Don’t Just Read Body Language — Use It

Sometimes I walk into a coffee shop and can tell that, out of the 15 people in the room, one or two of them are on interviews.  It’s not just the way they’re dressed, but the way they hold themselves.  The same is true when I’m at a restaurant on the weekends.  It seems easy to pick out couples who only recently met.  Everyone’s on their best behavior for dates one through five, right?  And they may not be as comfortable or relaxed.

What do first interviews and first dates have in common?  (Lots, now that I think of it.  Maybe I’ll wax on that another time.)  Most people get nervous.  It’s hard to relax.  Everyone says “just be yourself” but it’s so hard to follow that advice.  You can see who’s on an interview or a date because they sit up straight, they make constant eye contact, they’re dressed well, they don’t interrupt, and the conversation is more like taking turns than a shared dialogue.  I don’t think these traits aren’t necessarily negative, although they’re common for people who are nervous about the outcome of the meeting.  When we’re nervous, we pay strict attention to our mannerisms and often force behavior that wouldn’t come when we’re in our natural element.  That is, we’re not acting like ourselves.

So how do we reconcile the advice to “be yourself” if posture and eye contact are not how we typically act?  In my experience conducting interviews, comfortable and relaxed candidates often share some of the following traits:

  • Smile and laugh more
  • Take up more physical space
  • Make a normal amount eye contact
  • Give correct-length answers (not too short or too rambling)
  • Stray off-topic

When I’m having lunch with a friend, I laugh and smile all the time.  I gesture, change my seating position and posture, and take up more physical space.  I make good eye contact, but I’m also looking around the room a little, seeing what else is going on.  I confess I may ramble a little, but I’m rarely at a loss for words.  And our conversation branches from topic to topic in ways I sometimes cannot recollect.

I mentioned in my last post that recruiters/interviewers want candidates to be themselves.  Interviewing is hard, and relaxing in front of a possible new boss doesn’t come easily for anyone.  But working on these five points is a great way to give the appearance of being yourself, which is a start.  And over time, the act will eventually become reality.

Smile more. Smiling actually makes people happier, even if it’s forced.  And it puts the interviewer at ease.  The same is true with laughing.

Take up more physical space. This can mean anything, but making gestures owning your space is good.  It’s a sign that you know what you’re talking about, and a sign that you’re comfortable.  Uncertain/uncomfortable people don’t make many gestures.  So even if it’s a little forced, it’s still a good idea.

Make natural eye contact. Too much or too little eye contact is just plain weird.  I guess I don’t know what the right amount is, but maybe I’ll start paying attention when I’m talking with my friends.  Or when I’m talking with someone at work.  This is one of those “you know it when you see it” areas.

Neither ramble nor give curt responses. This one is hard to define because some questions are simple yes/no answers, while others necessitate a 5 minute explanation.  But the easiest way to tell is by watching the interviewer to see if they’re still interested.  Even seasoned recruiters give tells that they’re losing interest.  This is especially important when you’ve misunderstood the question.  There’s nothing worse than a nice 5 minute answer that’s followed with “I think you misunderstood the question.  What I meant was . . . ”

Stray off-topic. I don’t recommend bringing random topics into the interview, but it’s okay to stray a bit.  It shows an active mind and a level of comfort.  And when interviewers are comfortable with someone, they pass them along to the next round.  A safe bet for slightly off-topic conversation is always current events in your industry, trade articles, or new ideas for pertinent business topics.  One such instance happened in an interview I conducted a few months back with someone who likes board games.  We were talking about critical thinking skills and he branched nicely into how he’s working on developing his own board game.  Once he learned that I enjoy board games (Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, and anything by Rio Grande Games), we had a great discussion about how to arrange the strategy for new games that’s easy to learn but complex enough to challenge players game after game.  He made it to the next round, even though we spent less interview time “interviewing” than I normally like to.

So there are simple things we can all do that make us appear more comfortable in an interview, on a first date, or any time when we need to sort of force the issue.  It’s okay, because it increases chances for success.  And eventually, we actually start feeling comfortable, and that’s when interviews really start rockin’.


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