A good interviewer listens keenly to the interviewee.

“People are our most valuable assets.” – If companies truly believe in this statement, then hiring the best talent should be their core commitment. It is in this context that ‘smart interviewing’ plays a critical role for companies to achieve their long-term business objectives.

As a Manager, the most important thing you can do is to hire the right people. This is easier said than done. Interviewing is not only an art but a science. It is a blend of meticulous study of a person’s resume and the art of asking the right questions. Most interviewers think that if they are knowledgeable on a particular subject they can be good interviewers – this is far from the truth.

Let’s take a typical selection interview and the interviewer asks the beautiful first question, ‘Tell me about yourself?” Most often interviewers do their homework of reading the resume for the first time while this question is being answered. The interviewer is really not listening to what is being said, but is engrossed in understanding the resume, thus missing out on some very substantial information about the interviewee.

By asking this beautiful, ‘open’ question, most interviewers are looking for the 3 Cs – Comfort, Communication and Confidence. The attempt is to put the interviewee in a comfort zone, observe the style of communication and the confidence displayed while answering questions. However, a good interviewer listens keenly to how the interviewee is able to put his/her life story in a logical order in three minutes. It tells you a lot about how a person thinks and that’s a quality worth its weight in gold. Most interviewees flit from one to another and do not put things in a logical and systematic order.

What to study

Before the interview, it is the responsibility of the interviewer to study three documents – the job profile, the person specification and the interviewee’s resume.

The job profile tells you about the position – the designation, reporting relationships (who does he report to and who reports to him), the purpose of the job, and the set of responsibilities and the limits of authority. The person specification is translating the job profile into human terms – the skill sets and competencies required to fulfil the responsibilities in the job profile. The resume is to be studied in detail to understand what are the specific gaps, when did he do what he says he did, where does he need to probe to find the fit with job specs, and how did he go about doing a particular task relevant to the needs of the job.

Let’s therefore look at, ‘Where does the art come in and what is the science of smart interviewing’.

It’s an art

The art in interviewing comes from developing the skill of questioning and listening.

Questioning is the ability to ask the right questions in a particular sequence. The technique is like a funnel, the interviewer starts by asking an ‘open question’ and specifies the boundary.

But this elicits general information, and that isn’t enough to make a selection decision so you then follow it up with a series of ‘probing questions’ – (5W + 1H – what, which, when, where, why and how.)

Probing questions give you specific information relevant to the job that the person is being interviewed for and as many probing questions as required can be asked. Once all the information relevant to the job has been obtained, ask ‘closed questions’.

Closed questions usually elicit one-word responses of Yes/ No and are used to verify information already gathered.

Recapping

The next step in the interviewing process is to summarise the information gathered. The interviewer needs to paraphrase the information to the candidate so that if any information is incorrect, it gives the candidate an opportunity to correct it.

At the end of this summary, the interviewer has what is called ‘pure information’. The information gathered through the questioning conforms to the specific job requirements so that the candidate can discharge his responsibilities effectively.

There is one more type of question called the ‘reflective question’ – usually concerned with feelings expressed by the interviewee during the interview. For example, ‘I feel very frustrated, disappointed or unhappy.’ The feeling per say does not tell you anything except that the person is feeling like that. The interviewer needs to reflect the feeling back by asking, ‘You said that you were very frustrated/ disappointed / unhappy, what are the reasons for such feelings’. The interviewee then gives you the specific reasons for such feelings that go through the funnel all over again.

This is what we call the ‘funnelling technique’ of questioning. It distils information at every stage of the questioning process and gives pure information that helps you make a selection decision.

Listening skills

Listening, on the other hand is an active process, which means paying attention to what is being said, listening to understand what people mean, sharing the responsibility for the communication being made and determining the meaning of what we hear. While listening is paramount, it helps interviewers ask themselves questions as they are listening to the interviewee’s answers. Is the candidate recounting the details of what happened? Is the candidate giving you alternatives to what he/she did? Will the candidate act differently in the future based on what he or she learned?

The ability to really listen is an important skill for any interviewer to have. Listening allows you to understand where the other person is coming from, and shows you’re interested in what the interviewee has to say.

Unfortunately, we all experience common listening problems.

1.We let our attention wander.

2.We miss the real point of what is being said.

3. We let our emotions interfere with our judgement.

4. We interrupt and “step on” the statements of the candidates being interviewed.

5. We think ahead, to what we want to say next and miss what’s being said right now.

To improve your listening skills, use the three steps of Active Listening:

1. Non-Verbal Messages: eye contact, an alert expression, head nodding, and a forward lean to the body expresses listening.

2. Cues or Invitations: these are phrases like “uh-huh, ok, yes, go on,” etc. that signal our attention and invite an individual to continue talking.

3. Clarification of what has been said: We can do this in one of several ways – by asking questions, summarising what has been said, or paraphrasing the message in our own words. (To be continued)

(The author is a management consultant and corporate trainer.)

(This article was published on January 19, 2013)
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