I’m a career coach, which often puts me in the position of preparing my clients for upcoming job interviews. Usually, the concerns that my clients raise are connected to specific questions that they might be asked, test situations and negotiation tactics.
Preparing well for interview questions and contract negotiation are both crucial to ensure the best outcome; however, sometimes it is not what we say, but what we communicate nonverbally, that determines the final outcome of the interview. And because our body language also influences our own self perception, it can have a hand in what we say verbally as well.
Most of us don’t pay much attention to our body language, and that is usually a good thing. Body language is an honest expression of how we are feeling in real time, and it enriches and deepens our communication and our relationships, adding nuance and emotion to every exchange. It comes naturally, and in most cases, thinking about it just makes us self conscious and stilted.
However, there are times when your natural body language may put you at a disadvantage. A job interview is a classic example. You would like to communicate your true personality: your natural enthusiasm, warmth, and confidence. However the way you are feeling at the moment of the interview can take over your body language and give a completely different – and often more negative – impression. If you are feeling anxious, threatened or insecure during an interview (and most of us experience some vestige of those feelings during an interview process), your body language may express those feelings at the expense of demonstrating your “true” personality.
Fortunately, awareness is half the solution. If you know what body language expresses fear and insecurity, and what stances express openness and interest, you can consciously practice and make the change. One caveat: it will only appear natural if you are expressing a trait that really is part of your makeup, even if it’s not your dominant feeling right now.
Interview Body Language 101
If you are feeling insecure, defensive or threatened, you will probably tend to use closed postures: bent neck, inverted shoulders, folded or twisted arms, crossed or twisted legs and feet. You will probably also tend to limit eye contact. These poses (and they usually appear together), give the overall impression that you are hiding or protecting yourself: you look like a turtle peeping cautiously out of its shell. Subconsciously, the interviewer will feel that you are not sharing yourself openly.
Your interviewer wants to get to know you. And you want your interviewer to like and respect you. Giving the impression that you are hiding yourself will not advance either of those goals. So, even though it may feel unnatural, try using the following exercise to express openness and engagement through your body language:
Imagine that you have a string attached to the top of your head and attached at the other end to the ceiling, and that the string is gently pulling you upwards. You will naturally raise your chin, make eye direct contact, open and relax your shoulders. Your elbows will naturally align with your hips, and that will cause your hands to loosen their grip on each other.
Now move down to your hands. The best way to make sure you maintain an open posture is to place them in your lap and touch the ends of your fingers softly to each other. This posture will ensure that you don’t unconsciously clutch your hands or grasp your elbows. And it’s simple enough to stay aware of it during an interview without thinking too much about it.
Having your hands in this posture will naturally make it less comfortable to have your legs crossed at the knee. And that’s a good thing. For women, sometimes the most comfortable “open” position is to lightly cross your ankles. This pose has the added benefit of creating a tendency to lean forward slightly, which communicates interest and engagement. Men are often very comfortable without any leg or ankle crossing at all, and feet firmly placed on the floor a few inches apart.
Maintaining an open posture when you are feeling nervous or threatened is a challenge – your body will very easily revert to a closed posture without your noticing. However if you begin the interview with an open posture (and especially if you have practiced it beforehand), you may find that the posture change itself is lessening your feelings of insecurity and anxiety, and that it will actually become your natural pose during the course of the interview.
Of course, you don’t want to spend your interview preoccupied with your posture, at the expense of your verbal responses. But an awareness of the nonverbal messages you are sending can go a long way towards augmenting the positive impression your words are making, by reinforcing an open and expressive impression with your body language.