The key to acing an interview: empathy

Jul 25, 2014

One must be convinced to convince, to have enthusiasm to stimulate others.
-Stefan Zweig

Over the course of your life, you will be interviewed hundreds of times.

Sometimes it won’t be called an “interview”. It could be called a meeting or a coffee chat -- but by whatever name, you’re seeing if there’s mutual interest in working together.

As someone who’s conducted more than a hundred interviews in my life, I have seen and felt what it’s like when an interview goes well and when mutual uninterest arises in the first 30 seconds.

And the more I interview and am interviewed, the clearer it becomes to me that the only difference between a failed interview and a successful one is one thing -- and this may seem fluffy but it’s not, so stick with me.

It’s empathy.

“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination."
-Nelson Mandela

The best people I’ve ever interviewed look like they like talking about their business or their skills. As you might expect, the best people are passionate about what they do.

But it’s more than that. They also empathize with me and what I’m trying to accomplish, and pitch themselves as a service (to me), not as a list of skills I have to manage. They show me how they’ll make my life easier.

They also empathize with my company’s mission, and want to fulfill the same mission. A survey of 3,000 hiring managers and job-seekers released last month found that 43% of hiring managers ranked culture fit as the most important factor in their hiring decisions. And as the CEO of AirBnB, Brian Chesky, says, “culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.” To be a “culture fit”, you have to share the same passion -- even if your mutual passion is simply delivering fantastic work.

This means that before you go into any interview, you study up on what that company is truly passionate about. Not necessarily what they do -- like make iPhone docks -- but their larger mission. Their gut. In the copy on their website, their social media, their design, etc., you’ll see that perhaps that iPhone dock company’s passion is delivering minimalist, user-friendly, environmentally-friendly products. If you’re a copywriter applying for a gig at that company, those are the things you want to talk about.

But most importantly, they empathize with my company’s customers, clients, or members.

They get why my customers use my product or like my organization. They think of all the work that they do for me as not really being for me, but as being for my customers.

If they’re a consultant, they’re providing expert advice about what will resonate with my customers. They don’t talk $ and what’s “hip” right away, they talk about their experience with what my customers want, need, lust after, think they can’t afford, etc.

They think of themselves as user experience designers -- no matter what their field or expertise.

In the job interview, when I ask them a question about themselves, they talk about their past projects, but also about how those projects were received. How customers reacted. The emotions they elicited.

Not: “I developed a website for a shoe company.”

Instead: “I worked with a shoe company to develop a website that made it easier for their customers to find the products the were looking for, without having to hunt through 100 pages of a shoe catalog. Their audience is young women who frequent thrift shops and boutique stores, so we gave the website’s design an old-world feeling. Want to see it?”

When you empathize with your interviewee and their customers, you’ll not only have a better shot at getting the gig, you’ll feel much more connected to your work when you do get the gig. You’ll feel as if you’ve made a difference in the lives of real people, rather than just pushing out another project.

People who have empathy for others bring tremendous value to business -- and are happier doing business. They’re the kind of people I hire and the kind of person I want to be.

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