If you’re interviewing someone for a job, for example, or an agency to work on a project, how can you judge them on the basis of a short interview? The fact is, until you’ve spent time with someone, it’s difficult to find out what they are “really like”.
Luckily, communication skills can help. And, of course, they can be used in all social situations.
1. First impressions aren’t always right
Quite often we judge people within the first few minutes of meeting them. But don’t be too influenced by first impressions. What people look like, what they’re wearing, their accents and their haircuts can tell you a lot – but they certainly don’t tell the whole story.
Interview situation: To get below the surface of someone in a short time, it’s essential to approach them with an open mind. Make a list of the character stereotypes you’re influenced by – such as, “people who wear glasses are clever” or “fat people are easy-going and happy” – and then think about how rational these preconceptions really are. If you form a negative first impression just because of the way they look or speak, you might miss the fact that they are experienced and professional and would do a great job in your team.
2. Relax and smile
Most of us are a bit shy when we meet new people. So if someone has a sweaty handshake, sits right on the edge of their chair and seems ill at ease, it probably just means they don’t feel comfortable in the social situation. To put them at their ease, show you’re interested in them; talk calmly and smile. Once they are relaxed, and start to trust you, they will open up and reveal more of their true nature.
Interview situation: Non-threatening body language signals help other people relax and reveal more about themselves, their personal goals and their intentions. Be aware of yourself and the impression you give: relax your face and shoulders, speak calmly, and draw them out gradually, starting with easy questions and small talk. Remember: if they seem uncomfortable, it is partly because of you.
3. Consider body language
Broadly speaking, you can see whether someone is a relaxed or a nervous type from the way they hold their body and from their facial gestures. For example, we exhibit interest and openness by directly facing the person we’re talking to, tilting our faces towards them, maintaining steady eye contact, smiling, and keeping our hands, arms and legs uncrossed. However, don’t read too much into this unless you know a person well enough to be familiar with their normal patterns. Body language is strongly based on culture: what’s normal in one culture or social group may be unacceptable in another. This is not a real science.
Interview situation: In an interview, when you have so little time, anything that can help build up an impression of a person is useful. For example, notice a few details about how they use their bodies, hands, faces and especially their eyes – do they have a confident, firm handshake or a flabby one? Is their body facing you, or turned away? Do they look at you confidently when they speak or avoid your eyes? However, remember that although we’re good at recognizing facial expressions, it’s hard to tell whether these expressions are genuine or not. The best way to learn how to “read” people is to spend time in different social settings – or, as David Funder of the University of California at Riverside says: “A good judge of personality isn’t just someone who is smarter – it’s someone who gets out and spends time with people.”
4. Ask follow-up questions
Asking questions is a sign of interest in another person, though in some cultures it’s more acceptable to ask direct or personal questions than in others. However, generally speaking, if you’re talking to someone and they don’t ask you a single question, then the normal conclusion to draw is that they aren’t really interested in you. To avoid giving this impression, make sure you ask questions – and then listen to the answers!
Interview situation: A good interviewer asks lots of follow-up questions and asks for explanations. So don’t be afraid to probe the applicant and press them for details: your second and third questions, the ones that get below the surface, will elicit the most revealing and honest answers. Avoid those that only need a yes/no answer. For example, you can say, “That sounds interesting. Why did you decide to do that?” or, “How did you approach that? Can you give me some examples?” or, “What happened then?” This gives the job candidate the chance to open up (and if they don’t, that will also tell you something about them).
With these basic communication skills, we can learn a great deal about other people, even if the time we can spend with them is limited. Learning to listen and to ask the right questions builds trust and encourages people to reveal their true personalities and intentions. And that way, we shouldn’t be in for too many shocks at a later date.