After 20 years at his company, Dave was asked to take early retirement.
He was shocked and disappointed by the suggestion. He also had no intention of retiring. The idea of playing golf, doing lunches, and gardening sounded terrible to him. He liked working and thought his company liked him. They did, they just didn’t want to pay his salary anymore.
So, Dave updated his resume and began the difficult process of interviewing. He hated everything about it: having to sell himself, explaining why he was asked to retire, justifying his salary requirements, and talking about his experience. But the worst part was meeting new people.
It wasn’t until Dave started interviewing that he realized his strong dislike for engaging in small talk. His heart raced, his words were tangled, and his palms sweat as he struggled with even knowing what to say next. He just knew that the other person was thinking, “You are such a loser, I can’t believe you lost your job.” He was so nervous that he missed social cues which isolated him even further from the interviewer.
Social anxiety can appear at any time in a person’s life.
Dave’s lack of interpersonal engagement in his previous job meant that he wasn’t prepared for conversing. His desire to do things right exasperated his fear of being seen negatively. This increased his feelings of inadequacy making the interview process even more difficult.
Getting back to the basics of conversation is not difficult and a much-needed skill for job interviews and small talk. In these environments, technology is still shunned and for good reason. When a job requires some ability to converse with others, the interview process becomes a litmus test for success.
But what makes good dialogue? Here are eleven suggestions.
- Eye contact. Staring someone in the eyes for a long period of time without glancing away on occasion is creepy. Conversely, refusing to make any eye contact at all leaves the other person feeling uncomfortable. There is a balance where the eye contact is consistent yet there are periods of time when a person looks the other way especially when thinking. This is best practiced in home environments where the consequences of doing it poorly are often overlooked.
- Body language. This is where the saying, “fake it till you make it” is useful, especially during an interview. Even if you feel insecure, standing tall or sitting upright gives the impression of confidence. Be careful not to look aggressive by sitting on the edge of your seat or leaning forward too much. This can cause the other person to feel uncomfortable and sends the wrong message during an interview. Practice good posture in the mirror beforehand so more focus can be on the words instead of the body language.
- Safe distance. Different cultures have different standards for what is an acceptable safe distance when speaking. For Americans, this distance is generally at arms-length. Any closer and it is perceived as too intimate or aggressive. Further apart from arms-length indicates uncomfortableness or insecurity. Of course, the noise level of a room should be taken into consideration, so a closer distance for noisy environments is acceptable.
- Opening question. Starting a conversation from nothing can be frustrating. Having a few standard questions is the best way to begin, even in an interview environment. “How long have you been working here?” “Where are you from?” “What brought you here?” The other route to go is a simple inviting statement, “Tell me about yourself,” which should only be used during small talk, not an interview. Most people love to talk about themselves, so this is not an awkward way to open an exchange.
- Focused listening. Learning how to listen to another person without worrying or thinking about what to say next is an art form. There is so much that can be missed in a conversation if a person is focused on their next remark instead of the other person. This is where social anxiety hurts a person during the interview. To compensate, try repeating a few words that were stated in the form of a question, “You have been at this job for five years?” It is easier to do this than to come up with new topics.
- Engaging questions. As the banter progresses, a sign of interest can be demonstrated by asking a question about something that is mentioned. Prepare questions ahead of time about the company, environment, requirements, and corporate culture. Or try inquiring more about a topic that was brought up by the other person to show healthy curiosity. Asking questions signals that you are interested in the job.
- Talk less, smile more. This phrase is borrowed from the Broadway play Hamilton. The advice is perfect for a first-time engagement where it is unclear what the motives of the other person might be. However, too little talk is as uncomfortable as too much. In a good discussion, there is an equilibrium between speaking and listening. The sign of a good interview is the same. Remember to smile and look in the other person’s eyes, this signals contentment.
- Equal sharing. For a dialogue to be good there should also be an equitable balance when it comes to sharing information. This is true even during the interview process. No one should be giving out more information than another. If the balance is off, this might indicate that the interviewer is dissatisfied with the interview. Or that you might be talking too much.
- Breath naturally. During an interview, it is common to hold your breath. However, this can be easily detected by the interviewer. This sends a message of uncomfortableness or fear. Practice deep breathing exercises and do this prior to the interview. During the interview, say in your head, “Breathe.” The increase of oxygen has a naturally calming effect.
- Gentle touch. A firm handshake, gentle touch on the upper arm, or easy fist bump is an indication of comfortableness during a conversation. For an interview, keep physical contact to a handshake only. A person who shies away from any touch sends a signal of past trauma which is usually the last thing a person wants to communicate with a stranger.
- Strong closing. Ending a conversation well is as important as starting it. It is often the last impression a person has that lingers. “It was nice speaking with you.” “I hope you have a wonderful day.” “Maybe we can meet again soon.” These words done in combination with eye contact and a smile go a long way toward leaving behind a positive impression.
Dave practiced these on friends before the job interview to gain the needed confidence. He also did some dry-run interviews by applying for jobs he wasn’t interested in doing. This gave him practice before the interviews that did matter.
After a couple of months, Dave got a job and is happily employed at his new company.