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Five ways you’re sabotaging yourself at interview

IbadInterviewf you rarely get invited back for a second interview, it could be time to take a closer look at your technique. Here are five subtle ways you may be undermining yourself without realising it.

Your stories aren’t relevant

Most people focus on preparing answers to interview questions but you will have more success if you convey your strengths with storytelling, according to Emma Sue Prince (, author of The Advantage: The 7 Soft Skills You Need to Stay One Step Ahead (

‘Our brains have evolved to think in stories, and for this reason narrative is one of the most effective ways to communicate, educate, and persuade. Candidates who tell stories – to demonstrate their inventive way of reaching goals, for example – are the most memorable.’

However, tell stories that aren’t relevant to the role and you risk undermining your chances.

‘People can get hung up on telling their favourite story, such as an achievement they’re particularly proud of or a soft skill they wish to convey,’ says Emma Sue. ‘If the interviewer can’t match your story to their requirements, they won’t understand what you have to offer.

‘Tell stories – but make sure they’re relevant to the role.’

You can’t think of an example

What happens if the interviewer invites you to tell them “about a time when…” and your mind goes blank?

‘The most-common area where people get stuck is when they are stumped by a question seeking an example,’ saysJohn Lees (, career coach and author of Job Interviews: Top Answers to Tough Questions(

‘If that happens, say: “I’d like to match my experience as closely as possible to the job, so could you give me a little more insight about what this role requires?”

‘If you can’t think of an example from your working life, think about something from your life outside work. If you still can’t think of an answer, say so rather than improvising badly.

‘Then let it go; the moment has passed – if you keep thinking about what you were asked five minutes ago your attention will be in the wrong place.’

You self-review

In fact, thinking about what you were asked previously is a sure way to sabotage your performance.

John explains: ‘It’s like a Formula 1 driver always thinking about the last bend – your attention needs to be on the next piece of track. Don’t be distracted into analysing your performance during the interview.

‘Before you go in, say this aloud:  “During the interview I will focus only on the question I am answering”.  In the room focus only on what is going well, listen to what you are saying right now, rather than reflecting on what you said previously.’

According to John, candidates who self-check all the time don’t work hard enough on the relationship in the room, and are the ones who often say “can you repeat the question?”

As the interview progresses you might think of a better answer to an earlier question. If you are convinced that a better answer might tick a box which the interviewer is uncertain about, make a quick judgement call.

‘Will your answer score points, or get you into difficulty?’ asks John. ‘Don’t risk going back over old ground if your new answer won’t survive probing.  If you think it’s important, ask permission towards the end:  “earlier you asked me about X.  I’d like to add…”‘

You don’t actively listen

One way to ensure that you’re not constantly self-reviewing is to practise active listening.

‘Too often people focus on what they are going to say but if you actively listen during an interview and are fully present and focused, your answers are more likely to be relevant and appropriate,’ says Emma Sue.

If nerves get the better of you, try mindfulness techniques, such as focusing on your breath, before you go into the interview room. Even if you’re not blessed with the best attention span, active listening skills can be learnt.

‘Get in the habit of mentally reminding yourself to focus every time your attention begins to drift,’ suggests Emma Sue. ‘Practice in everyday encounters when the stakes are lower and you’ll be more able to put this into practice when you are in the actual interview.’

Don’t just listen to words – focus on body language too.

‘Communication experts say that less than 10% of the meaning of any conversation is in the actual words that are being said. Listen to your interviewer’s tone of voice and keep a close eye on his or her facial expressions and body language to get the full picture.’

You introduce negative topics

Sometimes candidates sabotage themselves in not-so-subtle ways.

‘Interviewers are looking for problems, so negative information sticks,’ warns John. ‘If you say something negative about yourself or a past situation, for example indicating that you had a bad relationship with a previous boss, the interviewer is probably still thinking about it when you’ve moved on to another topic.’

It should be possible to anticipate questions where you might be asked to give information that puts you in a negative light – so make sure you’re prepared.

‘If you were made redundant, for example, deal with the issue simply rather than saying anything critical about the decision. If you didn’t finish a course, left a job early or failed to meet an important target in a role, prepare your answers carefully.

‘If you start beating yourself up or blaming other people interviewers quickly conclude that you’re a problem candidate,’ says John.

What if you say something negative, about a previous employer, for example?

‘You have two strategies available,’ says John. ‘First, immediately say something positive as a counter-balance. This shows that you are capable of seeing the big picture, and seeing things from an organisational perspective. Secondly, when you are talking about another job or employer make sure you are as positive as reasonably possible.’


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