out what's really driving the other party and what she wants.