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Interviews are known for their formality, rigidness and gut-wrenching anxiety. Even casual interviews have an element of structure. The ironic part of this is that employers use interviews to best assess the right candidate; but candidates often fail to show their real selves because their nerves overtake them. They say what they think interviewers want to hear, write down notes they have no interest in and wage an internal war with crossing their legs. To quell anxiety, and to get honest answers, employers turn to empathy.
Empathy differs from sympathy but people often confuse their meanings. Empathy involves "vicariously" feeling the emotions of another. Sympathy implies "sharing" the feelings of another. So to break this down, when you have empathy for someone, you, at one time, experienced the same emotions in a similar or the same situation. When you feel sympathy, you feel sad when another person is sad, but you cannot necessarily relate your feelings to the same situation. In short, when using empathy as an interview technique, the interviewer taps into the emotions she'd felt as an interviewee.
You remember that feeling. You were finally offered the job interview for a position you got and from which you have since advanced. The questions you now ask candidates are the same questions once asked of you. Use this. Genuine empathy develops from clear memories. An interviewer must remember how she felt on the other side of the desk. The candidate's actions will inadvertently help you. Those actions will trigger memories of the times when you crossed and uncrossed your legs, when you slumped then sprouted up and when you mentally slapped yourself for talking with your hands.
Candidates relax when interviewers avoid second-person questions and statements. For example, when asking a scenario question, phrase it so that the candidate knows you've been there, too. Begin by saying, "We've all done this, so tell me about a time when...." Don't be afraid or ashamed to tell a candidate of a mistake you've made. You don't have to get personal, but make a general statement that you too are fallible. If you're uncomfortable using this statement, say all people are fallible. This won't pinpoint you. But remember, empathy involves using the good and the bad, so you're going to have to step out of your own comfort zone to make this work.
Signals of Empathy
Actions show candidates your level of empathy. Actively listen to the candidate to show your interest and empathetic nature. Ask open-ended questions based on your firsthand experience to signal that you've been there. Avoid interrupting the candidate when she's speaking. Show your interest by repeating back bits of the candidate's statements.
Don't coddle the candidate. Don't overdo the display of empathy because she might become too relaxed. Strength is a huge selling point but it must come from within her. Use empathy to open the door, but don't push her through. Don't tell the candidate she is doing fine. She is not your child -- she is a job-seeker needing to hold her own in a competitive pool of applicants. If you have to reassure her about her interview performance, don't hire her.
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Michelle Dwyer is a U.S. Army veteran writing fiction and nonfiction since 2003. She specializes in business, careers, leadership, military affairs and organizational change and behavior. Dwyer received an MBA from Tarleton State University/Texas A&M Central Texas and an MFA in creative writing from National University in La Jolla, Calif.