Four seconds of silence

Here’s a quick tip for you as you conduct your goal-directed interviews with users and potential users: Leave a four-second pause after your interviewee pauses their response, allowing them to add more information or additional detail.


This is hard to do. In ordinary conversation, people will often step in and fill these silences. Especially with a stranger, we don’t want to leave the conversation “hanging,” preferring instead to offer up some response or reflection on what the other has said.

But an interview is not a cocktail conversation. The interviewer is trying to get as complete a picture as he or she can of the user’s thoughts. To help do this, we want to give them that room to think about what they’ve just said and append as necessary.

Why four seconds?

Though it reads as a very short amount of time, it doesn’t sound the same way. At an average 196 words per minute in a typical (English-speaking) conversation, four seconds equates to 13 words. That’s about the length of an average Twitter post, i.e. a complete, if short, idea. It actually sounds pretty long, especially in the middle of a conversation. To illustrate even further, I’ve included a 4 second pause in an otherwise familiar quote below.

It’s a long time.

This duration also helps us in intercultural interviews where the interviewee is used to different speech rhythms, and the accepted pause-before-response is longer.

The trouble:

The trouble with these long pauses, while useful, is that they might cause awkwardness if the interviewee believes they’ve successfully answered your question and you’re just staring back at them, waiting. You certainly don’t want to pressure them into saying something because they think they haven’t answered your question adequately.

The trick:

How do you let people know you’re not just dumping the responsibility of the conversation on them? It’s a magician’s trick: provide a plausible diversion. The first time we find ourselves in the pause, we explain, “Oh, we should explain that when we’re silent after you speak, it’s because we’re taking notes on what you’re saying.” While this is actually true most of the time, in the times when we are really waiting in those extra four seconds, we might just be moving our pen over the paper, or the Tablet PC.

But whether we’re miming notes or actually writing, establishing comfort for pauses in the conversation give the interviewee the comfort that they have a few spare moments to think about what they’ve just said and correct or amend it.


  1. Towards an Integrated Understanding of Speaking Rate in Conversation
Chris Noessel

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