Keeping the Interviewer's Attention

Dr. Purushothaman
October 2, 2013

I was talking the other day to a physician who's been in practice for 30 years. He's in internal medicine, and so he "routinely" tells people they're going to die, or that their condition is chronic and can only be managed; that they'll have to live with pain, dysfunction, or limitations for the rest of their life.

Over 40 years, consider the number of patients he's had to tell this to. Something new, shocking and traumatic to the patient … something he's said hundreds of times.

The conversation came up because he was asking me how I could work on the telephone, as coaches usually do. He said, "I need to have them in front of me, to see they eyes, to see how they're responding."

His ability to empathize and also stay focused is what makes him the excellent and caring physician he is. (Coaches learn to do this via telephone through experience.)

However, not all communicators master this ability. Communication takes discipline. It takes empathy, so you can understand the position the other person is in. It takes self-discipline, because you have to attend to a lot of things that are going on.


How does this apply to your interview for a job? You need to understand the position the interview is in. You need to focus on them, not you.

The person has likely been doing the job for some time. It's repetitious. Yes, the people are different (as in the case of the physician), but the same questions, the same answers, the same mindset, the same emotions. The interviewer is just as much in his own world as you are in yours. His job may have become routine. He may even be approaching burn out.


Psychology tells us we tune out what's familiar. We quit paying attention to it. For instance, people who live near the elevated train tracks in Chicago suburbs no longer hear the trains coming every hour.

No matter how professional the person is, tune-out can still happen. Not all people have the level of self-discipline as the physician we talked about.

The interviewer may or may not be able to achieve an active listening state. You need to take responsibility for making this happen.


Every interview starts out with intensity. Everyone's paying attention, psyched up, ready to go. Then what happens as you start to answer the first question? Intensity can't be maintained; it's physics.

In as short as 10 seconds, there's a change, like letting the air out of the bag. After 60 seconds, we lose focus, and attention may go down as much as 50%. The interviewer's mind will start to wander … unless you do something about it.

How do you know you've lost the interviewer? Nonverbal cues: eyes glaze over, drumming with a pencil on the table, looking around the room, failing to even produce the obligatory "uh huhs" and "I sees".
How do you get the interview back? You have to do a dance.

You have to interject something they aren't expecting, something new that will recapture their attention.
One way to do this is to ask questions. For instance:

·Was this what you were after?
·Can you hear me? That Xerox is kind of distracting.
·Could you repeat that last point?
·Is this what you had in mind?
·Would you rather hear about XXX, or YYY?

Any personal question will work as well, because it will pull them out of their "routine" stance. They have a plan and are moving ahead on it. If you bring up something out of the ordinary, you will get their full attention.

If you've ever dropped your briefcase during an interview and had the contents fall to the floor, you know about the element of surprise.

However, you need to find a way to do this that doesn't make you look bad, and doesn't totally change the focus. You need to work something unusual into the regular train of thought.

When you enter the interview room, be alert to your surroundings so you can find some cues. You'll see credentials on the walls, photographs, knick knacks and other personal items about the interviewer and the company.

Look for things you can later work into the conversation. This shows a high level of EQ. In fact it takes a high level of EQ, and interviewers these days are just as concerned about what they call "soft skills," as with your credentials, academic training, and experience.


Let's say you're interviewing for a position as HR professional. When you enter the interviewer's office, you notice her credentials on the wall: College degree from Connecticut, specialty credential from the UK, master's degree from Louisiana, photo of her in front of the Great Wall of China.

As you get into the interview, and start talking about your skills at multicultural management, you can mention, "As I'm sure you know, having studied in various places, someone from an Eastern culture such as China expects … while someone from Louisiana expects … while someone from the UK will do …"

This will bring the interviewer to full alert. Anything personal gets our attention. We like to be noticed as an individual; that you can always count on.

You could also ask the interviewer a question. "I've found that … but, I was wondering, when you were in China did you find that the Chinese …?" Point to the pertinent photo as you speak; you don't want to appear inscrutable.

Yes, you could ask her about the photo of her and the governor of your state, but it's more subtle and shows higher EQ if you find a way to work it appropriately into the conversation. It's smoother; less contrived.


If you don't get, and sustain, the interviewer's attention, it won't matter what you say. You won't be heard. You won't be remembered. The point is to stand out, but to stand out in a positive way.

It's easy to get so focused on yourself, and the stress you're under, you forget to look at it from the most important person's point of view - the interviewer.

Keep your EQ about you. Be aware of the state of the interviewer at every step, and make sure you bring them along with you. You want to be paying attention to HOW you're doing, not WHAT you're doing.

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