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Interview Techniques I Learned from Oprah

As a recruiter, there are many tools you can use to assess if a candidate would be the best fit for the role. The variable you can’t control is how authentic their participation is. To overcome that challenge, there is no tool more powerful than questions.

To maximize your chance of hiring someone who will perform well, mesh with coworkers, and add unexpected value to your team, try these tactics from talk show titan Oprah Winfrey in your next interviews.

They will help you calm nervous candidates, accurately assess their soft skills, and ultimately make the best hiring decision for your team by filling in the gaps of your understanding.

Use nostalgia to your advantage.

In this interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Oprah uses nostalgia to open the interview in a setting that is meaningful to her guest’s professional life. She uses this setting to open a conversation about Sandberg’s early memories of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.

To learn about a candidate’s past work experiences, start by asking about the people they worked with. Who did they work the best with? Who did they respect the most? Why did they respect them? What skills do they admire in others?

These questions will give you better insight into their values by telling you the traits they admire in others and the kind of people they respond well to. From your position within the company, you can compare those traits to your company’s culture and values and decide if this candidate would work well with the other people on the team.

If something doesn’t sound right, keep digging!

James Frey, a former guest who is now notoriously known as The Man Who Conned Oprah, brought out a side of Oprah that nobody expected (she rarely projects anger on stage). This scandal provided a rare glimpse into Oprah’s investigative tactics when she’s looking for truth in a person that she suspects of being dishonest. While she was likely furious, when she brought the author back for a second interview, she calmly gave him a platform to explain his lack of honesty.

If you suspect that a candidate is taking creative liberties regarding their career history or accomplishments, listen for specific discrepancies and follow up with questions.

Avoid drawing conclusions before you hear the answers. It is just as likely that they are being truthful, but their nerves might be getting the best of them, or they could have misunderstood the focus of your question.

Remove pressure by reducing social or emotional risk.

In an interview with David Letterman, Oprah does this beautifully. In three minutes, she breaks through his defense and accomplishes her question’s goal. At first, Letterman met her direct question with visible signs of distress.

The question, “Did you actually think I was angry with you or did it make a better joke?” caused him to respond use distancing language (“As far as I know, the genesis of this was…”) and then pause to take a breath.

When Oprah noticed this, she removed the pressure surrounding that question by making it clear to him that he doesn’t have to worry about offending her or being seen in a certain way by the public.

She follows up by mirroring Letterman’s distancing language: “People thought we really had a feud going” to show him that she’s not asking with animosity or agrees with the perception that they did have a feud. Then, she makes her second attempt at breaking through the barrier. “Did you want them to think that?”

She recognized what might be causing his reaction and then responded to that barrier so it didn’t prevent the effectiveness of her line of questioning. If a candidate seems evasive or defensive during an interview, this is an excellent example of reducing pressure to encourage them to open up.

Oprah gets to the truth through her own mastery of soft skills

By using these tactics to focus your interview questions on the candidate’s reflection and perspective of their experiences, you’ll be able to gain more useful insight from their responses that will help you make a fully-informed decision.

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