A job interview is rarely easy. It’s essentially a performance with all the keyed-up expectation that brings. Preparation helps, of course: researching the company, informing yourself fully of the position’s requirements, practising your answers to likely questions, and the rest of it.
But the interview is also an interpersonal communication, with all of the intricacies and pitfalls of human interaction. By increasing your awareness and understanding of its nonverbal undercurrents, you can tap emotional intelligence in ways that will help you navigate it more successfully.
“As social beings, we have evolved to mimic each other unconsciously in posture, gesture, and speech,” said Krystal D’Costa, author of the Scientific American blog Anthropology in Practice. “It’s a way of signalling that we belong, that we’re the same, not enemies.”
Paying attention to the subtle emotional undertones of an interview can help you land the job, while ignoring them can unintentionally sabotage your chances. For example, an interviewer giving off unconscious cues of not being that interested in you, perhaps by being abrupt or not looking at you, may just be having a bad day. But if you react reflexively, you’re likely to shorten your answers and become fidgety without realising it, increasing the likelihood of rejection.
The tips below will help you to tap into the emotional currents and cues during an interview more clearly and respond more effectively.
Being more mindful of our reactions brings us more control in directing them. Taking an extra second or so before a response allows you to assess it more fully, and simply reminding yourself before an interview that you and the interviewer are actually performing for each other makes you more open to seeing cues for what they are.
Techniques to reduce pre-interview anxiety can be part of the mix, too, helping you deal with the “fight-or-flight” response any performance can trigger. “There’s a cocktail of hormones involved, with adrenaline, cortisol, and testosterone the main ones,” said Tony Corballis, a London-based executive communication performance coach. “If you breathe deeply and try to be totally in the present for just one or two seconds in the waiting room or on your way into the interview, they start to drain away, bringing you back into a state where you’re physically more in your own skin.”
If you can manage a minute of alone time, you can go further, saying aloud something to the effect that the world won’t end if you don’t get the job. “Reducing your focus on the consequences in this way is an effective way of disempowering obtrusive thoughts that arise from anxiety,” said Corballis.
Attending to how you hold yourself and speak dovetails with cultivating your ability to be present. D’Costa offered some useful guidelines for posture, noting that they also help keep you centred. “Sitting up a little straighter, putting your hands on the table, and leaning forward — these are all effective ways of presenting yourself that have the added benefit of helping you control your responses to what may be happening across the table that you can’t control.”
Eye contact is interpreted differently across cultures and tends to be regarded as aggressive amongst Asians. “West Coast America sets a very fixed eye-contact standard, as does Australia, with New Zealand and Great Britain less so,” said Corballis. “It’s perfectly reasonable not to fix on the other person’s eyes. I usually tell people to look around the interviewer’s eyes, not right into them.”
For those with the time and resources, coaching can help you relax into your voice as well as develop habits of phrasing that make for more effective communication. “There’s a technique you can practise on your own,” said Corballis, “whispering a song while you’re walking by yourself, and then turning it into a hum. Note the pitch of the hum and practise returning to it, anchoring to that for your natural speaking voice.”
Understand the context
Seeing yourself as part of a greater whole is another effective way to maintain perspective and mitigate the stress of an interview. Corballis envisions the candidate in the context of both the interviewer and the interview’s content (the exchange of questions and answers).
“Focusing on the content during the interview takes your attention off your nerves; it’s very useful,” he said. “I also have people prepare by humanising the interviewer, looking at their LinkedIn photo and imagining what they’re like, and understanding that they may be going through their own life challenges. People report that this works very well.”
Hit the reset button
If your interviewer seems distracted — scratching his ear, checking her phone — you needn’t endure it passively. “It’s perfectly OK to say, ‘It looks like you’re having a really busy day; is this still a good time to talk?’” said D’Costa. “It resets the tone of the interview, making the interviewer more attentive and aware of their own cues.” And if the interviewer says, “I can’t silence my phone,” you’ve probably just learned something about whether this is really a person you want to work for.
Tap your emotion
Interviewers are on the lookout for something that distinguishes you, something human, something real. “I was coaching a managing director in capital markets,” said Corballis, “and it came up that he was teaching his 9-year-old boy to play guitar. It was the perfect juxtaposition to his fast, performance-driven career. ‘You’ve got to bring this up with the interviewer,’ I told him.” Have something on tap that speaks of an interest, a passion, a commitment — it will touch and communicate your emotion in the telling.
Ultimately, it’s all about connecting with the interviewer as a human being, and, although nothing can guarantee success, having that connection makes it a lot more likely.
— John Lehmann-Haupt is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.