Reading the Candidate’s Body Language Cues: Q&A with Patti Wood

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A basic understanding of nonverbal communication will change how you interview and assess your job candidates, says expert Patti Wood.

Patti Wood, nonverbal communication and human behavior expert.

Photo: Patti Wood

Patti Wood is a speaker, author, and internationally-recognized expert in nonverbal communication and human behavior. Speaking over the phone, we discussed the role nonverbal communication plays in job interviews and how interviewers can use body language to build rapport, prompt self-disclosure, and gather valuable information about potential hires.

“Listen intently to the very first sounds you hear from the interviewee…”

To get really basic, what is nonverbal communication?

It’s any type of communication that’s not words or language. It’s facial expressions, gestures, stance, posture, body orientation, voice tempo, breathing rate, clothing, scent, lighting, environment – all the cues that affect interaction.

People often think this includes sign language, but it doesn’t because sign language has a direct verbal translation. So nonverbal communication is everything but word communication.

What are some of the nonverbal cues an interviewer should tune into when first speaking with a job candidate?

One of the things I recommend is to listen intently to the very first sounds you hear from the interviewee – their breathing, and the first few words they speak. That sends information to your limbic system to help you get indications for what their mood is, energy level, pacing, and what’s going on with them. And all of those things also help you establish rapport.

The metaphor I give to people to describe this is the handshake. What if you missed the handshake when you first met? How would you feel? Most people recognize very concretely that wouldn’t feel good.

Very often when you’re doing the interview as a call or through video, you’re missing that. Sound quality, reception, and technologies like Bluetooth can make that difficult. I recommend that if you’re interviewing somebody over the phone, don’t do it while sitting in your car or walking. Try to make sure that the very beginning of the conversation starts and continues without being dropped. Calls that drop intermittently increase your stress and the interviewee’s stress, and they stop you from establishing rapport.

Sometimes you also miss that initial rapport-building when interviewing in person, maybe because you’re going from one meeting to the next and you’re not taking a deep breath, becoming present, starting slow, and really connecting. Doing that can have a really big impact on the quality of the interaction and the quality of the information that you’re going to get.

It’s common to do interviews over the phone or through video conferencing. Are there any differences in reading someone through video, compared to in-person?

In face to face interactions, you can exchange up to 10,000 nonverbal cues. You don’t have that rich exchange, even through video. In addition, the lack of close proximity and touch change the rapport dynamics. For example, a handshake is equal to three hours of face to face interactions. These issues can lead to “acting” interviews in which you and the interviewee don’t fully relax. The very presence of the camera and the lack of cues may neither of you is able to drop your “stranger-danger” guards and allow your limbic brain to say, “okay, now I feel safe, now we can move forward.”

What you need to do is what I call “extending small talk.” By extending the small-talk conversation, you allow yourself more rapport-building time. You leave yourself room to gather as much information as possible from the cues you do have access to, like paralanguage and visual cues.

To do this, add a few questions to the start of your conversation. One of my favorite ways to do this is to ask, “What’s the best thing that happened to you this week?” It’s a fun, easy question the interviewee hasn’t prepared for. Another approach is to note happy stories in the news and bring them up.

What kind of body language cues should the interviewer be trying to demonstrate, to help build rapport and make the candidate feel comfortable?

You want to be aware of what I call “body windows.” You have windows at the toes of your feet, your knees, belly, heart, throat, mouth, eyes, and the palms of your hands. I call them body windows because you open and close them depending on how you feel in a situation, about yourself, or the people you’re with. The interviewee is subconsciously looking to see how your windows are oriented, and if they are open or closed.

Now, your windows normally open and close throughout a conversation. But you want to pay attention to see if you stay open during your conversation with an interviewee. You can get information about how you truly feel about them and the way they respond to questions by noticing when you close.

It’s also helpful to be aware of your windows because you’re bringing your day with you to that interview: preconceptions, stress, all those things. If you’re aware, you can consciously think yourself, “Okay, my goal is to be open, and I’m going to notice when I’m closed.”

“It’s about making the candidate you’re interviewing feel comfortable and at ease…”

Is it possible to use body language to encourage candidates to self-disclose more information?

One way to do this is to be aware of the gender-based differences in how we orient. Men feel more comfortable when they are sitting or standing next to, or kitty-corner to, the person they are speaking with – whether that person is male or female. For men, sitting across the desk is intimidating; it feels like they are being reprimanded or interrogated, and it makes it harder for them to tell you the truth. It makes it more likely you’ll get rehearsed answers.

Women prefer face-to-face interaction. We don’t think you’re listening unless you’re face-to-face with us. Sometimes, a male interviewer can think this means the woman he is interviewing aggressive, assertive, or needy. Sometimes, if the interviewer is taking notes and looking down frequently, a female interviewee might feel like she can’t connect with them.

So just changing where you sit or stand can influence the interviewee’s comfort level and increase self-disclosure.

The environmental component of nonverbal communication – what might you want to consider about the space you’ll be interviewing in?

Be aware that a conference room can lead to a more artificial interview. It’s a very large setting for a one-on-one or even a two-on-one meeting and you don’t have the intimacy of a regular conversation. The high-back chairs, the large table that distances you from others, the big window, the bright lights – that’s a high-stress setup that reduces natural interaction and increases the likelihood you both will feel like you have to perform.

If you have to do the interview in that type of setting, you should ideally meet the person in the outer office and greet them before you go into that space. Walk them to the room, make small talk, and get comfortable with one another before you reach the conference room.

If you could offer just one piece of advice about reading nonverbal communication to interviewers, what would it be?

To me, you interview to find out the truth about a person – how they’re going to be in a real work situation on a day to day basis. But the performance anxiety is so high for the interviewee; there’s a desire to cover up how they normally are and show only their very best self – or even a false self. So how do you get to that real person, their real qualities and real faults?

It’s about making the candidate you’re interviewing feel comfortable and at ease and knowing how much you are influencing them by the choices you make. It’s about knowing how much difference you can make if you treat each interviewee based on the cues they’re sending you, rather than following your usual pattern of doing an interview. Give yourself permission to say, “I’m going to let go of what I typically do, because to have a good interview with this person, they need me to be this way.”

I think that’s a whole different psychology of interviewing. We typically think, “This is the way I do an interview, and I’m going to see if the candidate can meet my standard.” Ideally, though, you’re reading the person’s body language and adapting in the moment so that it can be a real conversation – a real interaction that creates rapport and gets you higher-quality information about your potential hire.

To gain more of Patti’s insights, read her book, Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma, check out her body language blog, and learn about her speaking topics and coaching programs.


Christian De Pape, Recruiting Social’s Head of Marketing and Content
About the author

Christian De Pape is the head of brand experience at Recruiting Social. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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