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How to talk so people will talk: leaving pauses for them to fill

Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy
This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
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I mentioned a few issues ago a tactic I learned second-hand from Terry Gross: leaving long pauses for people to fill.
It sounds like such a simple thing…
…until you think about how it’s completely unnatural in most everyday conversations.
The next time you’re having a normal conversation – not a tense conversation, not a pointed conversation – notice whether you ask a question and wait, or whether you provide prompts.
Do you say, “Where should we order take-out from? … Should we get pizza, Chinese, sushi…”
or do you say “Where should we order take-out from?” and let it hang?
What do you do if the other person doesn’t respond right away? Do you repeat the question, or do you let it become awkward?
Maybe you default to the latter. I’ve certainly met people who were comfortable with awkward silences. But they tend to be… awkward.
One of the ways people make a normal conversation flow is by adding these sorts of little prompting words when someone doesn’t reply immediately. (It’s also how we check to see if someone heard us.)
Maybe the prompting isn’t offering answers like above, and is just a rephrase without offering an answer, like “Where should we order take-out from? … [1-2 second pause]…Do you wannaaaaa…” [lingering pause with gesticulation]
Now that I have you going “do I do that?”, I want to bring this back to customer interviews.
In an interview, you want to avoid ANY kind of prompting. You want to create those silences and let the customer fill them.
When you ask a question, you need to let it hang.
“So can you tell me why you even needed a product like [your SaaS] in the first place?”
And wait.
Don’t prompt.
If they don’t reply right away, don’t say, “was it for [use case 1], or maybe [use case 2]…”
Just wait.
I know how HARD this is. In fact, there’s a point in the Software Social example customer interview where I slip up and prompt, despite having my best Customer Interview Game Face on. (I’ll let you find out where that is.)
Now, sometimes it might truly get awkward. The person you’re interviewing may not respond. If they say “Are you there?” you should gently bring the conversation back to focus on them, and say something like:
  • Yes, I was just giving you a moment to think.
  • Yes, I’m still here. Do you want to come back to that later?
  • Oh, it just sounded like you were about to say something.
If anything, too-long pauses and the interviewer’s phrases that follow make the customer feel even more important, and reinforce that they are in the dominant role in this conversation. They increase safety, rather than increasing awkwardness. You want them to teach you about their view of their process, and this sort of almost-deferential treatment through pauses helps thrust them into that teaching position.
To get the answers you need about the customer’s process, you need to create a safe, judgement-free environment. You need to hand the stage entirely over to the customer, and talk as little as possible.
And leaving silences without prompting is one of the ways you can do that.

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Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy @mjwhansen

A practical guide to interviewing customers

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