Thursday, June 9, 2011
Eye Contact in the Interview
Where do you look during an interview? Should you always look the interviewer straight in the eye and stare him down? Should you look away? This is one of the real traumas many interviewees go through during an interview. Almost all writers and advisors on the subject say this it’s very important to maintain eye contact. When you hear this, you know that whoever is saying it hasn’t ever been an interviewer. Those who insist on the importance of constant eye contact probably say this because it sounds right, or because some consultant said it. Unlike all the other writers on this subject (who came in the game long after I wrote Sweaty Palms: The Neglected Art of Being Interviewed, the first book ever written about the job interview for the interviewee), I didn’t need research or interviews to know what is correct because I am an interviewer and I know how an interviewer feels when an interviewee stares him or her down, and I tell it like it is, not like people with no actual experience think it might be, or should be, or sounds right.
If they are honest, most selection interviewers will admit that it is enormously disconcerting to have an interviewee sit and stare at the interviewer's eyes constantly. One thing you don’t want to do in a selection interview is to make your interviewer uncomfortable. It’s not normal to constantly stare anyone in the eye.
Dr. Gerhard Nielson of Copenhagen conducted a study of how and where interviewees normally looked, and you should be aware of the results. He filmed interviews on a fast-running camera. In replaying the films in slow motion, his results showed that there is actually very little eye contact maintained during an interview. The most an interviewee looked at the interviewer was 73 percent of the time, which means that there was no eye contact 27 percent of the time. One man looked away for 92 percent of the time. Nielson found that half of the interviewees looked away for 50 percent of the time.
Nielson discovered other interesting things. When people are speaking, they tend to look away; when they are listening they tend to maintain eye contact. It’s normal for you not to look at the person to whom you are speaking. But I have found that interviewees worry about this and feel they should always look their interviewer in the eye. Yet, as Dr. Nielson’s study found, this is abnormal. Being abnormal, it would strike the interviewer wrong and could very easily make him uncomfortable.
Nielson also discovered that interviewees tend to look away from the interviewer when they start to speak. There is a subtle timing in speaking, listening, looking, and looking away. Interviewees tend to look away just before or just after the beginning of one-quarter of their statements. Fifty percent of the interviewees look at the interviewer as they finish speaking.
Speaking from experience, I can tell you that staring down your interviewer is not going to win you points.
One reader of Sweaty Palms wrote to tell me:
As a shy person it makes me self-conscious and nervous to look the interviewer in the eyes. A trick I use that really works is to look at his nose. It is impossible to detect (except at very close range) and helps me to relax.
If it makes you feel abnormal, like self-conscious or uncomfortable, you can assume that it will make your interviewer uncomfortable, too. Some eye contact is important. I would not like to interview someone who never looked me in the eye. But constant eye contact is not the solution.
The best solution is to not worry about looking the interviewer in the eye. If you force it, it will come across unnaturally and leave a bad impression. The best advice is simply to act naturally. Talk with the interviewer as though you were having a cup of coffee with a friend, which means look the person in the eye occasionally, and look away when you feel like it, which is generally when you are speaking. Try to treat the interview as a conversation and act as you would in such a situation. The best rule is to act naturally and not be overly concerned about eye contact.