The Eyes Have It
A little while ago I spent a couple of hours with a former HR Director from the substantial British division of a major international, and well known, company. He had recently been made redundant and our meeting had come about as a consequence of his networking. His package, on leaving the company, was pretty comprehensive with lots of outplacement support, which is where the company was paying some experts to help him to kick-start the job hunt. Technically this was not an interview but, as I am a recruitment Consultant, he was nonetheless keen to make a good impression.
This chap was a likeable character with a lot of ability and able to recount many of his experiences in a colourful and convincing way. Somebody who was likely to secure a new role fairly quickly, I thought. But something worried me… despite describing himself as an enthusiastic, passionate character in many of his stories, his body language said something different – there was a real disconnect.
What was it about those eyes?
The eyes particularly worried me, and I don’t use the expression lightly. He made almost constant eye contact with me to the point that, even though it wasn’t aggressive, it became uncomfortable. I was mystified and asked why he felt this was appropriate. His answer astonished me – his outplacement company had employed an image consultant who had advised him as follows: keep his feet flat on the floor, curb expressive body language, and maintain eye contact.
When providing an outplacement service I always explain to participants that for every view I have an ‘expert’ can be found who will have an opposite view. My wish is not to tell people what to do but rather to explore the effect certain actions may have, and what alternatives there may be. After all, you are hardly likely to be effective at interview if you have been encouraged to do things you are uncomfortable with.
The bit of body language advice given to the chap I was speaking with did, however, surprise me. According to Joe Navarro, probably the expert in the field of non-verbal communication, up to 80% of our communication is non-verbal. What on earth can be the point of disabling it?
Three ways your eyes betray you.
The eyes are particularly revealing but there are some popular misconceptions. Many people believe that direct eye contact is an indication of honesty. This is not necessarily the case and there can be occasions when people maintain eye contact while being less than honest, mostly because they hope it will help to hide the dishonesty.
More telling is eye blocking, such as covering of the eyes or lowering the eyelids – even lowering the head to hide the eyes. Think of those images of Gordon Brown, sitting in the radio studio, when he heard his comments about Mrs Duffy during the recent election campaign. He lowered his head and thereby his eyes could not be seen. Ask a friend a difficult question (a long multiplication is a good one) and watch their eyes. It is likely there will be at least a momentary blocking of the eyes by blinking, closing of the eyes (probably tightly), or stroking the forehead so that the hand covers the eyes.
Less extreme, but equally telling, can be the narrowing of the eyes which usually indicates discomfort, stress or anger. If you are being interviewed and your interviewer narrows their eyes it is likely, although by no means certain, that there is some discomfort with what you are saying. Similarly if your eyes narrow when you are answering a question, thus signalling your own discomfort, even though your interviewer may not be aware, they are probably subliminally having doubts about your answer.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to change these instinctive non-verbal reactions. Another reason for always being straightforward and honest at interviews, perhaps… but also for making sure you are well prepared.