I’ve been doing a lot of speaking recently to groups of job-seeking professionals (one reason I’ve been MIA on the internet for two weeks), and predictably I tend to get questions about dealing with job interview anxiety.
But if I get the chance to explore the issue more deeply with people, I often find that they’re not really interested in reducing their anxiety. Instead, they want to convince the interviewer they aren’t anxious.
I usually discover this when someone asks a question about interview anxiety, and I respond with some ideas from meditation and yoga, like bringing your attention into the body, noticing where you’re restricting your breathing, and so on. They then give me a puzzled look, and say “but don’t you have any practical advice?”
When I ask what they mean by practical advice, they’ll reply “you know, things like how I should spin bad stuff on my resume, how long I should spend answering a question,” and so on. In other words, what they really want to know is how to look like a confident, competent person. Their own feelings aren’t important — only the interviewer’s view of them matters.
Image Obsession Creates Anxiety
I think this attitude is in keeping with the conventional wisdom in our culture. For any situation in life involving “selling yourself” — marketing, interviewing for jobs, dating, or something else — most advice out there is about “making” people have the “right” thoughts and feelings about you.
The trouble is, in my experience, this attitude is actually a big source of anxiety. The more deeply we’re concerned about our image, the more scary and exhausting relating with people becomes.
For example, suppose you went into a job interview having memorized ten questions you’re “supposed” to ask, five “confident body language” tips, seven “interview mistakes” to avoid, and so on. Wouldn’t trying to remember and follow all these rules create stress for you?
But that’s not all — suppose you also went into the interview believing that “how I feel doesn’t matter — only this interviewer’s feelings about me are important.” In other words, your sense of self-worth is riding on the interviewer’s opinion of you. Don’t you think that might cause some freak-out as well?
What Do You Want?
So, if memorizing a lot of interviewing tips and obsessing over your image isn’t the key to overcoming interview anxiety, what is? I think all the techniques I usually talk about regarding breathing, focusing your attention, and so on are wonderful, but here’s an even more basic starting point: try focusing on what you feel and want.
That is, instead of going into the interview worrying about what the interviewer will think, see if you can get curious about questions like: is this job in keeping with my career goals? Does this seem like the kind of working environment I’d enjoy? What would I need to know to feel comfortable taking this job?
If you’re in the job market, one thing I think you’ll immediately notice about this attitude is that it actually allows you to have an informative, and even enjoyable, dialogue with the interviewer. Focusing on what you want out of the job helps you to ask questions you’re actually curious about, rather than parroting canned questions from some interviewing book that don’t really matter to you.
Although I’ve been talking about job interviewing, I think the attitude I’ve discussed is useful for any “selling yourself” situation. I’ve found that focusing on our own wants and feelings, rather than getting caught up in strategies for manipulating others’ experience, can help make these situations easier to endure, and maybe even fun.
Many of us find ourselves interviewing for jobs these days, and I don’t need to tell you that interviewing isn’t high on most people’s list of favorite things to do. This series of posts will be about successful interviewing from an “inner” perspective—addressing the thoughts and emotions you bring to a job interview, and how you can work with them to make the process less stressful and difficult. I’ll offer you six strategies you can use to stay calm, centered and focused during an interview.
1. Remember that the interviewer is a human being. We tend to think of a job interview as a rigidly structured exchange of information—one standard model, for example, is “(1) interviewer runs through your resume; (2) interviewer asks about your skills; (3) you ask memorized questions you don’t really care about; (4) end of interview.” When we perceive and treat an interview as if it’s about going through these motions, it’s no surprise if it feels dull and robotic to us. And if it feels that way to us, it probably feels the same to the interviewer.
One suggestion for breaking this mold is to tap into your natural curiosity about the interviewer. What do you really want to know about them? For example, do you want to know what they enjoy about their job, what they do for fun, how they decided to do what they’re doing, or something else?
If you ask questions that come from a place of real curiosity, you may actually end up having an interesting conversation, and move beyond the rote, boring exchange of information typical of interviews. Although they’re interviewing you for a job, they’re still another human being, and as such they probably like it when others express interest in and genuinely listen to them. If you do this, you’ll almost certainly stand out among the candidates for the job.
One way to access your genuine curiosity in an interview is to try assuming, for the moment, that it’s impossible to lie. Assume, in other words, that if you ask a question you aren’t really interested in, or say something that shades the truth, the other person will know immediately.
This mindset will help you avoid asking questions like “what is the company’s strategy for expanding into Southeast Asian markets?” that aren’t authentically important to you. By the way, I think this is closer to the truth than many people believe—when someone asks a question or adopts an attitude that isn’t genuine for them, most of us are empathic enough to at least vaguely sense it.
Another wonderful thing about treating the interviewer as a human being is that it renders unnecessary many of the “tips and tricks” for interviewing we often hear about. These include techniques like building rapport by mirroring the interviewer’s body language; making strong eye contact to look confident; and keeping your answers under two minutes to avoid looking self-indulgent. These strategies are supposed to make you look interested in the job, confident, personable, and so on, even if you aren’t.
If you access your natural curiosity about the interviewer and the position, and generally treat the interview as an interaction between two human beings, you don’t need to make a special effort to convince the interviewer you’re interested or personable—that aspect of you naturally shines through. You can also avoid all the awkwardness and distraction that come with trying to move your body in certain ways or recite memorized lines.
2. Remember that you are a human being. One reason many of us get nervous and uptight during interviews is that, in our minds, our value as human beings is riding on whether we get the job. Consciously or not, we believe that, if this interviewer rejects us, we’ll be worthless or inadequate. When we think this way, it’s no surprise we tend to get anxious while we’re being interviewed. And as human beings and therefore empathic creatures, interviewers can sense it when we aren’t comfortable with ourselves.
One exercise I recommend to people going into job interviews is to take a few moments, and make a list of five to ten things they love and appreciate about themselves and their lives. The list doesn’t need to be about your job-related skills—you can put down how great you are at hang gliding or pottery, or how much you appreciate your kindness, for instance, if that’s what comes to mind. Review that list a few times, until you feel an inner warmth and a sense that the list is ingrained into your unconscious mind.
The purpose of this is to help you remember during the interview that you are a human being, and thus you’re entitled to as much consideration and respect as everybody else. No matter what happens in the interview, it can’t destroy your dignity or value. Again, if you remember this as you’re interviewing, you won’t need to use rehearsed lines and moves to come across as confident and composed—because you’ll actually have those qualities, there will be no need to pretend.
Some people, when they hear me recommend this exercise, find themselves reacting angrily or cynically. “What airy-fairy, unrealistic nonsense,” they say. “‘Loving myself’ has nothing to do with whether I get a job.” If you find yourself responding this way, consider the possibility that you’re bringing this attitude into your job interviews and other areas of your life, and others can feel that anger and cynicism. On the plus side, if you’re willing to do some work to get more comfortable with yourself, others (including interviewers) will sense and appreciate that as well.
3. Put (perceived) criticism in perspective. Many people dread interviews because they tend to feel personally criticized or attacked by interviewers’ questions.
For example, when an interviewer looks at our resume and asks a question like “why did you leave that job?”, or “what can you bring to this position?”, many of us feel like the interviewer is implying we’re lazy, incompetent, stupid or something equally unflattering. Our bodies tense up, we feel angry or ashamed, and our minds start frantically searching for ways to “spin” our skills and credentials to salvage our image. It’s as if our very survival is at stake in that moment, and we must defend ourselves or die.
One technique we can use to put these moments in perspective is to ask ourselves “what did this really take away from me?” That is, ask yourself what you lost, or how you were hurt, by what the interviewer said to you. Did the interviewer’s words damage some part of your body? Did they make you less of a person?
When you take a serious look at these questions, I suspect you’ll see that the answer is “no” on all counts. The worst a seemingly hostile question or comment can do is create momentary tension in your body—it can’t kill or seriously hurt you. Keeping this in mind can help you stay relaxed and focused.
Another important approach you can use in moments where you feel attacked is to bring your attention to your breathing and the sensations you’re experiencing. Notice the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe, and the pressure of your feet on the ground and your pelvis in the chair. Connecting with your body this way is a great way to remind yourself, on a visceral level, that you’re still alive and intact, and a string of words from another person—no matter how harsh they may seem—can’t do you any real harm.
Thanks for reading. In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about ways we can access our genuine passion and motivation in an interview to make it a more fulfilling experience for both parties.