July 25, 2014

A Case for the Conversational Interview

Two friendly male mature students chatting while sitting in class roomOne of my aunts is seeking to make a career change (and move to a new state), so she’s been going on multiple interviews. It was a recent interview experience she shared with me that really caught my attention.

Apparently, the interview didn’t feel like an interview because the interviewer had failed to ask her any questions about the role or her qualifications.

And, truthfully, failed is not the correct word here—his lack of job-related questions was intentional.

You see, the interviewer had explained that he “just wanted to have a conversation.” And for 45 minutes, he and my aunt did just that.

According to her, he asked questions or made requests, such as:

So, tell me about yourself.

Who in your life do you admire most?

Describe your journey that has led to where you are now. (And this, my aunt said, was very open for interpretation because he did not further elaborate on what “where you are now” meant.)

What makes you happiest in life? What makes you saddest?

My aunt said that the conversation seemed to flow effortlessly, and to her surprise, she felt relaxed and refreshed once it was over.

The interviewer made a point that he believes interviews should be conversations where the two people can actually learn more about each other. And asking questions about someone’s journey and admirations helps him understand how he or she arrived at their current state and why. According to him, a person’s motivations are extremely important—not only for potential employers to know, but also for the person him/herself.

This led me to think, What if more interviews followed this conversational-style approach? Of course, interviews are conducted to screen potential applicants; therefore, at some point in the process the interviewer would have to assess the candidate’s experience and qualifications for the role.

But imagine, like in my aunt’s case, if an interview process required multiple interviews. An applicant passes an initial phone screen, and then a second interview that is purely focused on assessment. Yet, the third and final interview (most likely with the potential manager) is simply a conversation—an opportunity for the interviewer to make a different kind of assessment, i.e. for cultural and team fit.

It would certainly reduce a lot of pre-interview anxiety. According to a study by Harris Interactive and Everest College, a whopping 92 percent of U.S. adults are anxious about job interviews. At 17 percent, general anxiety was the most common fear.

And research has shown that anxiety and nervousness negatively impacts an interviewee’s performance during the interview process.

This psychcentral.com article, “Anxiety Can Hobble Men in Job Interviews” by Rick Nauert, PhD., references a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences on how anxiety affects men and women during job interviews.

Nauert quotes the study’s conductor, University of Guelph psychology professor, Dr. Deborah Powell. He writes:

Anxiety often shows up as nervous tics, difficulty speaking and trouble coming up with answers, all of which are known to influence hiring outcomes, she said.

Research also suggests that when people are anxious, they appear less warm and enthusiastic, two key determinants are of interview performance, Powell said. “It is important that job candidates’ nerves do not affect the impression they are giving to interviewers.”

Adopting a conversational style interview would help candidates relax, allowing them to open up more, which will in turn help the hiring organization learn more information about the person.

And CareerBuilder says that having “compelling conversations” as interviews benefit an already busy recruiter. It advises job seekers to see the interview as one big conversation:

Think about the situation from the employer’s perspective: You may be the 10th person the manager is seeing that week, and many people feel just as awkward interviewing as they do being interviewed. A comfortable exchange with someone who has similar professional interests may be a welcome relief from the regimented interviews. If you have the ability to make whomever you’re talking to feel like they are simply engaged in an intriguing conversation, you could be setting yourself apart from the pack.

I remember two different scenarios where I had gone on multiple interviews for a position. And the final interviews were with the “higher up” person who would be my manager if selected. In both scenarios, the managers simply talked to me—no intense questions or interrogations. We had refreshing conversations about life and my career goals, and I remember leaving both feeling very refreshed and even more interested in working for those people (which I ended up doing, for both).

I write all this to say that perhaps implementing a conversational style interview into some portion of the interview process isn’t such a bad idea. Simply talking to the person to learn more about him/her—and treating the candidate like a human being and not another resume or interview—may open up many doors of information that can benefit your hiring decisions.

Read more in Interview Tips

Marks’ stories have also been published in a variety of newspaper, magazine and online formats including The Arizona Republic, The Daily Herald, Arizona Foothills Magazine and various classroom magazines of Scholastic Inc. Service is her passion, writing is her platform and uplifting and inspiring the community is her purpose. Marks received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication from Arizona State University.
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