The Ears Have It: Phone Interview Mojo

Written by Josie Summa on 11/29/12 • Categorized as recruiter's corner

About Author: Josie Summa is President and Principal Search Consultant at Redmond Consulting, Inc., a professional search firm operating within the engineering, planning and consulting markets serving public transportation in North America.

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Outside of visits with clients on a regular basis, the work life of a third-party recruiter tends to be physically isolated.  Our business requires communication, and lots of it.  However, most of the conversations I have on a daily basis take place on a telephone.   On rare occasions, I have opportunities to meet candidates in person.  I love to do this for many reasons, one of which is being able to put a face to a name.  Over the years,  though, I’ve noticed that initial meetings, when conducted in person for the purpose of evaluating candidacy,  tend to be much less than ideal.  I have grown to prefer my initial dialogues with candidates to occur over the phone, because experience has shown me that this is how the best discovery happens.

I am better at phone interviews than in-person interviews.  I always thought this was a personal deficit, but after some dedicated inquiry, I have learned from mental health professionals and others in the psychological sciences that creating figurative or literal boundaries between two people can actually facilitate communication in certain cases.

Counselors have, for years, used special techniques which encourage their clients to “open up.”  One of these techniques is “windshield time.”  It’s common for counselors to suggest running a simple errand or going out for coffee during a session with a client.  I am told that the drive time, when both interlocutors are staring straight ahead and not at each other, encourages clients to be more candid than they would in the confines of the office, sitting face to face.  Psychology professionals tell me that subtracting visual stimulus from a conversation can make it both deeper and more honest.  This seems counter-intuitive, so I did a little research to understand this better.

This behavior I’m referring to – coined “gaze aversion” – describes a situation in which one looks away while speaking or responding to others in conversation.  The premise is that interpreting someone’s body language and facial expression requires a great deal of cognitive processing, so we look away when mulling responses or thoughtful statements in order to allocate more cognition to the topic at hand.  In face-to-face conversation, we also subconsciously inventory cues which signal acceptance or judgment, and our mutual recognition of these cues not only requires processing space in our brains, but it changes our behavior and, certainly, what we say and how we say it.  The result is that, in interrogative dialogue, one’s willingness to be thoughtful and candid is compromised by the quantity of one’s temporal lobe engaged in the physical aspects of the conversation.

Wow!  I now have an explanation for why my in-person interview experiences are so by-the-book, less revealing and less insightful than my phone interviews.  While non-verbal cues can certainly be important when getting to know people, the ones I observe under these circumstances are not necessarily very instructive or reliable.  Add to this the fact that there may be some social norms at play that allow me to be more prickly and invasive when I am a detached voice on the telephone as opposed to an in-person evaluator, and we can recognize some important variables that actually create comfort where we initially think there might be distance.

Of course, interviewing is a skill, and my skill at interviewing over the phone has been honed over years and years of practice.  I have limits too –  and some of you know them.  I cannot and will not take a call from you if I am not in my office or otherwise able to give you 100% of my attention.  My conversations with each of you are that important.  My temporal lobe can’t muster what I need from it at the soccer field, while cooking dinner or taking a hike.  When I meet you for coffee or lunch, it’s going to be 80% social, 20% business and probably not a lot of nitty-gritty.  I’m okay with that.  We can do the heavy lifting on the phone where the setting doesn’t require gazing into each other’s faces and answering autobiographical questions.

Although I will pat myself on the back for having practiced so long and hard that I am an expert interviewer on the phone, I also aspire to build great skill at interviewing in person.  This is something I simply haven’t had occasion to do much of since the late 90′s. I welcome your comments; tell me how you have honed the skills needed to truly understand someone by the end of an interview.  I’m sure many of you have fascinating insights to share!

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