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Dynamics of the Stress Interview

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A much feared but rarely encountered interview style, the stress interview seeks to evaluate a candidate's response to intense and continuous interpersonal tension. Do you get defensive? submissive? aggressive? flustered? panicky? Or, do you remain relatively calm, alert, responsive, and assertive? Not surprisingly, you are most likely to encounter stress interviews if you are seeking jobs that typically involve a great deal of daily interpersonal stress. Stress interviews are common in organizations that prize and encourage internal competition and in fields that require you to make quick decisions in tense situations.

A stress interviewer deliberately tries to make you uncomfortable, usually through nonverbal behavior and metalinguistic cues. Tough and challenging questions do not constitute a stress interview, nor does an interviewer who happens to be in a lousy mood. Although these circumstances may be stressful for you, they do not represent stress interviews because the interviewer is not deliberately pursuing a strategy designed to evaluate your response to stress. You can often jolly a moody interviewer into a happier state of mind, but an interviewer using stress as a strategy will keep the pressure on, no matter what you say or do. So, don't feel that you are failing the test if your interviewer maintains a gruff, sarcastic, or negative approach he or she has chosen to maintain this approach and is not responding to you personally or to what you have said.

The keys to success in stress interviews are:


  • Mentally rephrasing questions to focus on informational content.

  • Remaining as physically relaxed as possible.

  • Taking your time before answering questions.

  • Tolerating silences.

  • Being assertive without becoming aggressive or defensive.
All of which are easier said than done when faced with someone who is provoking you to lose your composure. Rephrasing or paraphrasing questions to yourself is always a good technique for helping you formulate focused replies, but in stress interviews this technique is absolutely crucial. Your aim is to respond to the informational content of a question, not the emotional packaging that surrounds and obscures it. Consider the following two questions:

"What in the world makes you think that someone with a background like yours could possibly perform adequately in this position?" "What assets do you feel you could bring to this position?"

These may seem like completely different questions and in terms of emotional context, they are but both can be answered with the same information. Your first job in a stress interview is to translate questions in the first form into questions like the second. Your next job is to answer them without responding in kind to the interviewer's affect, which is communicated by the phrasing of the question, tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, and posture (the nonverbal behavior and metalinguistic cues mentioned earlier). This is a tough assignment when you face a talented stress interviewer, who may make liberal use of tactics like gazing distractedly at a newspaper as you answer, tapping a pencil on the desk, yawning, looking incredulous, interrupting, staring at you intensely with arms tightly folded across chest, or greeting your answers with protracted silences.

Faced with a question like the first one listed above, take your time and reformulate the question. Then breathe from the diaphragm to give your voice adequate support and calmly begin: "I think I can do superior work in this position because I can bring to it. ..." Maintain comfortable eye contact, regardless of what your interviewer is doing or where he or she is looking as you speak. In normal conversational interactions, speakers tend to look directly at listeners somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of the time, while listeners will maintain more intense eye contact, averaging somewhere between 60 percent and 85 percent of the time. Don't avoid looking at the interviewer, but don't try to look him or her in the eye constantly. Act normal, no matter how abnormally offensive the interviewer may be acting. It helps to remember that the interviewer is acting, not displaying his or her true feelings toward you as an individual.

Silence is an extremely powerful form of communication among humans. Many people find long conversational pauses almost unbearable and will blurt out anything to break them. The stress interviewer will take advantage of this tendency and try to make you uncomfortable by remaining silent for long periods. Avoid responding to silence in a stress interview or in any other kind of interview by filling the pause with things you did not intend to say. Breathe deeply, shift your posture without fidgeting, count to 10 or 20 or 30. When you refocus yourself and feel certain that you are not simply responding to the pressure of silence, you may supply additional information or pose a question from your agenda.
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