Abysmal Interviewing Skills

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, October, 2016

Cheryl contacted me in an emotional roil. “My interviewing skills are abysmal,” she began, “but I don’t know what exactly is going wrong. I’m scared that I’ll never get hired.”

In the 3 months since receiving her master’s degree, Cheryl had been on more than 30 interviews. Only one progressed to a second round. During the most recent interview, a manger cut her off and said, “This isn’t going to work out.”

Cheryl was concerned about several aspects of her interviewing. She wondered whether she used too much jargon, or appeared too confident at interviews. Family members said that she talked too much, and several interviewers held up a hand and said, “Stop” when Cheryl was responding to a question.

She explained that she had trouble knowing when other people were finished speaking. Sometimes she would ask, “Are you done talking?” or “Can I say something now?” to make sure that she wasn’t interrupting.

Cheryl’s responses to interview questions were very long and contained irrelevant information. For example, when asked, “Why do you want to work here?” Cheryl would recite facts she memorized about a company, such as when it was founded, the number of employees, where branch offices were located, and the names of past CEOs.

Another area of concern was body language. During interviews, she explained that she looked at written materials, such as a job description or company brochure, or at her pad as she took notes.

“But what about when you are answering a question?” I asked.

“I look at patterns and objects,” Cheryl replied. “If I look at people I can’t concentrate. And if I try to figure out their facial expression I might misunderstand something.”

“That alone is probably 80% of the problem,” I said. “People expect you to look at them when conversing. The message you are sending is that you cannot engage with people.”

Cheryl was surprised. “But I never look at people.”

It was clear that Cheryl had skills that were in demand, and a strong resume. However, her Asperger’s Syndrome resulted in some behaviors that interviewers interpreted as lack of interest, lack of enthusiasm, and rudeness. We addressed the problem behaviors one by one.

I explained that Cheryl could approximate eye contact by looking at the space between a person’s eyebrows. She agreed to enlist the help of her husband to practice this technique for a few minutes every day.

Next, we discussed how to respond to interview questions. I asked Cheryl to consider the context of an interview. Employers evaluate whether a candidate has the skills, abilities and experience to do the job. With this perspective, Cheryl realized that reciting facts about a company wasn’t relevant. Interviewers wanted to hear how she would contribute to the company.

We began by creating a list of common questions, based on her previous interviews. For each one, we developed two or three relevant points to incorporate into a response. Then we worked on the language Cheryl would use. For Cheryl, working on four to five questions per week was manageable.

In addition to interview questions, we addressed the interrupting. Cheryl would ask others whether they were done talking, or whether she could speak. Most people subconsciously notice cues that a person is finished talking. Therefore, Cheryl’s questions were interpreted as her not wanting to listen to others.

We went online and found clips from a talk show of two people having a conversation. “Listen closely, and you can hear that a person’s voice goes down a little when they are finishing their thoughts. If they have more to say, they inhale, and make a subtle clicking sound with their mouth,” I said.

After viewing clips a few times, Cheryl started to catch on. Several times each week, show would view conversations online. She then practiced noticing cues during interactions with her husband and other family members.

Approximately three months after we began working together, Cheryl accepted a full time job. She discovered that many of the skills she learned for interviewing helped her on the job. She interrupted less frequently, and thought about situational context to better understand expectations and the actions of others.

Copyright 2016, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching