Dealing with the Interview FUDS*

posted by Dilip on March 6, 2019

Fear is a disease that eats away at logic and makes man inhuman. —Marian Anderson, singer 

A significant part of my career and life coaching practice is working with clients facing some immediate challenge in their career stemming from an impending job interview, annual performance review (APR), or even a discussion around their next promotion. Clients often approach me and ask for help to deal with their fear, anxiety, and even worry around this challenge and developing strategies to deal with them effectively as a life-skill, not just as something acute that needs remedy, such as a headache does.

Anxiety, fear, and worry are different human reactions to stress that result in different emotions and behaviors, which often get conflated. Having clarity around those terms is a first step in knowing how to cope or to deal with them effectively.

Anxiety

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of inner turmoil and is accompanied by nervous behavior such as pacing back and forth or irritability.  It is the subjectively unpleasant feelings of dread over anticipated events, such as being rejected in an interview.

Anxiety is not the same as fear, which is a response to a real or perceived immediate threat, whereas anxiety involves the expectation of future threat (a tax audit). Anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness and worry, usually generalized and unfocused as an overreaction to a situation that is only subjectively seen as menacing.  It is often accompanied by muscular tension, restlessness, fatigue, irritability, lack of focus, sleeplessness, and problems in concentration. To some, it even manifests as a funny taste in their mouth. Transient anxiety can be appropriate, but when experienced regularly the individual may suffer from a disorder.  

Fear

Fear, on the other hand, is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. Fear in human beings may occur in response to a certain stimulus occurring in the present, or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as risk to their well-being.

In the fear mode our body, through the adrenal glands, secrete cortisol, which can severely affect how our mind works in that mode. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with or escape from/avoiding the threat (also known as the flight-or-fight syndrome), which in extreme cases of fear can be a freeze response or paralysis. I have personally worked with many clients who freeze during certain interview questions (coding or brain teasers) or even feel paralyzed and cannot continue to face the interviewer. Similar responses can also be possible during more benign situations such as your APR or a discussion around your promotion or raise.(Read my blogs on how to deal with such situations).

When a person is operating in fear and is focused on it, increasingly greater and greater part of their brain is shut down (cortisol effect) depending on the degree of fear they perceive. The very function of cortisol is to provide you just enough brain power to decide between flight or fight. All other aspects of reasoning and emotions are subordinated to this “reptilian” instinct to spare you the burden of logically thinking through the danger, which takes time, and then making the right decision. This is the evolutionary gift that humans and other animals have, which protects them almost instinctively from mortal danger.

In humans, fear can be throttled by the process of cognition and learning. Thus, fear is judged as rational or appropriate and irrational or inappropriate. An irrational fear is called a phobia.

Worry

Worry refers to the thoughts, images, and negative emotions in a repetitive, uncontrollable manner that results from a proactive cognitive risk analysis made to avoid or overcome anticipated potential threats and their potential consequences. Worry is described as a response to a moderate challenge for when the subject has inadequate skills or is unable to adequately defend themselves. Worry turns to be problematic if one has been excessively apprehensive for months on end (worrying over losing your job or your home).

Often, too, some carry their past experiences of defeat, especially in interviews, as an anxiety-provoking factor and brood over those episodes wondering if the same pattern would repeat in their next encounter, carrying that as worry. Those who understand the meaning behind the saw, You become what you fear, merely help further this pattern by talking themselves into it. In many cases those who believe that such patterns repeat themselves go into such situations looking for familiar triggers and then talk themselves into these patterns, which become a vicious and never-ending cycle to such defeats. You must learn to break these patterns by treating each encounter on its own and not try to connect previous encounters with what is now in your face.  

So, regardless of the underlying cause of your dread—fear or anxiety—around your interview or any of the of the encounters that tap into your emotions there are some strategies that you can adopt to deal with these emotions and diligently work on them to neutralize or at least minimize their impact on your performance and the outcomes you can create.

Here are some tips to conquer your emotions around such dreaded encounters and positive actions you can take to improve your overall performance. This does not mean improved performance can result in your getting an offer or in getting what you are after, but it does mean that you’ll walk away having done your best, having conquered your demons, and walking away without any regrets. The tips below are not just for getting ready for interviews—although that is the main focus of this blog—but can be applied in similar encounters:

  1. Since most of these emotions stem from psychological programming—your mental state—a discussed above it is best to build some mental toughness by reprogramming your brain and mind. The two ways you can gain this strength is first through physical means—exercise, meditation, visualization—and second, through getting ready by doing your homework. This homework involves knowing the company, the interviewer, your subject matter, and brushing up on your technical and job skills.
  2. Prepare yourself for the interview (encounter) with full knowledge of the person (interviewer), what is expected from you in that encounter, and what you need to present from your side to show that you have the ability to deal with the person as equal. Often, people in such situations are intimidated by the background of the person they are facing and mentally discount themselves as someone not worthy of that encounter. Remember, No one makes you feel inferior without your consent. (Eleanor Roosevelt).
  3. Before going into the session (interview, APR, critical conversations) center yourself and focus on the mission at hand. Visualize yourself fully engaged in that encounter and envision having a flowing conversation, where both of you are having a great exchange of ideas, plans, and outcomes. This meditative exercise will act as a fillip to your psyche and will help you diffuse any anxiety build up that is typical for someone ready to walk into such situations. Remember, all these emotions we discussed before (anxiety, fear, worry) are the bodily manifestations of what your mind (and brain) is telling your body to do. So, if you program your mind before the encounter you can re-program your body to behave the way you want it to behave.
  4. Despite all this preparation it is normal—even expected—to have some apprehension around the event. Otherwise, overconfidence can vitiate your earnest efforts to win over the interviewer.   
  5. Do not just go-in to answer their questions, which is more like an interrogation. As you go into the process and get to a point where you have done the preliminaries and start getting in the flow of the interview, end your response with a question that will help you steer the conversation with better control of the interview. For example, after you have answered their question of the largest project you have managed successfully, asking, So, what is the typical size of your projects and what problems you face in their release, may result in exactly the response from the interviewer that will allow you to show how you can make their pain vanish if they hired you.
  6.  Once you reached this point in the process you are engaged in an exchange of ideas and a dialog and are no longer merely responding to their questions. It is often difficult to ace an interview without getting to this point in your exchange. You must always look for an opportunity to where you can tip the interview to get you both engaged in dialog after the initial interrogation period.
  7. The more relaxed you are and the more “in the moment” you are during the interview the better is your ability to think clearly and articulate forcefully and confidently. In such a state you are able to respond to questions with answers that you did not know you had. In this state your subconscious can come to your aid and help you with answers that would be near-impossible for you to provide if you shut your brain down in a fit of anxiety or stress (cortisol effect).
  8. As the interview is ending do not ask how it went. Because if you ask this question it implies that you have lost control over the interview and even if you ask, they will not give you a meaningful response. Instead, ask what the next steps are and their timeline.
  9. As you stand up to shake their hands, smile, look into their eyes, and thank them for their time and for their insights. A firm and dry handshake will signal them that you were not anxious or nervous during their encounter and it will further help you make your non-verbal “closing argument.”
  10. Send an email thanking them for their time and insights and show that you are interested in joining their team and are looking forward to their next steps.

Dealing with interviews and similar challenges can be anxiety—even fear—promoting. But understanding the underlying mechanisms and the strategies to conquer such emotions can give you the edge you need to deal with them on your terms.

Good luck!  

*Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubts

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