Best Way to Make the Interview More Effective – Rules for the Interviewer

Maintain control of the interview, but don’t talk too much. Maintaining control of the interview does not mean that you should talk most of the time; indeed, quite the opposite.

Interviewees sometimes think (wisely) that they are best off having you do most of the talking and consequently may flood you with questions. While you may emerge from that type of interview quite impressed (why? because you will have heard yourself talk and most of us are quite impressed by what we have to say), you will have learned little of value about the interviewee. You might as well stay home and base your entire decision on the resume.

Interview More Effective Best Way to Make the Interview More Effective   Rules for the Interviewer

A good rule of thumb is that the interviewee should be talking about 80 percent of the time in an evaluative interview, and at least 60 percent in a nonevaluative interview. Of course, all interviews are evaluative to some extent. By a nonevaluative interview, I mean one in which your focus is more on selling the interviewee than on evaluating her. Typically, this type of interview will occur after more evaluative interviews by other people at your company conclude that this is someone you probably want for the job. If you find yourself getting thirsty during interviews, you’re probably talking too much.

Encourage an interviewee to talk by smiling, maintaining eye contact, nodding your head occasionally, or saying uh-huh. This will help generate open responses to your questions. If you doubt the effectiveness of this technique, watch two people at another table the next time you go to dinner. Notice how they encourage each other to talk through simple nonverbal cues.

To maintain control, follow logical lines of inquiry. Don’t get sidetracked by questions posed by the interviewee. In fact, don’t even permit the interviewee to ask a question for at least the first two-thirds of the interview. If the interviewee begins to ask questions early on, say, “I know you have a number of questions, and I am going to leave some time for them toward the end of the interview. But first I’d like to take some time to learn more about you, if that’s okay.” (In a second- or third-level interview, an interviewer should be more receptive to questions from the interviewee before the closing stage of the interview.)

If the interviewee gets off track or rambles on at great length, gently get her back by saying, “I probably was not clear enough in my question. What I really wanted to know was . . . ?” Or “That’s interesting. I wish we had more time to discuss it, but I’d like to move on to . . .” Of course, an interviewee who persists in not answering questions, rambling on, or asking questions is revealing something about herself.

On the other hand, do not cut off interviewees’ responses too quickly, or finish their sentences for them. Besides being rude, that will curtail the amount of information you will get. Interviewees should also be careful not to interrupt interviewers. Refusing to let an interviewer complete his thought is not a sign of commendable aggressiveness or motivation. It is rude and arrogant. If you do it, your chances of getting an offer will be slim.

2. Listen. Listening is hard work. It involves much more than not talking, or simply hearing. It is an active endeavor that demands that you be awake and alert, concentrate totally on what is being said, and clear your mind of other concerns.

To listen effectively you must be nonjudgmental. Do not react to negative information. If, when an interviewee tells you something you regard as negative, you fall off your chair or blurt out “You’ve got to be kidding,” that is the last piece of negative information you will get. Play down bad news by indicating that it’s not an uncommon experience (if that is true) or just by listening and encouraging elaboration of the news.

Try to understand the interviewee as he sees himself. Many answers are susceptible to more than one interpretation so it is important not to jump to conclusions. For example, suppose an interviewee tells you, “I prefer the opportunity to work at my own pace.” You may think this means (a) he is slow and does not like to be pushed, (b) he is fast and does not like to be reigned in, (c) he does not work well under pressure, (d) he is a self-starter, or (e) he does not take supervision well. Unless you listen, ask the interviewee to explain his answer, and then explore specific situations in which the interviewee has worked at his own pace (or has not been able to do so), you cannot know what he means.

Ask the interviewee to spell out carefully what he means and to repeat answers if there is any ambiguity or uncertainty. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’d like you to slow down just a bit. Could you please go back to . . . ?” or “I’m not sure I understood that last sequence. Could you walk me through it again?”

You can hear things much more quickly than they can be spoken, so you must find a way to utilize your excess time. Try the following techniques as ways of getting yourself to listen:

  • Imagine where the discussion is leading.
  • Weigh the evidence you are receiving.
  • Review what’s been said so far.
  • Summarize the point the speaker is trying to make.
  • Ask yourself whether what you are hearing is helpful.
  • Look for ways to use the information the speaker is giving.
  • Decide whether what is being said makes sense.
  • Check whether you seem to be getting the whole story.
  • Determine whether the points being made are backed up with examples.
  • Compare how what you are hearing relates to what you already know.
  • Assess what biases may be blocking your listening.

Listen between the lines—note the interviewee’s nonverbal communication such as gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Is she extremely nervous, or self-possessed? Is she somebody in whom others are likely to have confidence? As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” (Beware, though, that these observations may lead you to jump to conclusions too quickly.) Do not become so preoccupied with observing and thinking ahead, though, that you are not listening to what the interviewee is saying.

It may seem strange to say so, but real listening takes courage. You may emerge from the interview changed; you may prove yourself wrong.

Show you are listening by using an interviewee’s responses in your questions, commenting after the question and following up. Assume you ask an interviewee, “What aspects of your last job did you find rewarding?” and she responds that she enjoyed working with the other people on the team. Instead of dropping the line of questioning there, probe further by asking, “What was it about working with other people that you enjoyed?”, or, “Can you tell me about a situation in which you particularly enjoyed working on a team?” Alternatively, you may explore the opposite of the answer by asking, “What difficulties did you find in working on a project with a team of people?” Using the candidate’s answer in your next question will automatically result in follow-up.

You might preface your next question with a comment such as, “Yes, I find that working as a team with my cohorts is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work, too. What was it about working with the people that you enjoyed?” This type of comment accomplishes three purposes: (a) it makes the interview more conversational, (b) it helps to establish rapport with interviewee, and (c) it subtly sells your company by alluding to your own teamwork.

The same technique is useful for the interviewee. If you can take something the interviewer has said and relate it to your own experience, abilities, or desires, you not only will have shown that you are listening to the interviewer, but you will also have helped to establish rapport with him.

Don’t form even a preliminary decision as to whether you are going to make an offer for at least twenty minutes. Some interviewees take awhile to get going. Delaying your decision will allow you to give the slow-starting interviewee a fair opportunity to prove himself. It will also keep you interested in the interview because once you’ve ruled a candidate out it’s hard to continue to listen.

Withholding judgment helps you avoid mistakes on the other side of the ledger, too. Certain interviewees who make a favorable initial impression (often because of their resume) demonstrate, when given half a chance, that they are not worthy of receiving an offer.

By allowing the interviewee to talk before you decide, you give him a chance to emerge as a person, instead of prejudging him based on an item or two on his resume. During the interview, you should be forming and exploring hypotheses about the interviewee. When you are able to corroborate a hypothesis you have formed in more than one setting, you will begin to get more comfortable with your evaluation.

Use past behavior to predict future behavior. The way a person acted in the past is the best guide to how he will act in the future. The past experiences you explore do not have to be related to the present position.  You can learn a lot about how a person will perform in your company by discussing parts of the interviewee’s background that may seem remote.

Too many interviewers cover a significant job experience with a brief question or two, then move on. Here are thirteen questions you can ask about almost any job:

  • How did you get the job?
  • What were your expectations about the job?
  • In what ways were those expectations met, disappointed, or exceeded?
  • What were your responsibilities?
  • What did you like/find satisfying about the job?
  • Why did you like that?
  • What did you dislike/find frustrating about the job?
  • Why did you dislike that/how did you deal with the frustration?
  • Did you run into any difficult or stressful situations?
  • How did you deal with those situations?
  • How would you describe the people who supervised you?
  • What did you learn from the job that will stay with you?
  • If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently in that job experience?

My point is not that you should ask these questions of every interviewee, but that you should have them in your repertoire for use, when appropriate. Of course, an interviewee’s answers to these questions probably will suggest other follow-up questions.

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Elicit specific situations to illuminate the interviewee’s responses. Do not be content with statements about what an interviewee would “usually,” “typically,” or “generally” do. For example, if the interviewee says he did not generally like having to go through many drafts of a document, ask for a specific instance in which that occurred, then ask what the interviewee actually did, said, felt, and/or thought at the time. Similarly, if the interviewee liked the opportunity to complete a project on her own, ask for an example of such a project, then find out what the interviewee did, said, felt, and/or thought.

Interviewees often need to be prompted to give you the information you are seeking. Tell the interviewee you are looking for a rather detailed description of what he did in a situation so you can be sure you understand what was involved. When he provides a level of detail you are looking for, encourage him to continue to provide that detail by saying, “Thanks, that’s the type of description that’s helpful to me. Can you think of another example of . . . ?” The idea is to keep the interviewee talking in the past tense about a specific experience or situation. You want to learn what the person did at the time, rather than his current reflections on the situation. While those current thoughts may suggest a person’s flexibility and capacity to learn from experience, the thoughts become significant only if they affect the interviewee’s behavior.

The same method, probing deeply by asking many different questions, holds true if you are exploring a specific characteristic of a candidate. For example, if you were trying to determine whether she could persuade others to her position, you might pursue the following line of questions: Can you tell me about a time when you had to convince another person to adopt your position on a matter? Who was the other person? What was your position? What was the other person’s position? What led up to the situation? What strategy did you adopt? What objections did the other person raise? What did you think was the other person’s real, principal concern? How did you deal with the other person’s objections and concerns? What did you say? What did the other person say? How much did you talk? What was the outcome? What is your current relationship with the other person? What, if anything, might you do differently if you encountered a similar situation today? Can you give me an example of a time when you acted differently?

In exploring what an interviewee did in the past, make sure you distinguish between a situation in which the person had no real responsibility and one in which she had a significant role. Get the person to describe precisely what her role was by asking, “What did you do?” The better she can describe it, the more likely she did it. Do not be content with a description by an interviewee of what “we” did; ask what “she”did.

Make sure you understand exactly who the players were in the situation she describes. Being assertive toward a supervisor shows quite a different quality than being assertive toward a colleague or subordinate.

An interviewee should be prepared to answer all of the above questions about any job she has had (or characteristic she possesses). Review these questions prior to an interview because they may suggest areas you may wish to discuss in response to a more general question such as, “Tell me about your job.” Imagine what follow-up questions an astute interviewer might ask, and think about how you might respond. Also, remember that when you are seeking information from an interviewer, you should use the same approach outlined above to get detailed, specific information.

Use silence, both after a question and at the end of an answer. Here’s a rule of thumb you should apply: When you ask a question, don’t be the next person to talk. A certain amount of time is appropriate for an interviewee to think about an answer. If the interviewee says nothing for half an hour, you will have learned quite a bit about her suitability for the job.

After an interviewee appears to have completed his answer, wait a few seconds before asking another question. During these few seconds, the interviewee may be deciding whether to add something to his answer. Your silence implies that you expect (or will welcome) more. Some interviewees will retract what they have said, or modify their answers. Others will provide more information. Often something that is added by an interviewee during these few seconds of silence can prove more revealing than the initial answer.

Silence is uncomfortable. You will feel pressure internally to keep the flow of the interview going by speaking. (Indeed, this pressure is one of the things that leads to interviewers talking too much.) But if you learn to resist that pressure, you will receive better information.

Of course, silence is also uncomfortable for an interviewee. As interviewee, though, you should not hesitate to take the time you need to formulate an answer. When you are confronted with silence at the end of your answer, don’t feel obligated to add to what you’ve said. Certainly you should not modify or retract your answer because of the silence. Frequently, the silence merely reflects an interviewer trying to formulate his next question. Where the silence drags on, you have several choices: (a) remain silent and await the next question, (b) ask the interviewer whether you have answered his question, (c) suggest another question for the interviewer by saying, “Perhaps you’d like to hear about …?,” or, (d) ask the interviewer a question. Any of these approaches is acceptable.

Don’t use stress (unnecessarily). Direct, stressful questions may test a candidate’s interviewing skill, but it won’t test his job skills. The way a person reacts to stress in an interview is not a good indicator of how he will react on the job. The interview gives the interviewer an unfair advantage and creates an artificial situation that will not apply in business. Interview stress derives from an interviewee’s belief that getting the job depends on a single, irreversible, time-limited performance. Job pressure is more sustained, with repeated opportunities to perform. Furthermore, stress produces a protective reaction in an interviewee that means you will get both less candid and less complete responses to your other questions.

Stress interviews will not help you hire candidates you want. Put bluntly, torture doesn’t sell. As an interviewer it’s easy to abuse interviewees, and they are generally not impressed by it. Interviewees see interviewers who use stress as arrogant. Stress questions, are regarded by interviewees as blatant evidence that the interviewer considers the interview a game.

Properly phrased questions may produce a certain amount of stress by forcing an interviewee to think about himself and his experience. This type of stress, however, is an inevitable by-product of probing for information that will be valuable in making your hiring decision. Likewise, in some instances, you may stimulate stress as you ask for specific information that you need to make your decision, such as questions about a candidate’s performance in a previous job or information about a period of time that is not accounted for by the resume.

As an interviewee, if you are confronted by interviewers who feel that stress is an effective interview technique, don’t fall into the trap of getting angry, combative, or flustered. A simple smile at the interviewer will let her know you are aware of what is going on. You may then respond with something like, “That’s an interesting/unusual question. Let me think about it for a minute (then take time to formulate your answer).” Another approach would be to say, “That’s an interesting/unusual question. May I ask why are you interested in my answer to that question?”

Don’t shy away from asking questions you need to ask just because they may be uncomfortable. For example, if information about a candidate’s academic performance is important, ask about it. Interviewees expect those questions, anyway. Questions about sensitive matters are best asked in the middle of the interview—after you’ve established rapport with the interviewee; but not at the end, because you don’t want to close the interview on an uncomfortable topic.

Make sure you get all the factual information you will need. Too often, interviewers complete an interview and find they don’t have the information necessary to make a decision. This results in either (a) the embarrassment of having to go back to the interviewee to get the information, (b) the foolishness of rejecting somebody who might be a good candidate, or (c) the wasted time caused by inviting somebody in for further interviews and then rejecting him based on information that was available before he came in.

Though you should not avoid asking tough questions, you may be able to soften their impact by using introductory phrases. For example, phrases such as “Do you imagine that,” “Do you think that,” “I wonder whether,” “May it be, perhaps, that,” “Is it possible that,” “Do you suppose that,” and “Do you believe that” can help to make some difficult questions less threatening to the interviewee.

Take notes during the interview. Particularly in an on-campus interview, it is difficult to remember what an interviewee says if you do not take notes. Also, something said early in the interview that you did not pay much attention to may prove significant later on.

Some interviewees may find note taking uncomfortable. But if you mention at the outset that you are intending to take notes, explain the reason why and ask the interviewee’s permission, interviewees will not object. For example, you may say, “I’m going to be speaking to a number of candidates for this position [today] and I’d like to be able to remember what we’ve talked about, so, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take some notes.”

If you take notes, do so steadily during the interview, not only when an interviewee says something negative. Your notes should be sufficiently complete and legible to allow you to discuss the basis for your conclusions with a colleague after the interview. While taking notes, hold the pad upright so the candidate cannot read what you are writing. And be careful about which matters you choose to write down. Though a note on a particular physical or personal characteristic of the interviewee may help you to remember her, it may also prove an embarrassing piece of evidence against you in a discriminatory hiring claim.

Some interviewers are not comfortable taking notes during the interview and prefer to make brief notes after the interview, or to dictate something quickly into a tape recorder. Obviously, if you are not comfortable taking notes, you should not do so. As soon as you can after the interview, though, jot down or expand on any notes you have taken. Also, if you are in a situation in which you will be seeing many candidates in a row, begin to make preliminary decisions on each candidate as you go along.

Interviewees should not be offended if an interviewer takes notes, even if he is somewhat awkward at doing it. Instead, regard note taking as an indication that the interviewer is taking the interview seriously.

Assume you are interested in hiring each interviewee to whom you speak. If you find that difficult to believe five minutes into the interview, remember that, almost invariably, the person you have the least interest in during an interview season will be the best friend of the person you are most interested in hiring. (I’ve found this best friend syndrome to be almost statistically provable.) Showing disinterest in the “dud” may kill your chances of hiring the “star.” And, besides, some duds five minutes into an interview turn out to be attractive candidates twenty-five minutes later. Not many, perhaps, but some.

Show interest in each interviewee as a person; approach each interview determined to learn something new from the interviewee. (The same, of course, holds true for the interviewee. Just as you like to find an interviewer who is interested in you as a human being, the interviewer also will appreciate your interest in him as a person.) Even the least interesting interviewees are not as dull as you may think if you give them a chance to talk about something that they are interested in. To be sure, that is not always true. Some interviewees (as well as some interviewers) are dull. They will give you a whole new appreciation for the length of half an hour, reminding you that it is composed of thirty individual minutes, each of which itself contains sixty quite separate and distinct seconds.

Of course, if you are conducting a so-called “courtesy interview” in which you talk to a candidate solely because he is a friend or relative of somebody at your company or one of your customers, it will be difficult to assume you are interested in hiring the interviewee (because you are not). Courtesy interviews are neither courtesies nor interviews. They are games. Avoid them whenever possible, and when you cannot avoid them, try to set them up as sessions in which you are advising the person you are speaking to, rather than pretending you are conducting a job interview.

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Interviewees who are granted interviews through connections with family or friends should be aware that these may be “courtesy” interviews. If you value your time and do not care to participate in a charade, have your friend or family member ask whether you are regarded as a serious candidate. Confronted with this type of direct question, most companies will answer honestly.

You may cling to the illusion that even in a courtesy interview, you will emerge as the winning candidate. But an interviewer who conducts a courtesy interview has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Worse than an interviewer who makes up her mind in the first five minutes of an interview, the courtesy interviewer has made up her mind before the interview even begins. If you want to get information through a meeting (not an interview) set up by a friend or family member, by all means do so. But don’t kid yourself into thinking a courtesy interview is a real interview.

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