The Art of Interviewing: How to Create Conversation

Job seekers tend to rehearse (prepare) for interviews.  Hiring managers, on the other hand, because they’re often busy executives, don’t necessarily prepare for interviewing candidates.

Candidates frequently report that an interviewer seemed unprepared and/or unintrested. At their worst, interviewers are doing most of the talking and barely ask a question or they ask the overly-scripted questions, i.e., “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” At their best, interviewers are relaxed and open. Candidates enjoy conversational interviews where a true connection is established.

The best interviewers work to create a conversation. One way to develop this skill is to approach the interview as an improvised scene. Put your focus on creating a conversation that allows for both the interviewer and the candidate to get to know each other. By doing so, it’s easier to assess the fit – culturally and otherwise – for both parties. An additional plus is that interviewing might even be enjoyable!

 Performance tips for interviewers:

  • Lead and enjoy the activity of creating conversation.
  • Be present as an active listener.
  • Be thoughtful and follow your curiosity.
  • Go slowly and allow the conversation to unfold.
  • Allow space for the interviewee’s questions. Be as honest and direct as possible in answering.
  • Take a risk and go somewhere together as you co-create the interview scene.
Interviewing – It’s a Performance! (Part Two)

imagesFrom time to time I get asked to coach MBA students at NYU Stern to help them prepare for interviews to secure summer  internships and/or a job upon graduation.  Most of my coaching clients at Stern have not had an easy time at these interviews and sometimes feel that there is something lacking.  These are very bright and well prepared students who don’t have the performance skills needed to succeed in a highly competitive environment.  This is, of course, also true for seasoned executives who find themselves interviewing for the first time in a long time.

An Interview is a performed conversation.  It requires a great deal of listening, creating conversation and performance energy.  Most people go into interviews looking to “say the “right thing” so they can “get it right” – that activity bypasses the creative activity of developing a performed conversation with someone and, instead, focuses on the end result (getting the job or the internship).  Perhaps you’re thinking “creativity in an interview?” so let’s deconstruct this thing we call an interview and put it into a theatrical context.

The scene begins with a warm smile and a solid handshake.  The performance demands that the interviewee be fully present, making eye contact, seated in a relaxed manner, self-conciously breathing and engaged.  This is a good moment to focus on the person across from you – giving full attention to the slow and steady building of the conversation.  Focus should be on the two words that we use in improvisation – “yes and” – listen to the questions, and respond.  Acknowledge what you’ve been asked (that is the “yes”) and respond in a way that builds the conversation (that is the “and”).  If you keep your focus on this activity versus “getting it right” or “saying something smart” you will build rapport, which is often overlooked during an interview.  Most candidates talk too much when they are being interviewed, which often happens as a result of nervousness.  You might want to stop and ask, “Would you like me to elaborate?” rather than going on and on and ignoring that your interviewer’s eyes have glazed over.  A good performer is very aware of her/his scene partner and when possible, works to make her/him look good.  That might mean saying, “That’s a great question!” with a smile even if you’re thinking, “How am I going to answer THAT question?!”

Another tool to bring into an interview is creative imitation.  A great way to develop an interview performance is to think of someone you admire for their performance skills – a mentor, a professor, a favorite actor, a great TED Talk – it doesn’t matter who you have in mind.  Once you think of that person the fun part is to perform your creative imitation of that person … in an interview.  This is a way to step a little bit (or a lot) outside of your comfort zone and pretend, play and perform as someone other than who you are.  The beauty of performance is that of course you are always who you are and at the same time you are other than who you are!  This uniquely human capability allows us to be shy and perform outgoing, to be insecure and perform confidence.

The magical thing about performance is that, after awhile, you might very well become a person who aces interviews – not by “getting it right” – but by creating a deliberate, self-conscious, thoughtful performance of an interview.

Recruiting? Make Your Candidates Look Good!

I’ve been thinking about the process of recruiting talent into an organization.  In close to 20 years of recruiting it is the rare organization that puts the human equation before all else when it comes to recruiting.   Ironic as it may seem (because it is), the focus all too often for recruiters, human resource leaders and hiring managers is to create a process that works best for them and for their organization, without much thought for the candidates they are seeking to hire.

I was very glad to come across this article in the Wall Street Journal, “Building a Process for Recruiting the Best” by Scott Weiss.  Although he is describing a recruiting process for startups, I think Weiss’ suggestions apply to any organization that wants to create the conditions for successful recruiting of top talent.

Too often organizations have an arrogant posture throughout the interview and recruiting process.  The performance of the interview team is analogous to conversing with a person who is “all about me” — and we all know how difficult it can be to spend time in conversation with someone who disregards “the other”.

It’s important to ensure that in every step of the recruiting process the candidate feels welcomed.  Too often I’ve seen hiring managers and other interviewers keep a candidate waiting beyond the scheduled time for the interview.  Of course the underlying message that is being sent to the candidate is, “I have more important things to do.”  Having the right talent in leadership roles is critical for a company’s success yet the process that is often put in place doesn’t conform to the need.

Recently a client told me about an interview he had with HR that consisted of what he experienced as “trick questions”.  Creating an interview process in which the goal is to trip up a candidate rather than bring out the best in her/him is an example of what I see as an “arrogant / all about us” recruiting process.

Here’s where using emotional intelligence and having the ability to create a space for  intimate conversation comes into play.  By intimate I mean creating a conversation that goes somewhere unexpected, perhaps the interviewer shares something from her/his work experience that didn’t go well as a way to ask about times the candidate has failed and what s/he learned from their failure.

A smart organization is thinking about which managers are in the best position to create a thoughtful and efficient interview process that allows the team to really get to know the candidate.  Not everyone has the capability to do this.  Some interviewers will sneak a peek at their emails while interviewing, will take a call or even step out of the room and leave the interviewee sitting there dumbfounded.  I’ve heard this kind of feedback from candidates more times than I’d like to think possible.

Creating and training a talented interview team is key to good hiring.  Not only do interviewers have to know the right questions to ask, perhaps the more importantly, they have to work on their performance during the interview.  Simple things like a strong handshake, eye contact and a smile can make all the difference for the candidate.

When putting together an interview team some questions to ask might be: Does this interviewer have a high level of emotional intelligence? Will this interviewer make a candidate feel comfortable? Is this interviewer an active listener?  Can s/he create a conversation that might very well go somewhere unexpected? Can s/he frame questions that help the candidate do her/his best at conveying their unique qualities, experience, creativity and ability to add value to the organization?

How can organizations create a better recruiting process?  By putting themselves in the shoes of their candidates.  As one of my recruiting mentors used to say, “It’s simple, treat people the way you want to be treated.”  Put your focus on “the other” — be giving.  A good performer always makes her/his fellow actor look good.  Make your candidates look good and see how that changes your recruiting process.


A question of relationships

A candidate of ours had a round of interviews last week that included a meeting with the CEO of the corporation. The candidate failed to ask the CEO a single question. Our client is not moving forward with this candidate.

This got me thinking about the role of questioning in all kinds of situations. On a global level we often find ourselves asking questions that have no answers. This can be disconcerting in these post-modern times that we live in.

In building relationships asking questions is a way we express our interest and curiosity about the other – that builds intimacy. We can assume we know what the other person means but in the absence of finding out with our questions we often remain distant.

I suspect we’ve all had the experience of being in a conversation where the other person doesn’t ask one question about you – the conversation often ends up one-sided and less than intimate. It is in the questioning that we experience the other’s interest in building the relationship.

In an interview both parties need to be active participants, creating conversation and thereby building a relationship. We can forget the human element – as though the CEO wouldn’t have some of the same responses that all of us have if there is no curiosity about us.

In an improvisational scene we limit questions and, instead, we make statements. A good improviser is creating a “yes and” scene by making “offers”, adding details, and endowing each other with certain qualities. Instead of asking, “How do you feel this morning?” I might say,”Wow, you are so grumpy this morning!”. A response might be, “Yes I am grumpy because you left a sink full of dishes in the sink.” And so the relationship gets built.

What matters, ultimately, is our attention to relationship – with an interviewer or interviewee, a new friend, an improv partner or a loved one. We are, indeed, a relational species.