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Counteracting Interview Stress

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"Stress" interviewing techniques—things that interviewer do deliberately to upset you so they can see how you respond to stress—have gotten a lot of play in books and articles on job hunting. But this is more because they're fascinating to read about than because they happen with any great frequency. I've known a few executives who had tricks they would sometimes use to get a candidate riled. However, most of the interviewers you're likely to meet are going to play it straight with you. They're busy; they don't have time for games.

Even so, it doesn't hurt to be prepared for that small minority of interviewers who may try, in different ways, to intimidate you. Here are some of the most common stress techniques, and the best ways to counteract them:

1. Purposely sitting you so that the sun is in your eyes. Subjecting you to glare is one of the oldest stress interviewing techniques known to man (police sometimes use the technique when they're interrogating suspects). Should a chair you are invited to sit in subject you to any amount of glare, ask the interviewer right away if you may move. The interviewer won't give you any problem and will probably be impressed with your common sense.

2. Sitting you in a chair that is slightly off balance. The idea behind this tactic is to keep you mildly unsettled throughout the interview, but sometimes the interviewer is simply curious to see how you'll respond. The best counteraction is to ask the interviewer casually if it's okay to sit in another chair. If there is no other chair in the room, tilt your weight in such a way that the chair won't rock. Never ask the interviewer to bring in another chair: the disruption won't help your chances.

3. Interrupting the interview with frequent-or lengthy- phone conversations. The main thing here is to conceal your irritation. If a phone call seems to be going on endlessly, look around the room for a stockholder's report, a business magazine, or any other literature about the company. If there's a newspaper on the executive's desk, you might point to it to see if the interviewer minds you're reading it. Show the interviewer you don't like to waste time. Obviously, you should never remove any papers from the executive desk. If you sense that the phone conversation is "getting personal, take a different seat further away from the interviewer's desk.

4. Offering you something to eat-but without a plate. You're sitting at a coffee table in the interviewer's office. Somebody brings out a piece of sponge cake, a Danish one, perhaps, but with no plate to handle the thing properly. This is an easy technique to respond to: you simply say, "No, thank you."

5. The group interview. Instead of one person firing questions at you, there are three or four, or as many as six. Pay attention to all of them (making sure that you glance at each one every so often), but concentrate most of your attention on the person you figure to be the most important decision maker in the crowd. When you're asked a question, direct your answer to the person who asked the question-not to the group.

6. Having you interviewed by your would-be subordinate. It doesn't happen very often, but it does happen. Not wanting to upset a staff person, a company will actually have that person interview the would-be boss. Play along. Keep in mind that all your subordinate wants, really, is a fair boss-somebody who knows the field, somebody who is pleasant.

7. Keeping you waiting. It happens. Sometimes unavoidably and sometimes because the interviewer is inconsiderate. My rule of thumb has always been this: if you have another interview scheduled, or if you have to get back to your office, you don't wait around more than fifteen minutes past your scheduled appointment. You speak to the secretary, explain your problem, and try to make arrangements for another interview. Most executives will understand and won't give you a hard time.

8. The silent treatment. Occasionally you run into an interviewer who, somewhere in the middle of the interview, suddenly clams up. This is a common interviewing technique known, appropriately enough, as the "silent treatment." The idea is to catch you off guard, to trick you into dropping your mask. Frequently it works. Silence is threatening to a lot of people, who often respond to it with loose talk and nonsense. People say things that are often irrelevant-and sometimes damaging to their chances.

The best way to handle the silent treatment is to prepare for it ahead of time. Expect it to happen, even though it won't most of the time. Be prepared with something pertinent or interesting to say-an addendum, perhaps, to a point you've made earlier. ("You know, something just struck me about what we were talking about earlier-the question of motivating people . . .") Give the subject, whatever it is, a minute or two, pause, then ask the interviewer: "Would you like me to go on?"

Another good response is to have a question or two ready at all times. If the silence continues, ask the interviewer if he or she has any more questions for you. You might even suggest a question. ("Would you like to hear about the volunteer work I'm doing?")

The basic idea in dealing with the silent treatment, when it comes, is to use it to your advantage. See it as an opportunity, not a threat.

There's one type of stress interview I haven't mentioned because it doesn't fit into quite the same category but can still cause you stress. I'm talking about a situation in which the interviewer who would be your boss is obnoxiously rude. This won't happen very often, but my feeling is that if that person can't show simple courtesy at an interview, he or she isn't working for a company that I'd be very happy at. Trust your instincts, and if you think you're being unnecessarily abused, make a quick but polite exit. On the other hand, if this is your first interview, play it cool. One rude interviewer isn't necessarily a reflection of the rest of the company.

Personality Testing

Time was in the mid- to late 1950s that many companies were big on giving their prospective employees personality tests the better to determine the psychological fitness of the people coming to work for them. Not as many firms use these tests any more, and for the best of reasons: they weren't particularly effective. As a psychologist friend of mine once explained to me: "The only thing that personality tests showed us was which of the people were intelligent enough to answer the questions in the way they figured we wanted them answered."

In the event that you're asked to take personality tests, don't make an issue. If you want the job, take them. It's unlikely that your performance on the test will mean all that much in the final counting; but refusing to take the test could ruin your chances before you even get a chance to prove yourself in an interview.

Finding Out How Well You Did

As soon as you can after the interview, find a place where you can sit down by yourself and go over in your mind how well you did, concentrating, however, on what went wrong. I know, it's hard to be objective, but here's a little test you can give yourself after each interview. Simply rate how well you think you did in each of the areas mentioned in the question from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest score.
  1. Did I look as good as I'm capable of looking?

  2. Was I as informed about the company as I should have been?

  3. Was I relaxed and in control of myself?

  4. Did I answer the questions in a way that stressed the three most important things: my ability, my willingness, and my suitability?

  5. Did I listen to the interviewer?

  6. Did I steer questions toward the points I wanted to stress?

  7. Was I observant enough?

  8. Did the interviewer get interested and involved in what I was saying?

  9. Did I tailor my answers to the type of interviewer I was interviewed by?

  10. Did I present an accurate and favorable picture of my-self?
Send a Follow-Up Letter

No matter how the interview went, or where the two of you left the matter when you said goodbye, you should send off a brief letter to the interviewer the same night or, at the latest, the day after. Keep it simple. Thank the interviewer for his or her time. Express your enthusiasm and interest, and try to sneak a line or two of "swell" into the letter as well. Here's a good example:

Dear Ms. Fields:

Just a brief note to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today about the public relations position you're looking to fill. I enjoyed our talk and found your comments very helpful.

As I told you during the interview, I'd like the chance to show how well I could handle the job (I'm more convinced now that we've spoken that it's a job I could do well), and I'd be delighted to discuss the matter further with you at your convenience.

I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks again for your time and encouragement.


Send thank-you notes not only for the first interview in a job situation but each time you meet and are interviewed by somebody new. I've known candidates who've even written thank-you notes to secretaries who've been helpful. It all adds up.

Going Beyond the Thank-You Letter

Okay, you've been interviewed. You like the company, the job, the people, but you're not sure how they like you. Here's a suggestion that most of your competition won't follow, but it can have a powerful impact on the people considering you.

After the interview, prepare a brief report-a memo, really- on what you might do, if requested, to solve a problem the company has that relates to your potential job with the company. This report could be one page, or it could be ten pages. It doesn't have to be definitive. You can "blue-sky" since nobody expects you to know the ins and outs of the company's problems anyway. Write a covering letter with the report so that the company knows you're simply taking a "shot." Let them know that your only purpose in this report is to show them how your mind works. Underplay the tone. Make sure you emphasize that these are things that you "might" do, not things that should be done. Suggest, don't order.

Special Interviewing Considerations

The advice I've offered should serve you well in most situations, but there are a few special situations that warrant mention. These have to do with some specific feature that could work against you if you don't know how to defuse it.

Making Age Work for You

When does being "too old" become a handicap in the job market, and equally, when does being "too young" become a handicap? Good questions, both, but not questions that you can answer easily or quickly. Age discrimination, of course, is illegal. But how are you going to make a case that the only reason you weren't hired for a particular job was your age?

This may sound silly, but there are certain advantages to being one of the oldest candidates to apply for a particular job, and advantages, too, to being the youngest candidate. What it comes down to is how successfully you're able to press the advantage.

Let's start with being on the shady side of fifty. The older you are, the more experienced you are-not just in job skills but in life skills. You're settled. You know what life is all about. Your earning requirements are stable since, chances are; your children have already grown. You respect a job, and you earn that respect (you come from a generation, remember, where the work ethic really meant something). You are steady and reliable. You can be counted on.

To sum up, you're a darn good employee. In some way, your way-at the interview, in your resume-you have to make sure the people who are considering you understand this. Don't evade the age issue, in other words. Capitalize on it.

Recently, I gave a speech before a national group of accountants involved in data processing administration. I mentioned in my talk that the computer field is relatively a new field, and as a result was populated mostly by young people. Even so, computer programmers are hard to find. I pointed out that there's a big market of competent people out there, ready to be trained, who are older than the average. The guest speaker at the lunch-eon that followed my morning session was the Executive Vice-President of Finance with one of the multi-billion dollar industrials. During his prepared speech, he managed to include one comment which I will not forget: "If I got nothing else out of this conference but Mr. Half's suggestion to train older people for computer departments in order to get competency along with stability, the meeting was well worth while."

Appearance is probably more important the older you are, but this doesn't mean you should go out of your way to look younger. Look your age, but look healthy and vibrant. Radiate energy. It won't work all the time. You may often find yourself in an interview where the company appears to want a younger person. Accept it; but remember, too, that there are just as many companies where age won't make a difference.

But don't take anything for granted. Here are few of the things you can expect to be going on in the mind of the inter viewer if you're considerably older than the other candidates, and the best ways to overcome them:
  1. Is this person's health going to be a problem? If you're in good health, let it be known at some time in the interview that you have a fine attendance record. Maybe you have a ninety-two-year-old grandmother who still does her own gardening. Mention her.

  2. Is this person too set in his {her) ways to adapt to our system? A legitimate concern, since there is a tendency among some people as they grow older to become a little less receptive to innovation. On the other hand, innovation that's blessed with an overlay of experience is a terrific combination. So show an interest in new ideas.

  3. Can this person get along with a younger boss? Another legitimate concern, but one that's easily defused. Don't talk about age, either directly or indirectly. Don't say things like: "When I was your age . . ." or, "Back when I was starting out in 1940 . . ." As far as you're concerned, age is not an issue.
Let Being Young Work for You, Too

Okay, you don't have any experience, but nobody expects you to have much experience when you're younger. What you're expected to have when you're younger is energy, enthusiasm, ambition, curiosity, and a willingness to learn.

The most important quality you can convey in an interview when you're just out of college or high school is a strong desire to work hard. Don't be afraid to let people know that you're ambitious, but don't give the impression that you're in all that much of a hurry to succeed. Let the interviewer know that you realize nobody is going to hand you advancement-you're going to have to work for it and earn it. That's fine with you.

Go heavy on your school experience. Did you work on the school paper? Were you treasurer of a fund-raising committee? Were you in honor societies? None of these things may seem to mean much to you in terms of the job you're applying for, but they will help set you apart from the rest of the crowd. If you've had summer jobs, mention them. They show ambition. If you've sold things, mention that, too.

Above all, don't work so hard at appearing mature and knowing that you create the impression you know all there is to do. Ask questions. Seek advice. It is much better, if you're very young and looking for a job, to appear unsure of yourself than to appear smug. You can teach people how to handle a job, but you can't teach somebody not to be smug.

One final word about age -- Somebody once asked George Burns why he thought they'd asked him to play the part of God in the movie Oh, God. "Because," Burns said, "they couldn't find an older actor." Never apologize for how old you are. Take advantage of it.
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