Why Conversational Interviews Work, And How To Do It

Who are the best behaved people on planet earth? No, not your children in the run-up to Christmas… think again. Yes, that’s right.


Unless you’re spectacularly unlucky, you won’t find candidates putting their feet on the desk or belching loudly in an interview. You won’t find them admitting to ACTUAL weaknesses when you ask them the famed question – what is your greatest weakness?

You certainly won’t find them telling you that they’re only here for the money, for example.

And over the last few years, many of your candidates have got really, really shit hot at interviews. Well, there have been a lot of layoffs, and finding the right role has been hard. What’s more, with video interviews becoming more prevalent and easier to organise, you get more interviews happening.

So many of your candidates will be really experienced at interviewing, and will have faced many of your questions before. Yes, even the one about how many ping pong balls you can fit inside this room.

If your interviews are structured, and you have a checklist of questions against behaviours or skills, then it’s likely that you’re going to get structured, well-rehearsed answers.

Which is FINE to a point. You can compare your candidates equally, and this is a Good. Thing.

But remember. Good behaviour. Well-rehearsed.

A conversational interview – often as a second interview – can come as a shock or a refreshing surprise to a candidate. There is less structure, there is more probing and what feels like a relaxed atmosphere. The candidate can often come away feeling better about the company, and this is also A. Good. Thing.

Turning an interview into a conversation does many things:

  • It reveals behaviours and characteristics potentially hidden by well-rehearsed answers
  • It can put the candidate on the back foot and make them think – no bad thing
  • It can put the candidate in new situations

So how do you carry out a conversational interview?

Firstly, it’s not wholly unstructured. You still have your boxes to tick. For instance, you still have to find out if this candidate is capable of doing the damn job. You have to find out if this candidate has the right behaviours for the job. Conscientiousness, Time-keeping, Creativity, Being Good With People etc.

But you can get at those answers in fresh, alternative ways.

For instance, meet at the office and say – “you know what, I fancy a coffee, you fancy a coffee? Let’s go to Costa.”

Have a chat on the way, what did you do at the weekend (this is always a key question and reveals a lot about a person’s character) – and have you read anything interesting lately? You’re always interviewing, by the way. Even on the move.

At the coffee shop, let them collect the coffees. See how they interact with the baristas. See how they feel about slight inconveniences that might happen. Maybe spill some milk. Remember, you’re always interviewing and you’re always watching.

Probe into the darker recesses of their CV. And perhaps this is ideal for a second or third interview setting, where you’ve already ticked many boxes and you’re looking more into a person’s character. What do they do outside of work? Are they learning anything new? If so, how are they learning it? How do they feel about their method of learning? How do they feel about learning in the workplace in general?

Bring others into the conversation. Perhaps members of the team, or people who would be reporting to them. Watch how your candidate reacts, and watch how your candidate asks them questions.

And always go back to your structure. Even though this isn’t a structured interview, remember that you are making your mind up about a person’s character and behaviour, and you’re using this scenario to tease them out of a traditional interview setting. But the same rules apply – if you want someone who is going to lead a team, let’s talk about mentoring in general. Let’s talk about your favourite leaders. What do you think of Steve Jobs?

Leave questions open, and listen hard. Be ready with follow-up questions and try hard not to interrupt. Let your candidate express themselves.

You’re creating a relaxed situation where the candidate mask can slip and you meet the real person you’ll be working with – hopefully – for many years to come.

Why it’s great for candidates

For the right candidate, this is a huge opportunity for them to prove themselves beyond the confines of a traditional interview. The right person won’t be taken aback, and will most likely relish the conversation and the chance to go beyond the questions they may have been asked a hundred times already.

It’s an opportunity to really distinguish themselves from others, and show their personality.

And as a hiring manager, there’s surely nothing better?

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