Seeing Beyond Eye Contact: Nonverbal Communication Strategies in Interviews
By Diane Miller
Fluency in the language of nonverbal communication is indispensable when communicating with potential employers, especially during interviews. Also known as body language, nonverbal communication refers to the messages we send without speaking and the way we interpret nonverbal messages received. Job seekers fluent in nonverbal communication are able to read body language and decode what interviewers are saying beyond their words. Job seekers can also understand how their own body language reinforces the message they want to convey about their personal brand and strengths.
Career practitioners have an opportunity to enhance clients’ interview performance by coaching them on the language of nonverbal communication. After addressing the science of first impressions, this article covers key elements of body language to ensure a comprehensive approach when working with clients on this issue. These include micro-expressions, hand, arm, and foot gestures, and posture. All of these can reinforce, accentuate, or contradict the spoken word.
Why Body Language “Speaks” So Loudly
Body Language is approximately five times as effective as the spoken word. Visual first impressions make the biggest contribution to creating a positive or negative sense about someone, usually within the first five minutes of an interaction (Schneider, 2019). This is what makes attention to detail about ‘image management’ vital to job search success.
Interviews can be nerve-wracking and intimidating for job seekers – even after preparing to answer common interview questions. Many people have nervous body language habits in times of stress, which can emerge during an interview. With preparation and awareness, there are ways to come across as confident, poised, and resolute while also interpreting the nonverbal cues given by the interviewer.
The Macro Impact of Microexpressions
Microexpressions are brief and unconscious displays of emotions and mood, revealed through facial expressions and movements. They offer quick pulses of the body’s ultimate truth and state of mind. There are seven universal microexpressions:
By learning to read the universal microexpressions, job seekers can understand the personality of a future manager and ultimately communicate more effectively in an interview (Ekman, 1970).
The face offers us the best window into the emotional lives of others and is where microexpressions are revealed. Regardless of background, culture, or language, we all share this common form of nonverbal communication. For example, happiness is conveyed by some of the following features: cheeks are raised, lower eyelids may show wrinkles, crow’s feet form near the outside of the eyes, and the corners of the lips are drawn back and up. When people are stressed or do not like what they are seeing or hearing, their lips draw in and get smaller. Tension and anger can also be seen by tightening of the lips.
Communicating with Hands, Arms, and Feet
During an interview, it is important to use and show one’s hands. Throughout history, people have used open palms to convey trust, honesty, and submission. Many oaths have been taken with the hand over the heart or with a hand raised and palm showing. Open palms are one of the most valuable ways to discover honesty as they show sincerity and receptiveness. Amanda Augustine (Gillett, 2017) says that hands do not belong stuffed in pockets or wildly gesturing halfway across the table. Instead, when appropriate, pressing fingertips together to form a church steeple displays confidence.
Career practitioners should also recommend that clients avoid crossing their arms during interviews as this typically communicates defensiveness. Most experts recommend avoiding crossing legs as well. (Schneider, 2019). Face the interviewer squarely, belly button facing their belly button, positioning one’s body and feet directly towards the interviewer. What a person’s foot does can be the most accurate clue to their attitude. The more distant a body part is from the brain, the less aware we are of its movements and hence the less we are able to manipulate it. This means that while we can easily manipulate our facial expressions, it is hard to do so with feet. The direction in which we point our feet reveals where we want to go or who we want to talk to (Parvez, 2015).
Importance of Posture and Positioning
Posture and positioning convey aspects of personality. For example, great posture (i.e, upright torso, shoulders back, etc.) displays confidence. When job seekers feel threatened or nervous, which can be common in an interview, their bodies are likely to contract as a defensive, protective mechanism– making themselves a smaller target. Posture also can convey confidence. When someone stands or sits hunched over, that body language sends a message that conveys lack of confidence. Sitting straight up, with head high and shoulders back, leaning forward slightly, expresses engagement and interest. Of course, these same rules apply to the interviewer. Job seekers can sense how engaged and interested the interviewer is by observing these elements of posture and positioning.
Career practitioners can help clients by modeling appropriate posture and position during sessions, both in-person and online. In addition, practitioners can offer mock interviews or role plays, ideally recorded with video, in which clients practice good posture, along with angling their bodies to mirror an interviewer’s position and maintaining an open body position by keeping legs uncrossed and still.
Don’t Overlook the Importance of Body Language
In competitive situations such as interviews, body language is one of the first things people notice. Fluency in body language is an instrumental ability that can provide an edge in many aspects of life. Simply stated, it speaks. Understanding this subject beyond the obvious matters of eye contact and firm handshake can enable career practitioners to improve the effectiveness of clients in the job search.
Ekman, P. (1970). Universal facial expressions of emotions. California Mental Health Research Digest, 8(4), 151-158.
Gillett, R. (2017, July 15). 12 Body language tricks to use during a job interview. https://www.businessinsider.com/body-language-tricks-to-use-during-a-job-interview-2016-7
Parvez, H. (2015, June 4). Body language: Truth of the pointing foot. https://www.psychmechanics.com/body-language-truth-of-pointing-foot/
Schneider, L. (2019, June 25). How body language and image affect your job interview. https://www.thebalancecareers.com/intangible-success-factors-during-a-job-interview-2071480
Diane Miller, M.Ed., CCC, worked in education for more than 25 years, serving as Director of College and Career Counseling, teaching, facilitating workshops, managing online learning, and serving as the manager of the campus store and currently is serving as a career counselor at St. Louis University. As a manager, Diane learned the importance of intrinsic motivation and how to keep volunteer staff engaged in the mission. Diane has a BA degree in Health Education – Concentration in Wellness and an M.Ed. degree in Counseling. She has made it her life’s mission to engage others not merely to survive but to thrive, with passion, grit, compassion, and humor—empowering people to be the best version of themselves. She can be reached at email@example.com or www.linkedin.com/in/dianemitchell-miller/