Interviewing Myth #8: You Can “Read” Body Language with the Commonly Given Advice

Do you want to hire better? If you’re a CEO, a manager at any level, or a Human Resources professional, of course you do. This blog is part of a series dispelling 10 myths about interviewing candidates for hire – “myths” because they are common recommendations for the “best” ways to interview… but from our experience, they are wrong.

Examples of body language

You’ve seen it on TV: a psychologist “interpreting” if someone being interviewed or in debates is lying, based on common psychological principles. Well, I’m a Ph.D. Psychologist, forever saying to the TV, “That’s not right!” And when the rationale is given for the interpretation, I frequently think, “That’s not right, either!”

Common situations are:

  • “He leaned back, showing his fear of the other person.”
  • “She leaned forward, showing her aggressiveness.”
  • “He folded his arms, psychologically closing down honesty.”
  • “His voice is soft, meaning unconsciously he’s not sure of what he’s saying.”
  • “Her voice is strong, showing her confidence in what she’s saying.”
  • “Poor eye contact suggests he’s fibbing.”
  • “Constant eye contact, suggesting she is confident or wanting to be intimidating.”
  • “Notice his long, involved answer, which tells me he’s BSing.”
  • “Her slow, measured responses suggest she is choosing words very carefully, for fear that she might blurt out the truth.”
  • “After he’s asked a question, he pauses for a few seconds indicating he’s hiding something. If he responded right away, before thinking of a response, his answer would probably be more honest.”
  • “She’s hiding something – look at how she’s fidgeting and perspiring.”

My opinion is: the interpretation might be accurate… but there is zero certainty.

Body Language Indicates the Candidate is Probably Hiding Something When There is a Sudden Change in Body Language or Expression. Some candidates just about always lean back or lean forward, speak softly or loudly, etc. If someone typically speaks softly and slowly, and responds quickly to questions and has been sitting up, it is the sudden change that is a red flag:

  • Suddenly leans way back
  • Suddenly speaks loudly and rapidly
  • Suddenly pauses 5 or 10 seconds before responding
  • Suddenly avoids eye contact

What to Do When Body Language is Suspect: Stay on the subject; go on a fishing expedition for truth. Early in my career I was doing pro bono work for a Chicago not-for-profit and when I asked the candidate about a 7-year job, all sorts of sudden changes occurred. He had been leaning forward, looking me in the eye, talking in a clear voice, did not perspire, and had clear responses to questions about what he did — successes, mistakes, and relationships and decisions.

Suddenly his responses were vague, his voice very soft, his eye contact zero, and he leaned back and perspired. So, I went on a fishing expedition and said, “Joe, tell me more about that job – what did you like most and least?” I became convinced he was hiding something, so I confronted him: “Joe, you’re suddenly very uncomfortable talking about this job; how about telling me what really went on?” He admitted he was in prison for those 7 years.

The end of that story will surprise you. My client knew about his jail time; I asked a lot more questions, figured he was either unfairly convicted or totally rehabilitated so I recommend him for hire and he did a great job.

Conclusion: Don’t jump to conclusions, thinking body language is telling you something negative, unless the is a sudden change in behaviors or how candidates express themselves.

I hope these tips help you avoid costly mis-hires.

More from this series:

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