body language: be careful what you’re not saying

What your body language says is often more important than what you say verbally, especially when the two conflict.  When they’re in sync, your movements are a reflection of what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling:  your conscious and your unconscious.  But when they aren’t, the unconscious prevails.

Why? Because while people will make themselves conscious of their words, few are conscious of their feelings and how that translates into body language, much less what that body language is saying.  And in an interview, that can result in sending a message opposite what you intend.

A person who was recently fired or laid off is a good example of this dichotomy, especially when the termination takes place for reasons that have little to do with any situation the individual instigated.  You did nothing to cause the severance, but you feel responsible anyway.

Since few job seekers know how to put a termination in perspective and handle it appropriately, it comes out how they move and how they conduct themselves.    Almost every action is an apology.  You knock gently on the door when the administrative assistant says, “Mr. Jackson can see you now.”  You not only ask permission to sit, but you ask which chair.  You either over explain or under answer. 

Instead of speaking smoothly in a relaxed manner, your voice is too loud or can’t be heard.  You say “um” or “ah” at the beginning and in the middle of your sentences.  Everything about you screams insecure, even though you’re managing to articulate your accomplishments.

The result is that the hiring authority is puzzled as to how you managed to achieve so much, when your manner isn’t conducive to making things happen.  It leaves him with a question about you.  Hiring authorities don’t like to be left with questions; they want to be 100% confident of who they hire.  So you’re out of the picture.

But this conflict doesn’t only occur with those have been dismissed by their employer.  It can also happen when someone doesn’t have a degree, but has excelled in their career and frequently ends up competing with those who do.  Or when you’ve been unemployed a long time, and you really need a job.  Or if you’ve had your eye on being part of this company and finally you’ve snagged an interview.  Or if you’re just plain insecure.

There’s a plethora of articles that list hundreds of body language cues you should pay attention to.   But that’s like trying to learn the different interview styles and how to respond to each one.  It’s a waste of time.  You’ll spend so much time trying to remember what to do, how to do it, when to do it, if what you’re doing is correct or not, that it becomes difficult to focus on selling yourself and learning if the company is compatible with who you are and what you want.

It starts with your head.  If you don’t feel confident, then stop thinking you aren’t.  Find the reasons why you’re an asset to a company.  List your skills and contributions.  Put together a sales pitch on yourself, and then take it to heart.  Actions mirror thoughts and thoughts mirror actions.  When you’re thinking confidently, you behave confidently and vice versa.

At the same time, you can program one to follow the other.  Pay attention to yourself, what you’re feeling and what’s going on around you.  If you notice yourself shuffling in through the company door, pick your head up, put a smile on your face, and walk into the office as if you belong there, because you do.  You have an interview, and they’re expecting you.

An interview is a sales presentation.  You’re the product, and the hiring authority is the buyer.    If you’re communicating that you’re not good enough to be hired, why would a company think differently?

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12 thoughts on “body language: be careful what you’re not saying

  1. I think this is a very important message. I feel this happens to me quite often. I can feel that I sound wrong but can’t seem to figure out how to keep my emotions out of my voice. My mouth also gets very dry when I am upset or feel insecure about an outcome. Can you suggest how to over come this beyond what you mentioned? I have accomplished so much in my career yet because of a bad separation with my last company, I feel my reputation has been compromised. The company I left were very ruthless when I gave notice.

  2. Hi Deborah,

    I could not agree more. Judi has written an article which has a very important message with good hints.

    My additional practical suggestion is for you to look into your past work / activities and identify what has given you the most job satisfaction – this often (not always) equates to your strengths. Pick examples of the projects and activities you personally were involved in where you made a positive impact. You will normally feel most confident in yourself when given the prospect of doing similar activities in the future, and you will have good examples of past experience to use in selling yourself.

    When you have your best role fit fine tuned, check out companies that offer these type of roles. Research them and check to see if they have any vacancies, or you have contacts amongst their employees and that you are happy with their promotional image / reputation etc.

    Lastly, see if you have a referee from your previous employer who is unbiased (and may also have left the company) and your other referees from previous employers who you know will give you an honest and fair referral.

    You should find you have a stronger sense of who you are, what you are capable of and what type of role and company you will be proud to work with. You will thus be better armed to either look for the right advertised roles and/or approach the chosen companies direct especially if you have an inside contact.

    Be honest and true to yourself, proud of your accomplishments and remember you gave the last employer notice for your own good reasons.

    Best of luck.

  3. This message has so many important facts for job seekers to keep in mind. Almost all of it applies to my current situation and I feel much better having read it. Thank you!

  4. This is an outstanding article right on the money. Most people can relate to this. It is an emotional issue which can be “cured” only by practicing mock-interviewing with somebody that is qualified and can observe and provide honest feedback. Remember that when one interviews they are nothing less than an actor on stage. Have you seen an actor that performs live the first time on stage? I hope not! The actor is practicing many, many times under the supervision of the Stage Director and when he or she comes to conclusion that the actor is ready only then they are allowed to go live. So what can you learn from this?

  5. Alex:
    Thanks for your post. Exactly! The interview – and its various aspects – is amazinly enough one of the areas people are so deficient in! They think “well it’s my background so no problem” and then four interviews down the road think to themselves “Hey! This is getting easier!” I’ve always advocated role playing – and advised candidates to do it as part of their interview prep when I was a recruiter. As it relates to feelings and the manifestation into body language, consciousness and awareness is a self developed thing. Love your example about an actor.

  6. Peter:
    Thanks for your post and thanks for your comments to Deborah too. I love it when everyone interacts and pulls together! You provide her with some excellent advice and I appreciate your contribution.

  7. Deborah:
    Thanks for your post! That’s great that you recognized it as a problem within yourself. What’s most likely happened is that you’ve really given yourself a head trip on the whole situation and why you left, and are probably holding yourself responsible for a bunch of stuff that’s not your responsibility. When you (generically) start going in that direction, it’s a slippery slope and feeding one’s head begins a whole downward spiral.

    Please email me the specifics of the incident. I need to know all about the separation and then I can give you a better perspective on it, and one you can begin to adopt so that you’re not standing in your own way.

  8. Thank you for the spot-on insight and the constructive advice. It’s uplifting to see what is within a job-seeker’s control. May I add one more observation?

    Vocal inflection when speaking of your previous employer can either alert an interviewer to your bitterness or impress the same person with your resiliance and willingness to take on new challenges. I found that out the hard way, many years ago!

    My trick is to prepare for any interview by reviewing the truly good moments of my previous position. That way, you speak with a smile on your face and a lift in your voice, and the otherwise bittter little lines around the eyes and mouth – the ones that telegraph emotion – will relax your interviewer.

    Hope that helps! And again, many thanks!

  9. Excellent point, Anne! Especially because you recognize that awareness is so fundamentally important and also because you learned from your mistake. Thoughts precede action precede results. People who are worried, pessimistic, defensive, etc will unconciously show it in their face and in their voice. Most people reflexively pick up other people’s energy and when an interviewer ends up feeling all yucky about the interview, it’s not going to bode well for the interviewee!

  10. Sound advice. Steps I’ve taken to prepare for interviews include meditating before the interview (affirming inner guidance, self confidence and a mental salute to the person I will be meeting), a positive outlook and a warm greeting upon the initial encounter. Starting off with small talk such as reference to the weather or similar, helps ease tension and opens the way for productive interaction. With these steps, body language complements my psychological state.