Conversational Rapport

H. William Rice considers why some good candidates don't connect with those interviewing them, and how to improve your chances of impressing the search committee.

October 22, 2012

For all that is written about job interviews, very few people address the question of rapport, and with good reason — it is the most nebulous characteristic of any interview. Still, its importance is hard to ignore. The "first impressions" gained in an interview or at an interview dinner often determine decisions among finalists, making those first impressions final impressions for the candidates who do not get the job. The search committee, chair, or dean might sum matters up in this fashion: "Well, she looked good on paper, but in person ... well, I just don’t think she’ll work here."

Sometimes specific statements the candidate made will have brought about this judgment. But often the issue comes down to "bad vibes" or "someone who will not fit into our culture." Given the bleak job market in academe, it seems hardly fair that such life or death decisions come down to such vague assessments. But such is the truth of human interaction: so much of what we think of others is based on impressions that cannot be captured in a word or a phrase.

There is a vast body of literature on body language, looking people in the eye, interview preparation, and dressing for success, but little has been written about what I call "conversational rapport," particularly as it relates to academic culture. But such an issue might be worth our notice. The interviewer is not only listening to what the candidate says, but is also wondering why the candidate said it or what this particular choice or phrasing suggests about the candidate’s future behavior. This is particularly true if the interviewer has interviewed dozens of faculty members, as many senior administrators have.

Some candidates are so eager to prove themselves that they practically jump into your chair with you. Most often these people have resolutely followed all the career column advice on knowing the institution, and they tend to be showy concerning what they know. They have also made plans as to what they will do when they are hired, even outside of those courses they will teach: "I would fit in well with your writing-across-the-curriculum initiative. I took courses in that area. I advocate it in all my classes." They plunge headlong into plans for you and your institution — plans that are sometimes scary.

Most hiring committees want to find a candidate who will fit in, not one who will take over. Not all candidates who make this mistake are overly aggressive; still, they come off that way. Unfortunately, conversation is an area of our lives that is controlled by impulse and habit. If we are habitually chatty and prone to be even slightly presumptuous, the nervousness of the interview situations can make that part of our personality more pronounced, undercutting our ability to make a good impression.

The opposite extreme is the candidate who is silent and withdrawn. These candidates might have extensively studied the institution and its culture. They wait to have their say, but the right moment never arrives. Meanwhile, they answer your questions and do not elaborate. They do the same at dinner, so that the search committee members have to pull information out of them.

Though most hiring committees shy away from people who threaten to approach the department with territorial conquest in mind, they are equally afraid of people who have no plans at all — who merely do what they are told and ask no questions. They assume that these people will teach their classes and go home and pull the shades down. We all know quiet people who are the backbone of academic institutions. But once again, the nervousness of the interview situation will cause a candidate’s habitual shyness to take over and create a negative impression, never allowing the committee to see the real person behind the retiring facade. These two examples are extremes, and most candidates fall between them. Still there are relatively few candidates who can hit that middle mark so perfectly that they can interview well. How is it done?

First, candidates must understand their own habits. Machiavelli writes in The Prince that leaders are habitually either slow or quick to act ("deliberative" or "rash") and that sooner or later every leader will be confronted with a situation that calls for the habit he does not have and thus will fail: the leader who is quick to act will be in a situation that requires deliberation; the deliberating leader will be in a situation that will call for quick action. We might think of interviews in a similar fashion. The quiet candidate must learn to be bold, pushing herself to talk more; the aggressive candidate must learn to tone down his habit of conquest. The first step in this process is self-knowledge.

I am frequently amazed by the number of people I encounter in the academic world who have no idea how much they talk or how aggressive they appear to be even in a conversation at lunch. It is, after all, a profession wherein talking in front of a class is a part of the job. I have been in committee meetings where one person dominated the conversation only to have this very person sum the meeting up for all there in this fashion: "This was a productive discussion."

A good way to gauge your propensity to take over and talk is to time yourself in social interactions or committee meetings. How much of a normal, everyday conversation do you control? How much time do you spend listening? How much of the listening time is actually spent in listening and how much of it is spent in waiting, planning, jumping in to make your next comment? How many times do you think of something to say in a committee meeting and just never getting around to saying it, letting others do the talking for you? Do you just reflect other people’s concerns or do you move the discussion along with information that is important to you? Gauging the amount of time you spend talking or listening is often a rather surprising experience. But the results of such an experiment can often give you a sense of where your impulses are leading you in any given conversation.

The next step is to plan for the interview. Planning for the interview is the same whether you are planning to restrain your chattiness or to force yourself to speak up. As so many career column writers suggest, planning must include knowing the institution — finding out all that you can about its mission, its programs, its history, and the courses you will be teaching. But rather than merely planning for the questions you think you will be asked, plan for the impressions you want to make — go into the interview with an "agenda" of your own.

Though such a suggestion sounds inherently bold, it need not come off that way. The best hires are always going to occur when the candidate finds in the institution something that she can truly believe in and to which she can commit herself. Those sorts of connections should be at the heart of your "agenda."

Speaking with conviction empowers anyone, whether that person be shy or bold or, as most of us are, somewhere between those extremes. Conviction also has an effect upon your audience. And if in your research, you find nothing in the institution to which you can commit yourself, maybe this is not a good job choice for you.

It could well be that not one of us ever truly hits the middle ground between boldness and shyness in a situation as stressful as a job interview, but we can always improve our chances by understanding our habits and going into the interview with a plan.


H. William Rice is chair and professor of English at Kennesaw State University.


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