It's normal to be nervous before a job interview – after all, it isn't every day that a brief conversation with a near-stranger can potentially change the course of your career. That said, for some job seekers these nerves go beyond mere "butterflies in your stomach," and they become so fearful and apprehensive that they get tongue-tied, talk too much or say the wrong things.
While few people welcome stress, the truth is that a manageable level of nerves can actually improve interview performance, say career counselors. "It quickens our mind, sharpens our conversation and pumps more adrenaline into our system," says Arlene Hirsch, a Chicago career adviser. "If you don't feel any stress, you may not be ready to perform well." On the other hand, if your blood pressure rises too much and your palms become clammy, you need to control your reactions. The key to calmness is learning not to exaggerate an interview's importance. Lowering the stakes can reduce your stress level considerably.
If, on the other hand, you blow the interview's importance out of proportion by thinking that you must succeed at all costs, your tension level will soar. You'll be a self-conscious spectator of your behavior, watching and judging every word you say. Not only does this make you less convincing and more anxious, it also divides your attention. Excessive self-consciousness is most common among perfectionists who feel they can't afford to fail. Any real or imaginary deviation from their self-imposed, often unrealistic, standards triggers more nervousness and self-critical ruminations.
"The self-imposed pressure of trying to ace an interview can make someone focus too much on how they look and act," says Ms. Hirsch. "Research has shown that this self-consciousness not only can prevent you from responding to questions with confidence, it can actually cause you to perform at levels below your demonstrated capabilities."
Even preparing your responses in advance can hurt if you're too anxious. You'll tend to be over-prepared, which chokes your spontaneity and your ability to field unexpected questions.
Nothing to Fear
H. Anthony Medley, author of "Sweaty Palms: The Neglected Art of Being Interviewed" offers the following four reasons why you have nothing to fear but fear itself during a job interview:
- Interviews center on the subject you know best: yourself.
- If you've done your homework, you have an advantage: you know more about the interviewer and his or her company than they know about you.
- Interviewers expect you to be nervous.
- You have nothing to lose. You didn't have a job offer before the interview. If you don't have one after it, you're no worse off than before.
Remind yourself that whatever happens, you'll live to survive another day. And the less you worry about making mistakes, the less anxious you'll be. Worrying about an experience is almost always more unpleasant than the experience itself. Also be careful to never confront interviewers, regardless of how tense you're feeling. Instead of making them the butt of your misdirected anxiety, tell yourself that they're only human and treat them as friends.
Another way to reduce stress is to visualize how you want to come across, then separate yourself from your performance. Develop an image of what you think would be the perfect candidate for the job, and try to behave like that person. Just as an actor or actress creates the character in a script, career advisers suggest that you try to create a "character" for the job you're seeking.
To reduce stress, some candidates practice relaxation exercises before interviews. For instance, try to visualize a serene and beautiful scene, such as a moonlit beach, while becoming aware of your breathing rhythm. As you inhale, think "I am." When you exhale, think "calm." Breathe at least 10 times, then recall a successful interview experience.
A more advanced breathing technique would be to relax and exhale completely. Next, close your mouth and place your thumb of your right hand on your right nostril so that it's completely closed. Then slowly and deeply inhale and exhale through your left nostril at least 25 to 30 times. This allows you to tap into the right hemisphere of your brain, say stress experts, particularly the limbic part that governs emotions. You'll experience an immediate reduction of your anxiety level and feel more relaxed and controlled during the meeting.
The Power of Visualization
Many top athletes use visualization techniques to reduce anxiety, improve concentration and enhance athletic performance. Tennis star Chris Evert, for example, says she tried to visualize opponents' shots, form and strategy before championship matches. She then pictured how she would counter their maneuvers.
Jack Nicklaus gives the following description of how he programs his internal "bio-computer" before golf tournaments: "I never hit a shot, even in practice, without having a sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It's like a color movie. First, I 'see' the ball where I want it to finish…I 'see' the ball going there: its path, trajectory and shape…the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous image into reality."
As in sports, when interviewing for a job, a high level of performance is required for a short period. Thus, using visualization techniques can help build confidence and reduce anxiety. The trick is to create a memory of a successful meeting. When interviewing, you'll feel a sense of déjà vu, as though you had the experience before. Stress counselors say the following steps are helpful when trying to visualize:
Close your eyes and inhale slowly, expanding your chest and lower abdomen. Then exhale slowly and relax. Repeat this, and as you become more tranquil breathe more slowly and evenly.
Say to yourself, "My feet and legs are becoming more relaxed. They're now deeply relaxed." Repeat this for your ankles, thighs, pelvis, stomach, back and chest. Then repeat it with your hands, forearms, upper arms and shoulders. Relax the muscles of your neck and jaw. Allow your jaw to drop. Rest and enjoy a totally relaxed feeling.
Visualize the doors closing, then the numbers showing the floor level. Imagine that you're on the tenth floor and going to the first. Feel the descending motion as the elevator drops. As the elevator passes each floor, you'll enter a deeper, calmer mental state. When you reach the first floor, your mind will be open and tranquil. When the elevator doors open, imagine that you're sitting in a comfortable chair in a dimly lit room. Picture a large screen on a wall. You're now ready to begin visualizing.
- Find a tranquil, quiet place where you'll be totally undisturbed.
- Purge your mind of thoughts that don't directly pertain to your visualization.
- Lie down with your legs uncrossed and your arms at your sides.
- Relax your feet and legs, and imagine that they're becoming heavy.
- To relax more deeply, imagine that you're alone in an elevator.
Repeat these steps at least three times before the actual interview, visualizing for as long as you like. With repeated visualizations you can enrich the scenes with more detail and perfect the outcome. When you want to resume normal consciousness, mentally return to the elevator and ascend to the tenth floor. When the door opens, open your eyes. Chances are you'll feel rested, strong and determined.
Interviews are experiences that improve with practice. As your fear subsides, you'll perform better. You'll gain confidence in your interviewing skills and, ultimately, you'll be performing as well as the person you visualized.