Critical interviews for critical jobs
Even at the first smile that parents receive from their new-born baby, only minutes into the world, communication is all about engagement. It will continue to be so throughout their lives. For the next seven years it may be a matter of mother and father coaxing their instinctively wary child to face strangers. Quickly enough the youngster will discover that responding brings rewards – today they may be treats, presents, games, money. But even if these tangible incentives are missing, the joy of an animated person, whether child or adult, will be enough to spur further engagement.
We live to feel the warmth of another’s smile, to hold the hand of someone we trust.
The art of being interviewed
What a baby is experiencing is an interview, but quite unlike some of the interviews s/he will have to face later. Soon enough there will be Head Teachers, Form Leaders, House Prefects, Sports Coaches establishing the worth to them, to the school, to the sport, of the candidate wanting to contribute to – or hoping to avoid – rigorous programmes of skills and disciplines. The student will learn the consequences of volunteering information. By the time they reach military training they will have discovered the folly of truthful answers and the clues to successful self-interest. All the time they are learning the art of being interviewed.
They may never realise that every conversation is an interview. Even ‘Good morning’ can be ‘Good morning?’ or ‘Good morning (pah!)’, each approach requiring a different answer – or none at all. Good response, included in which is silence, the most valuable reaction at times, is an art form. You can teach the basis for it. You can learn the principles of it. Reading the other person and fashioning the engagement must be yours or it will be cliched nonsense.
Rule #1: Allow space to prepare yourself
As with much in life, the First Rule is to breathe, to give yourself space and time to pay attention and, vitally, to prepare. Today that is even more important than in the past. Pre-internet and before the computer, life was slower and there was more time to think. Today’s speed makes people misread messages. It is advisable to deal with one subject in one email – a second item will often be missed. Experienced speakers will tell you to limit your points to a maximum of three. In the same way, prepare for an interview at the pace that allows you to be thorough. Fast may be good but too fast is disastrously bad.
Rule #2: It’s not about you
Rule Two is to behave as though the interview, debate, discussion is all about the other person, not about you. Why? Because it is always, only, exclusively about them. It is never about you, however much it appears to be. Surely, though, an interview for a job is strictly about the interviewee, not about the interviewer? Not true. Even if you are a highly specialised expert of some subject where the detailed knowledge you have and the intricate details of your inventions and discoveries count for everything, you will still be judged on your ability to communicate, your predisposition to fit in and your potential contribution to the organisation you seek to join.
That will come across if you are enthusiastic and enquiring, two virtues that don’t easily convey in answers to predetermined questions. So important is this rule that whenever I mentor or coach someone, I do so almost exclusively by questioning. ‘Helpful advice’ initially raises defenses, a response signifying lack of acceptance and / or belief. The most important reason for enthusiasm and curiosity is its ability to endear you. An exceptionally good boss of mine once referred to a colleague we were discussing as having ‘infectious enthusiasm’. It is an expression I particularly like, conveying, as it does, the catching nature of interest and hope. Around such a person you can’t help but feel elated.
Learn to read people better
Can you read people well and continuously? If not, don’t worry. You can learn to do so.
Our ability to read other people is a major decider of how successfully we will deal with them. We tend to see others as a sort of Roman Road – straight and directional. This is a mistake. People are more like meandering rivers, twisting and turning this way and that as the softer sides give way and the harder parts solidify. Life does, after all, flow much like a river. And just like a river it should know where it is going.
Reading people is not just an instant summing up of their character and trustworthiness, valuable as that can be. It is a carefully calibrated monitor of their minute-by-minute changes in mood and receptivity, of their reactions – however covert – to every statement and question, of their willingness to engage, even when it is painful to do so. I would rather know what an interviewer had for breakfast than what his or her political leanings are. Sometimes an unexpected and seemingly irrelevant question elicits a really revealing answer. The hardest conversations we have are not those of forceful and robust debate but those of near agreement. Ask any experienced negotiator. Ask any spouse. Ask President Biden.
Rule #3: Pay close attention to the interviewer
Rule #3, therefore, is to pay attention, not, as you will be inclined to do, to what you have to say, but to the person interviewing you. Watch for signs of interest – a raising of the eyes, a flicker of a smile, a nose scratch of questioning. These are all signals to which you should respond with a question. “Does that resonate with you?” is the basest of encouragements. “May I ask, what have you found to be the best way to deal with situations like that?” – a big improvement.
What if your interviewer reprimands you saying “I’m here to ask the questions, you are here to answer them.” Smile and ignore. Continue asking questions. If the interviewer reflects on his or her intemperate answer they may bend to your approach. If they simply repeat the rude instruction, rise gracefully to your feet, smile the smile of understanding sorrow, shake them warmly by the hand, thank them for their time and leave immediately. There are terms on which you will work and there are terms on which you won’t. You have just escaped joining a company from hell.
No article on critical interviews can supply you with the reactions you should have to every question. The rules and suggestions given here will help you deal with each question, if you remember them as your meeting progresses. They are designed to help you establish a sense of belonging, a good social connection and a meaningful purpose for your interview.
May they be your lamplight and your guide. Applied creatively, they will make you a winner.