Don’t Do Interviews, Do Discussions!
(5 Min Read) This change guarantees better signals from the interviewing candidates.
Everyone hates interviews. This includes both the interviewee and the interviewer. I have been on both sides of the table or screen (recently) hundreds of times. I used to hate the process. But not anymore. That's because I don't do interviews anymore; I have discussions.
Now, you may wonder, does calling an interview a discussion makes it any different?
Yes, it does for the folks with whom I've shared this trick and me. The probability of this working for you are pretty high. So let's get to it.
Interview Vs. Discussion: What's the difference?
When I hear the word interview, my mind automatically translates that into something where "I" am being evaluated. It becomes very uni-directional. My internal dialog goes something like this "the interviewer will ask questions that I must answer correctly or else…". Here is the official definition of the word interview
An interview is "a structured conversation where one participant asks questions, and the other provides answers."
This makes me (and I guess most of us) nervous. And that's not good, especially in the interview. Sometimes we are one question away from failing the entire thing.
But, when I think of the interview as a discussion, the nervousness vanishes.
A discussion is defined as "the action or process of talking about something to reach a decision or to exchange ideas."
And that is what I think interviews should be called a discussion.
But, will discussions serve the same purpose as an Interview?
Yes. The goal of the interview is to get a signal of the candidate's ability to do the work. When discussions are done right, they can provide better signals than interviews.
The interview process is designed to provide a signal on two things:
Does the candidate meets the job requirement and have the required skills,
Will the candidate be an excellent future colleague?
When we miss on either of these, everyone suffers. #1 is evident as an unskilled colleague drastically slows down the entire team and is terrible for team morale. #2 is also true for very similar reasons that are just not technical.
It's tough to get good signals on #2 during the interview. For one, the candidates are nervous, and two, the interview environment is not the typical operating environment for working together.
Post-hiring a new colleague, we don't work in a nervous environment. We work in a collaborating environment powered by discussions. So why not simulate that during the interview? Why not have a discussion?
As I mentioned above, we can get the same or better signal via discussion and understand how the candidate works in a collaborative environment. When having discussions it’s easier to get signals like:
Do they ask clarifying questions when they don't feel judged
Do they make suggestions without feeling scared
Do they accept direction/feedback and process it
Do they verbalize what they think because they are not scared to give a wrong answer
The above signals are tough to read when a candidate is nervous because they are being interviewed. They are way easy when candidates are at ease during discussion.
How to convert an interview into a discussion?
Like everything, this is a skill that can be developed. Let's look at this from both interviewer and interviewee perspectives.
As an interviewer:
During an interview, the interviewer has more power to set the tone. An interviewer can make the interview intense or pleasant, unfriendly or friendly, or question/answer format or discussion. With senior candidates, it's easier to set a discussion tone, but for the junior candidate, it needs some extra effort. Here are some of the tricks:
At the start of the interview, say something like, "let's use this time to discuss a few interesting problems?" or "Let's assume we are colleagues and discussing this problem." Just saying this at the start of the interview puts a lot of candidates at ease.
Use "We" instead of "you" because it feels more inclusive and it is. For example, ask a question as "Suppose we have this problem to solve. How would we go about doing that?" vs. "Suppose you have this problem to solve. How would you go about doing that?". We can use "We" to ask follow-up questions as well, such as, "How would we do this differently?"
Sitting on the same side of the table or standing next to them when whiteboarding instead of sitting at the desk. (Works for in-person interviews).
Use a calm discussion voice instead of giving an ordered voice. (you know what I am talking about)
As an interviewee/candidate:
While interviewees/candidates have less power, they still have some. Here are some tips for converting interview into the discussion as an interviewer:
Mentally think it's a discussion with your future colleague and not an interview. Nervousness is all in the head. Changing how we think about something can drastically impact how we approach it. All of us are less nervous about discussion than an interview. Give it a try. I promise this works.
Use "we" instead of "I/Me." Same as above. Even when the interviewer asks, "how will you solve this?", answer by using "we" like, "We can try to approach it this way…". Also like yawning, "We" is contagious. Once used, both parties tend to start using it.
And that's it. I have approached every interview I have had in the past several years as a discussion and always had a pleasant experience. Calling them discussions did not make them easy or guarantee 100% success. I've failed many interviews, but I've always had a great time discussing with the other person.
What happens when the other person is not willing to conduct the interview as a discussion?
We'll then you do the interview and hope for the best. 🤷🏽♂️
Few curious folks have asked me about my experience that changed my view about interviews. So here is a small anecdote.
In 2013, I was interviewing with Google at Mt. View campus. I had completed the first two rounds, one of coding and another on a design problem. The 3rd interview was a coding round with a senior engineer who switched with another interviewer at the last minute. When the swapped interviewer entered the room, they told me about the last-minute change.
Then they introduced themselves as a principal engineer, and I got super nervous. Probably enough that I lost my poker face, my voice was stammering, the room felt like a freezer, and I may have been shaking. They may have realized this and then said something like, "I am not here to do the interview. I am here to discuss a problem we are trying to solve as future colleagues. Do you want to solve it together?".
My nervousness level went down from 100 to 10. I said, "Sure, let's do it." We dived into the problem and had a great time discussing it. I didn't completely solve it but went way further than I would have at nervousness level 100.
Not being nervous was the key, and having the interview as a discussion greatly helped.
I have replicated this and experienced the same thing with the candidates I have interviewed. When they are not nervous, it's easier understand their thinking process and get better signals which was the goal of the interview in the first place.
Until now, I have conducted over 500 interviews (discussions) for full-time and contractors employees. In all these years, I have never given someone extra credit for solving a problem when nervous. But I have given people deserved credit for sharing their thinking process, philosophies, and problem solving abilities during the collaborative discussions.
I hope this post resonates with you and you will consider approaching interviews as discussions both as candidate and the interviewer. I look forward to hearing how changing interviews to discussions worked wonders for you and your organization.
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But wouldn’t you say that someone who can perform under pressure be better than someone who can’t?
Sales role comes to mind. Someone doing enterprise sales might get nervous in front of a top executive or a team of executives and their team isn’t there to help. A person who can perform under pressure would be able to handle the situation better.