September 3, 2014

Behavioral Closure: Knowing When You’re Done

PULLING THE PLUGAt the end of the interview, the HR manager shakes your hand and says, “Thanks for your interest and for coming today!” Does that sound like the beginning, or more like the end, of your relationship with the company?

Compare that close with, “Thanks for the chance to get better acquainted today!” Doesn’t that sound more like a door opening than closing? Such closes can be (un)intentionally ambiguous; they can therefore be misinterpreted by one or both of the parties to the closing—because of wishful thinking, insensitivity or hypersensitivity, with or without ambiguity.

Then there’s the crafty use of such closings, with full awareness of the embedded subtext and intent, e.g., when one of the parties wants the other to get the message without having to own it by making it painfully or over-eagerly explicit.

Have You Mastered the Art of Closes?

So, such considerations prompt two questions:

1. How adept are you at interpreting closings?
2. How adept are you at presenting them?

Answering these requires having a grasp of the behavioral dynamics of closes and of their forms and roles in behavioral chains of stimulus followed by response followed by another stimulus, etc.

Although in many instances a close is intended and perceived as achieving closure, there are equally many in which only one or neither of the parties interprets the close as what I will call a “closure close”, i.e., a close that closes the file or the deal—instead using or perceiving the close as a “trigger close”, i.e., a close having the objective or consequence of triggering a follow-up response (which, in turn, may function as a closure close, a trigger close or a simple trigger, with no resemblance to any kind of close).

One reason it is important to know what is going on in a closing situation is that misinterpretation can easily beget colliding expectations, confusion or resentment. The HR manager offered what he thought was a closure close; but it was misinterpreted by the applicant as a trigger close requiring or allowing a follow-up response, e.g., in the form of a reciprocated thank you as a letter, purchase of a rubber plant for the new office to be assigned, frequent phone calls enquiring about the status of his application, etc.

Rewards, Cues and Reflexes

One useful framework of close categories and their associated dynamics that can be utilized partitions closes into at least three types:

  • Rewards
  • Cues
  • Hard-wired reflexes

Knowing which type one is dealing with and dealing out can go a long way toward preventing close-based communication mishaps. In frequently unwise applications, manipulation of closes and exploitation of any close ambiguity can serve to deliberately create misunderstanding, e.g., in order to buy time by preventing immediate resentment or disappointment that would ensue with an explicit and unwelcome closure close.

The differences among the three types are easy to grasp and illustrate. A simple “thank you” will suffice as an example for all three closes:

Reward: The HR manager sincerely and simply offers his thank-you as a reward for the applicant’s efforts. It serves as a reward in two possible ways; first, like any thank-you, it can function as a positive reinforcer similar to but not to be confused with a kind of “cue” (discussed below) that through design or simple consequence increases the likelihood of future repetitions of exactly the same kind of behavior, e.g., of coming into the office when invited, or of more general compliance, such as complying with a request for more documents.

The second, less common and theoretically complex form of a reward is one that neither through intent nor design impacts future behavior in any way similar to the rewarded behavior, i.e., does not increase the strength, frequency or duration of the same or similar response that was rewarded. In this latter instance, the reward is a “closure reward”, like a bounty paid on a Wild West bandit that was so large as to preclude any further interest on his part in or need for bounty hunting. (Nonetheless, the reward can serve to increase the strength, duration and frequency of bounty hunter behavior in others by motivating them.)

The risk of misinterpretation and trouble arises when one party offers a thank-you as a closure reward while the other interprets it as a “trigger reward”—an “invitation” to repeat the behavior or behavior very similar to it. Hence, if the HR manager offers a closure-reward thank-you that is misperceived as encouragement to make oneself willing and able to come in again or to further develop the professional relationship, the applicant may become resentful when the seemingly implied invitation never evolves into a real one.

So, to avoid trouble, it is best to frame reward closes unambiguously, to prevent a closure reward from being perceived as a trigger reward, or to prevent the reverse situation, viz., the instance in which the HR manager meant to leave a door open or actually open one, by means of a trigger reward, rather than slam it shut, but was misunderstood, because he said, “Thanks for your interest.”—without realizing the possible negative connotation and seeming finality of that.

Cue: Among the kinds of trigger closes is the cue, e.g., the “thank you” that (un)intentionally triggers follow-up behavior without necessarily being a reward. Rewards can double as cues to the extent that the follow-up behavior they elicit is the behavior that was specifically rewarded. However, not all cues are rewards. For example, “Please come in” is a cue that is not a reward, because it is designed to elicit getting up and entering your office, not to reward you for doing so.

On the other hand, “This has been a very helpful discussion” can double as cue and reward. In acknowledging that the discussion was positive, it closes and rewards it—i.e., reinforces whatever behaviors were perceived as earning that compliment. At the same time, it is a cue, as a signal to the candidate, to initiate leaving behavior—which as a unit of behavior will presumably be rewarded in some other way, e.g., a validating smile, handshake or wave redeemable for good will and perhaps future favorable treatment.

What makes the cue-reward distinction important are situations in which the cue is mistaken for a reward, or vice versa. An example of the former is the illustration just cited: the interviewer, having concluded that the candidate is unacceptable, says, “This has been a very helpful discussion”. The candidate, mistaking the closure close intent of that as trigger close—i.e., an invitation to follow-up, rather than head out, unwisely scales down his job-hunting efforts, in anticipation of more from that company.

In this instance, this is more the candidate’s problem than the interviewer’s, since the latter should be cut some slack for trying to be diplomatic. In the reverse scenario, an intended trigger-close reward is misconstrued as a closure close, causing the candidate to intensify his efforts with another company that eventually gets to hire him, despite the genuine interest in him displayed by the interviewer.

Hard-wired reflex: In some instances a close response is neither a reward nor a cue, being instead an instinctive hard-wired reflex. Take intense gratitude as an example: A fireman saves a grandmother’s kitten trapped in a burning garage. The grandmother, overwhelmed with relief and gratitude and shedding tears of joy, gushes, “Thank you!! Thank you!!” and gives him a hug. Theoretically, that could be a cue or a reward, but—and this is the main point—it doesn’t have to be either; it might simply be a reflex response that expresses something without any intent to elicit anything from anyone, much as shedding tears while peeling onions is.

The relevance for business closes should be obvious: If the response is in fact only a terminal reflex and neither a cue nor a reward, but is misperceived as one or the other, the communication can go off track.

For example, if the thanked and hugged fireman imagines that the reflex thanks-and-hug was a trigger close, warranting or requiring some related follow-up behavior, rather than a closure-close reflex with no follow-up implications, he might feel obligated or encouraged to follow up with a talk about fire prevention, the proper storage and use of a fire extinguisher or even take the grandma’s response as an acknowledgement of debt and try to sell her a firehouse calendar in a follow-up phone call.

The same applies in recruiting: A candidate mentions being in the Guinness Book of Records for having hauled in the largest brown bass ever caught. The interviewer, himself a sport fisherman, blurts out, “Amazing!”, only as a reflex, hard-wired response (mediated and facilitated by acquired language)—with no implications whatsoever about follow-up behavior on either the candidate’s or his part. Thinking wishfully, the candidate reads more into the response than is warranted, and follows up with scaled-down job-hunting efforts, much as the previously described applicant did, upon hearing “This has been a very helpful discussion.”

The foregoing discussion of reflexes touched on the fact that a “close” can not only serve to close down the communication and broader behavioral “show”, but also to do so in three ways: by design or consequence terminating the speaker’s behavioral engagement, the listener’s engagement or the engagement of both. In applying your own closes, you must take care to select one that perfectly matches both your intentions and that has the desired result, even when your goal is to mislead, deflect or postpone awareness of your true intention.

Having covered the essentials of behavioral closure, I will close here and offer my thanks for your attention…

…as my hard-wired reflex response (to your having read this far) that I hope you misperceive as a cue and reward.

Read more in Interview Tips

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).