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How Dreams Can Ignite the Magic in a Flat Job Interview

How Dreams Can Ignite the Magic in a Flat Job Interview

You really have to feel sorry for that person sitting in front of you in a job interview. You know how excruciating it can be, especially when there’s so much at stake. Mortgage. Family. Food. Job interviews are so hard to come by these days for most people.  Depending on the type of job this person is qualified for, this could be one of only a handful of interviews after sending out hundreds of applications. Talk about pressure.

Is it any wonder that the candidate might be nervous beyond all tolerance?  Some people just freeze. This can be tragic for them.

It’s also tragic for you, because you might be tempted to take a pass on your ideal candidate, just because there was no face-to-face magic.  Yes, I understand, you’re a professional. And you’re trained to rise above a certain amount of personal reaction to candidates. But you’re also human. And you'd like to be charmed by this prospective new coworker. In today’s world of sparkly reality shows where everyone, even 3-year-old beauty pageant contestants, throws big balls of va-voom personality and love out into audiences of millions, is it really too much for you to expect the candidate to at least contribute to the conversation?

Of course not. But this isn’t a tea party. Nor is it the X Factor. This is your chance to find the candidate who could conceivably play a crucial role in saving your business in these tough times. You owe it to both of you to give this person every chance to shine.

Sometimes all it takes is one question to spring the lid open and let the personality fly out.  As someone who interviews people for a living, I have a few favorites.  And this one is my all-time, absolute, works-every time, ace up my sleeve:

“What dream came true for you when you said ‘yes’ to your last job offer?”

At first you’re going to get a befuddled look.  I can almost guarantee it.  (This question does not show up in any book or article about how to ace the job interview – unless I wrote it. So expect your candidate to be thrown just a little bit.)  So you might have to give an example from your own career and experience to help the candidate along.  Which is a good thing…it humanizes you and starts a conversation of just two people talking, leaving behind the high stakes aspect in which the candidate is almost literally talking for his life.

Once the candidate has the chance to think it over, and warm up to giving an answer, here are some of the insights you’ll be able to collect from the response:

  1. Does the candidate have a clear idea of his or her career path? Is this current job opening a natural progression in an overall strategic plan that the candidate is still in control of?
  2. Does that candidate speak positively of the opportunities that the last job offered?  Or does he or she go straight into a story of bitter disappointment?
  3. Does the candidate’s answer reflect an emotional alignment with your company’s values and mission?  Is there a sense of life purpose in the answer that will give you a hint as to whether your opportunity will keep the candidate emotionally engaged on a deeper level?
  4. Can the candidate speak fluently about what he or she wants out of the career on a deeper level than just professional development?
  5. Does the candidate dream of a better life in an orderly step-by-step fashion?
  6. Where does the candidate come alive when talking about how the last set of dreams came true?  Customer service? Project management? Team work? Ongoing learning? Taking on challenges?  Can you continue to offer those same kinds of experiences in this new job as well?

Remember that the role of this question is to get the conversation ball rolling in a more inspired, less self-conscious way.  There are very few absolutely wrong answers that would cause you to disqualify the candidate.  And even hum-drum answers can be nudged along into revealing some very powerful life stories.

A few years ago I gave my Career Landscapes team-building workshop to a group of Federal agency administrative assistants from throughout the Pacific Rim, from Alaska to Hawaii, to San Diego.  I started the workshop by posing the question, going around the room to collect responses.  They all had to do with easy commutes and regular paychecks. Not a very inspiring round of answers, let me tell you.

So I continued through the workshop, putting the participants through their challenges and exercises.  And then I went around the room again, asking the same question.  Oh my gosh! The personal stories that emerged!

All the answers had to do with their absolute loyalty and gratitude for the opportunities this agency gave them to live the life of their dreams. And they weren’t very fancy dreams, either -- mostly having to do with being a role model to younger generations and keeping families together in the face of hardship. One woman I'll never forget was a widow with five kids, whose young husband died in a skiing accident.  She said that right away her family pressured her to divvy up the kids among the relatives while she updated her job skills needed to land a job.  But she wasn’t about to lose her children right after losing her husband. So she needed a chance, wrapped in a big, fat miracle.

This agency gave her the ground floor opportunity that she needed to keep her family together while building the skills and experiences she would need to create a future that would allow them all to flourish.  That was the dream that came true for her when she said yes to her last job offer – to keep her family together in the face of unspeakable tragedy.

Every candidate has a story of adventures, misadventures, accomplishments, and determination.  Find a way to unlock those stories, and you will discover where the magic is tucked away. That’s where you will find your ideal candidates -- the ones who will really put their heart into their work.

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Martha I. Finney is the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People, and a consultant specializing in employee engagement. For a free consultation on how you can build a vacation-friendly workplace culture, email Martha at

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