Interview Advice

Why Good Interviewing Starts with Good Listening and Observation

The best interviewers are the ones who know themselves inside and out and because they have insight to their own behaviors, attitudes, goals, strengths and weaknesses, they can comfortably talk about them to an employer. However, interviewers must also be strong communicators. Whenever I tell people this, they immediately think that I mean they must be able to speak well in an interview, because after all, that’s what you do in an interview – you respond to questions right? It’s not that simple.

Interviewing has a lot more strategy involved then simply asking and responding to questions. Interviews are all about assessments so all questions have a purpose and that purpose is to assess something about the candidate that will tell the employer if the candidate possesses the competencies and/or qualities they desire for the position. Good interviewers must first have an understanding of what is really being asked by a question. When an employer poses a question, ask yourself, “what are they assessing with this question?” Questions can assess multiple things at once but have an understanding of why a question was asked before you begin to respond. So many people think that a good interview means that you can respond quickly and “think on your feet,” but that’s what actually leads to poor interviews.

I’m not saying pause for 5 minutes and ponder the philosophical assumptions of a question posed by an employer – just think before you speak. For instance, consider the question, “If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?” It sounds like a silly question but what might a response to this question reveal about a candidate’s personality or what traits they value? I use this question often when training students and I get the funniest answers. One person once told me they would be a bear because they get to hibernate and sleep all day, eat honey and “mosey” around. Obviously, this candidate was not considering what I was trying to assess with the question because they didn’t take the time to listen to what I was really asking. If you listen well during an interview, you will also be able to notice when you may have raised a concern for an employer. You may notice that their vocal tone has changed, the rate of speech might increase, or they may alter their body language and/or facial expressions. Listening and being observant will provide clues during the interview and will help you adjust your communication when you notice you may have to explain something further or perhaps preemptively address a potential concern you may have unintentionally raised.

Good interviews feel like natural conversations and the only way to engage someone in conversation is to listen to them. Employers will reveal their values, what skills they want out of a candidate, what qualities they desire, or what type of cultural fit they need through the questions they ask, how they respond to your answers, and through their body language. If you can master the art of listening, you will be able to strategically respond and adjust your approach throughout the interview. This, of course, takes time to master but the good news is that we are offered opportunity every day to master our listening skills. Some easy things to do to begin mastering the art of listening include the following:

  1. Start paying attention to body language – What types of body language do people demonstrate when they are engaged, frustrated, intrigued, etc.? You will notice some consistent patterns and if you can read these patterns in an interview, they will provide clues as to how you are doing and how you may need to adjust or adapt.
  2. Start Listening to speech patterns – Just as body language will reveal the mood of a person, speech patterns will reveal this as well. How do people speak when they are concerned, excited, worried, etc.?
  3. Pay attention to facial expressions – The face tells us a lot about how a person is feeling. Start paying close attention to this when speaking with people daily to begin to understand patterns. What does it mean when someone squints, scowls, smiles, raises an eyebrow, etc.?

Practicing good listening means so much more than merely understanding what people say, it means paying attention and gaining understanding of what is being communicated, which is a much broader definition. Humans communicate so much more with what they do than what they say and listening to peoples’ non-verbal and verbal cues will provide insight as to how the interview is going and how you can adjust throughout the interview based on the messages being sent your way.


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