One easy way to fail a job interview

February 15, 2011

It’s very easy to fail a job interview, and many people manage to do it within the first few minutes.  In fact many people fail at an interview before it has even started, but I’m going to focus on the way we lose out during the conversation.

The really important work in this area has been largely misunderstood so before I go any further I’ll try to clear up this common misconception about first impressions.

Back in the 1960’s psychologist Albert Mehrabian researched and wrote about the importance of, and relationship between, verbal and non-verbal communication.  Ever since then people around the world have been flashing up his famous 7% – 38% – 55% pie chart and explaining it incorrectly.

Here it is again, and this time I’ll try to explain what it is really saying.

The three components of communication

The common misconception is that when we communicate, 55% of the information is visual, 38% is vocal or tone of voice and 7% is verbal or the actual words used. This is wrong.  If it were true it would be saying that 93% of any message received by a person from another is non-verbal.  Mehrabian stated categorically that it was not the case that the non-verbal elements carry the vast majority of the message being communicated.

What he did assert is that any communication between people contains visual, vocal and verbal elements, and that what is important is that all three should be congruent with each other – in other words that they communicate a consistent message.  Why?  Because the non-verbal elements are noticed – they irritate – if they are inconsistent with the words.

When it comes to the extent to which we like another person (and this is the important point when it comes to first impressions at interview), Mehrabian stated that the visual accounts for 55% of the liking, the vocal accounts for 38% of the liking and the verbal accounts for 7%.  To put it plainly, people don’t tend to like a person because of what they say, they like them because of how they say it, how they look when they say it, and the extent to which they sense congruence between the verbal and the non-verbal.

It’s the non-verbal elements of communication that convey a person’s feelings about what they are saying and this is why congruence is critical.  If you say one thing but do not mean it, or are not convinced by it yourself, you will betray an inconsistency that is noticed, subconsciously, by the other person, and that will give them an uneasy feeling that translates into their overall assessment of you, and in particular the extent to which they like or trust you.

Your words must convey your feelings.

Have you ever asked someone how they are and they’ve answered “I’m fine” yet you know from their demeanour that they are not.  That’s what we’re talking about.  The lack of eye contact and tone of voice are the clearest signals that what they are saying is not consistent with how they are feeling.

If, during an interview, particularly close to the beginning, you are similarly inconsistent, the interviewer will pick up on it and it will influence their level of comfort with you.

So what’s the answer?  How do you make sure there is no incongruence between your words and feelings?

The first thing to do is to make sure you are as self-aware as possible.  If you are self-aware you will not find the questions that challenge your feelings come as a surprise and you will be more able to say what you really think and feel than desperately trying to say something you hope will be acceptable to the other person.

Secondly, if you are really well prepared for the interview you will know exactly what you want to say for each of the questions you are asked, because you will have anticipated them.

Third, think about the question before you speak, and tell the truth.  The truth is always congruent for you and while you may think the truth is not always going to get you the job, I’ve never found that the the job is right for a person who has to lie to get it.  Besides, the truth is often appreciated as a merit.  Even if the answer you give is not what the interviewer was expecting, your honesty may be what gets you the job.

If you are currently or thinking about a new job and would like to excel at interviews why not attend my next  half-day workshop on Interview Preparation skills.  It takes place on February 22nd in the Barbican, London.  Full details and registration here.


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