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A battle of nerves

By Anthony Gunn

Accepting your interview jitters is the first step to overcoming them, writes Anthony Gunn.

Many people risk failing job interviews because of nerves, while others stay in jobs they don't like simply because they fear job interviews.

Neither situation need apply to you. Knowing how to manage interview nerves, as well as how to refine your social skills, will give you the edge in the job market.

Have you ever waited outside an office for your name to be called for a job interview and noticed your body begin to show signs of nervousness, such as a racing heart, shaking and/or sweating, a dry mouth, weak bladder, racing thoughts or your mind turning to mush?

We suffer from interview nerves because of our major fear - rejection by others. Psychologists have found that fear of rejection, social fear, is even greater than fear of dying. Why? In one word: survival. Fear of rejection has been passed down from our early ancestors because being kicked out of the clan meant certain death.

Death caused by rejection in a job interview may not apply today but fear of rejection — like the fear many people have of snakes, spiders, deep water or heights — is programmed into our brains for protection. Accepting your nerves, instead of fighting them, is the first step towards managing jitters.


Myth 1: only weak people feel interview nerves.

We all feel social fear. Nervousness is a natural response to the potential unknown associated with job interviews. You're competing with other applicants for the job.

World-class athletes aren't immune from competition nerves, so don't expect yourself to be either.

Myth 2: successful people ignore their interview nerves.

Trying to ignore your nerves altogether only makes social fear worse. Why? You can't get rid of fear, so the more you try the more you fail, which in turn increases fear.

You might think, "The interviewer has seen me sweat and now knows I'm nervous — ARGHH!"Accepting that nervousness is normal takes away much of the sting. Try it.

Myth 3: having no nerves shows you really want the job.

People who don't feel any nerves before a job interview (provided they are telling the truth) are highlighting the potential warning sign that they don't care much about the job anyway, or the attitude that "This job's just a stepping stone until I find the right one".

It's like watching a match with two teams you don't care much for, compared with a final that features your favourite team. If you're passionate about the job, feeling nerves is normal. Not feeling nerves before an interview usually signals your heart isn't in the job.


The person who is extremely worried about coming across as perfect and not showing any sign of nerves will be at the greatest risk of interview nerves.

Why? As explained earlier, you can't get rid of social fear, so the more you try, the worse it gets. Common ways social fear affects people in job interviews include: speaking too quickly, too quietly or too much; avoiding eye contact; tripping over words; using defensive and/or withdrawn body language; and expecting failure before the interview even starts.


Along with accepting your nerves as normal instead of fighting them, the key to increasing your success with job interviews is to refine your social skills.

Research shows that the better a person's social skills, the more likeable they are seen to be. Your likeability will unconsciously influence an interviewer and help you stand out from the crowd.

Anthony Gunn is a psychologist and anxiety specialist. His book Be Confident (Penguin, $16.95) is out now.


- Deep breathing prevents the mind going blank by increasing blood flow to the rational thinking parts of the brain and takes blood away from the brain's fear centre.

- Smile. Research shows that people who smile are seen as more trustworthy and likeable. Note: an authentic smile involves a wrinkling of the skin around the outer parts of the eyes, whereas a fake smile does not use these eye muscles.

- Accept your nerves as your body's way of making you perform at your best.

- Listen twice as much as you speak. Show interest in the organisation by asking questions about the company and the role instead of talking just about yourself.

- Rehearse the interview. Where possible, have a friend interview you and video it. Practice gets you used to feeling nerves, which gives back control. By accepting your nerves as normal and refining your social skills, you'll maximise your chances of success in your next job interview. Keep trying — practice makes perfect. 

Published: 10 September 2011

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