Hiring top talent can be tricky, with the interview process being the toughest of all. When faced with a plethora of great candidates it can make it hard to pick the best fit for your organisation.
But there is one key skill you can develop that will help you truly understand what a candidate has to offer so you can select the best one.
It all comes down to your active listening skills - talking less and listening more.
What is active listening?
Before we get to our 9 tips, let’s look at what actively listening actually means. Correctly done, active listening ensures the person talking feels as if their message has been heard and understood.
The active part means you are displaying characteristics (both verbal and non-verbal) that show the interviewee you aren’t just passively taking in what they are saying. Rather, you are absorbing and seeking to understand more.
The different types of listening during an interview:
1. Not listening
"I look like I'm listening to you but really my mind is on tomorrow morning’s meeting with my boss.”
“Yes, I hear what you are saying but I’m not really engaging with you. I’m just waiting for my turn to talk.”
“My body language and words tell you I’m right there with you, fully focused on what you are trying to tell me.”
Key benefits of active listening
When it comes to interviews, active listening brings many valuable rewards. The biggest is that it encourages the interviewee to speak more openly. This helps you learn about their background, personality, core beliefs and values to judge if they’re the right addition to the team.
Primarily, employing active learning puts people at ease. This is essential to understanding who they really are. If a potential hire is nervous, they may stumble over their words and fail to clearly communicate what they can bring to your company. Active listening helps to calm them so they can bring their A-game.
Another key benefit is it helps ensure you hear and understand correctly when using clarifying techniques. This is essential during the post-interview stage when using your notes to compare each candidate.
Ready to learn more about how to be an active listener?
Here are the steps you need to follow to develop your active listening skill set and make the most out of your interviews:
1. Thoroughly vet your candidate
Before any interviews, study and review each applicant’s resume. Do this to save wasting valuable time asking questions already answered in their CV. Doing this shows the interviewee they matter, particularly as you’ve done more than just give their CV a cursory glance.
1. Put aside a block of time to do CV-studies
2. Consider creating a ‘candidate card’ – a small card listing their name and key points from their resume that you can quickly refer to during the interview (but ensure you have their resume handy too!). It can be online or a hard copy; whatever works best.
2. Prepare your list of interview questions
Any good journalist does research before their interview to come up with a set of questions that covers all bases. Interviews are no different.
It is imperative you have a list of questions to ask every interviewee. Open-ended questions are perfect to draw out responses that accurately reflect their thought process and personality. You should include a good mix of situational, behavioural and culture add questions. For example:
Situational - If we hired you, what is the first thing you would do?
Behavioural – Can you give us an example of how you handled a difficult situation with a supervisor?
Culture add - What gave you the greatest feeling of achievement in your last job and why?
It’s also a good idea to include some personal questions directly related to each interviewee based on their resume (this is where the candidate card can be very useful).
1. Print out your list of standard questions
2. Study them to avoid having to constantly reference them during interviews (but do keep them handy in case you need them)
3. Be open to going ‘off-script’ as you don’t want to miss an opportunity to ask follow-up questions in response to something interesting the interviewee says. This is also a great way to show you are actively listening to - and are interested in - what they have to say.
3. Ensure the interview room is conducive to active listening
Active listening is all about giving the interviewee your undivided attention. It’s very easy to get distracted by a text message or email notification so switch your phone to silent and shut down your email and messaging systems on your computer. If you get a bit ‘antsy’ about this, you can always check and respond to urgent queries between interviews.
Putting these measures in place demonstrates that interviewee is the most important thing in the room to you.
1. Go phone-free (or switch to silent)
2. Turn off computer messaging systems and notifications
3. Choose a space with good sound proofing; one that is least likely to suffer from staff interruptions
4. Ensure staff know not to interrupt you
4. Engage with your eyes AND body to show you’re listening
What you say non-verbally holds just as much weight as the words you utter. A slight frown, the set of your mouth or a slump in your shoulders can say you’re bored, frustrated or irritated.
Your non-verbal signals are also a way to feed back to the listener that you understand what they are trying to convey. Back up what you are saying with proper eye contact and body language.
1. Maintain natural eye contact. Staring at them fixedly can be off-putting or exacerbate their nerves. Connect with your eyes but add a smile too.
2. Avoid negative body language:
Rolling your eyes
Excessive fidgeting (tapping a pen or your foot, drumming your fingers etc.)
3. Use positive body language. This helps the interviewee feel at ease and encourages speaking freely.
Pointing your body in their direction
5. Know when to stop talking
You’re excited about the job you have on offer and all the possibilities fresh talent can bring to your company. As such, it can be very easy to over-talk, rather than actively listen.
Knowing when to talk and when to listen is a crucial component of active listening. After all, the more you talk, the less you learn. The whole point of an interview is discovery, so it makes sense you will achieve this if you talk less.
Developing the skill of effectively listening takes just as much practice as that of becoming a great speaker. Striking the balance between giving the interviewee enough prompts to talk freely, and coming across as abrupt, is difficult. But with time, you can improve this skill and put it to good use during the interview process.
1. Employ the 80/20 rule. Let the interviewee speak 80% of the time, you the remaining 20%
2. Use open-ended questions. These are the perfect way to hit that 80/20 mark. For example, “Do you consider yourself a leader?” elicits a short reply. But “Tell me about a time when you had to lead your team in a different direction” should get the interviewee talking in much more detail, allowing you to remain quiet and actively listen.
3. Practise, practise, practise. Find opportunities - both inside and outside - the interview process to enhance your listening abilities.
6. Activate your listening time
When an interviewee is talking, you must listen and absorb. But it’s all too easy to get distracted by what you want to say next. This sort of distraction means you may miss golden opportunities to ask follow-up questions about interesting things candidates say.
You may even miss crucial information that results in a misunderstanding about what an interviewee is trying to convey. Both of these outcomes aren’t optimal during this pivotal stage of hiring.
It takes an ordinate amount of concentration and discipline to actively listen to someone. To illustrate this, the next time you’re in a meeting listening to someone speak, pay attention to how much effort it takes to focus on what they are saying.
1. Clear your mind and focus when the interviewee is talking. Don’t plan what you want to say next or spend time working out your next question.
2. Consciously adjust your mindset. If you find your mind drifting, a deep breath is a good way to re-focus and increase your level of concentration.
3. Only respond where appropriate. Avoid letting interviewees know how you would handle a similar situation, unless asked. Be honest and open in your responses, always staying focused on the subject. Sometimes it’s easy to stray from the topic at hand, so keep questions and comments relevant.
7. Don’t interrupt or ‘sentence-steal’
Don’t be tempted to interrupt the interviewee when they are responding to a question, or engage in ‘sentence stealing’ (where you finish the interviewee’s sentence for them). You might do this for a number of reasons - perhaps you want jump in as you don’t want to risk losing your train of thought while waiting for the other person to finish. Or you may be conscious of staying on time, particularly as you will likely have many more interviews to get through.
Interrupting or ‘sentence-stealing’ are no-no’s because they convey a number of negative messages to a potential hire, such as:
I'm more important than you are
I don't really care what you think
What I have to say is more interesting or relevant
I don't have time for your opinion
No matter the reason for interrupting – unless there’s a fire alarm going off! - let the interviewee finish their sentence. It’s the best way to show them respect and acknowledge their thoughts are important to you.
1. Keep a notepad handy to jot down any follow-up questions that come to mind so you can let them finish their answer without cutting them off
2. Make sure you leave a 3 second pause after they finish speaking. Some people talk slower than others, so this pause allows them to take a breath between sentences
3. If you feel like you’re running over time, let them know in-between questions. Be honest with them about needing to wrap up soon.
8. Ensure you fully understand the interviewee’s answer
It’s very easy to make snap judgments about a person based on what they are saying. Our personal belief system will often cloud our judgement and misinterpret the meaning behind what is being said.
This is why clarifying questions are an important active listening technique. If the interviewee says something that seems odd or unexpected, ask them to elaborate on their answer to ensure you are clear on what they are saying.
1. Ask follow-up questions to clarify the meaning behind what they are saying. Use a sentence starter such as “Can we go back to what you said about XXX for minute. Can you tell me again what you meant?”
2. Paraphrase their responses. By saying “So I think this is what you’re saying …. Am I correct?” gives interviewees ample opportunity to restate and ensure their answers are presented as intended.
3. Don’t be afraid to keeping asking questions until you have a clear answer. Try to avoid being interrogative, perhaps just mentioning you want to be sure you fully understand them.
9. Summarise and reflect back
Another important way to show the listener you have been actively listening is to summarise their points and repeat them back. It gives them the chance to correct you if you got anything wrong, or perhaps add an additional nugget of information they may have forgotten.
1. Sum up what interviewees say after an important question. Provide a quick summary of your main takeaways based on their responses, making sure not to do this for every question. Alternatively, you might choose to …
2. Sum up the main points at the end of the interview. Ensure you ask the interviewee if you got it right, or if there is anything else they wish to add.
Those are our 9 active listening tips to get you talking less and listening more during your interviews to ensure they give you more of what you need – accurate and meaningful interviewee information.
If you’d like some further assistance in developing your active listening skills, or support in hiring the right person for a position, contact Sirius People today.