Use positive visualization to succeed in job interviews

It is normal to be nervous before any interview, but some job seekers are especially affected, and so are many of the recruiters who interview them. In fact, at many small companies where hiring exactly the right person is so important, interviewers fret for days before each meeting with a top candidate.

Some people are so fearful and apprehensive before any interview that they become tongue-tied, talk too much or say the wrong things.

To be sure, a manageable level of stress can actually improve interview performance. "It quickens our mind, sharpens our conversation and pumps more adrenaline into our system," said Arlene Hirsch, a Chicago career adviser. "If you don’t feel any stress, you may not be ready to perform well."

On the other hand, if your blood pressure rises too much and your palms become too clammy, you need to control your reactions. The key to calmness is learning not to exaggerate an interview’s importance. Lowering the stakes can reduce your stress level considerably.

In contrast, if you believe that you must succeed at all costs, your tension level will soar. You will be a self-conscious spectator of your behavior, watching and judging every word you say. Not only does this make you more anxious, it also divides your attention.

Excessive self-consciousness is most common among perfectionists who feel they cannot afford to fail. Any real or imaginary deviation from their self-imposed, often unrealistic, standards triggers more nervousness and self-critical ruminations.

"The self-imposed pressure of trying to ace an interview can make someone focus too much on how he looks and acts," Hirsch said. "Research has shown that this self-consciousness not only can prevent you from responding to questions with confidence, it can actually cause you to perform at levels below your demonstrated capabilities."

Even preparing your responses in advance can hurt if you are too anxious. You will tend to be overprepared, which chokes your spontaneity and your ability to field unexpected questions.

Nothing to Fear

Remind yourself that whatever happens, you are sure to survive another day. And the less you worry about making mistakes, the less anxious you’ll be. Worrying about an experience is always more unpleasant than the experience itself.

Also be careful to never confront candidates, regardless of how tense you are feeling. Instead of making them the butt of your misdirected anxiety, tell yourself that they are only human and treat them as friends.

Another way to reduce stress is to visualize how you want to come across, then separate yourself from your performance. Develop an image of an ideal executive, then model your behavior after this image. Just as an actor or actress creates the character in a script, you must try to create a character for the task of interviewing others.

To reduce stress, some recruiters practice relaxation exercises before interviews. For instance, try to visualize a serene and beautiful scene, such as a moonlit beach, while becoming aware of your breathing rhythm. As you inhale, think "I am." When you exhale, think "calm." Breathe at least 10 times, then recall a successful interview experience.

A more advanced breathing technique would be to relax and exhale completely. Next, close your mouth and place your thumb of your right hand on your right nostril so that it’s completely closed. Then slowly and deeply inhale and exhale through your left nostril at least 25 to 30 times. This allows you to tap into the right hemisphere of your brain, say stress experts, particularly the limbic part that governs emotions. You will experience an immediate reduction of your anxiety level and feel more relaxed and controlled during the meeting.

Power of Visualization

Many top athletes use visualization techniques to reduce anxiety, improve concentration and enhance athletic performance. Tennis star Chris Evert, for example, said she tried to visualize opponents’ shots, form and strategy before championship matches. She then pictured how she would counter their maneuvers.

Jack Nicklaus gave the following description of how he programs his internal "bio-computer" before golf tournaments: "I never hit a shot, even in practice, without having a sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie. First, I ‘see’ the ball where I want it to finish. … I ‘see’ the ball going there: its path, trajectory and shape … the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous image into reality."

As in sporting events, when interviewing candidates, a high level of performance is required for a short period. Thus, using visualization techniques can help build confidence and reduce anxiety. The trick is to create a memory of a successful meeting. When interviewing, you’ll feel a sense of déjà vu, as though you had the experience before. Stress counselors say the following steps are helpful when trying to visualize:

n Find a tranquil, quiet place where you will be totally undisturbed.

n Purge your mind of ordinary concerns, worries and preoccupations. Eliminate thoughts that are not directly pertinent to your visualization and find a quiet mental space.

n Lie down with your legs uncrossed and your arms at your sides. Close your eyes and inhale slowly, expanding your chest and lower abdomen. Pause for a moment. Then exhale slowly and relax your chest and abdomen. Inhale and exhale until you feel deeply relaxed. As you become more tranquil, breathe more slowly and evenly.

n Relax your feet and legs and imagine that they are becoming heavy. Say to yourself, "My feet and legs are becoming more and more relaxed. They are now deeply relaxed."

Pause, then repeat this on your ankles, thighs, pelvis, stomach, back and chest. Rest a moment. Then repeat it with your hands, forearms, upper arms and shoulders. Pause, then relax the muscles of your neck and jaw. Allow your jaw to drop. Relax your tongue, cheeks, eyes and forehead. Rest and enjoy a totally relaxed feeling.

n To relax more deeply, imagine that you are alone in an elevator. Visualize the doors closing, then the numbers showing the floor level. Imagine that you are on the 10th floor and going to the first.

Feel the descending motion as the elevator drops. As the elevator passes each floor, you will enter a deeper, calmer mental state. When you reach the first floor, your mind will be open and tranquil.

When the elevator doors open, imagine that you are sitting in a comfortable chair in a dimly lit room. Picture a large screen on a wall. You are now ready to begin visualizing.

Repeat these steps at least three times before any stressful interview, visualizing for as long as you like. With repeated visualizations you can enrich the scenes with more detail and perfect the outcome. When you want to resume normal consciousness, mentally return to the elevator and ascend to the 10th floor. When the door opens, open your eyes. Chances are you’ll feel rested, strong and determined.

Interviewing skills improve with practice. As your fear subsides, you will perform better. You will gain confidence in your interviewing skills and, ultimately, you will be performing as well as the person you visualized.

Tony Lee is the chief alliance officer and executive vice president of East Coast operations, Adicio.

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