My most traumatic interview, twice.

“It sounds like you’re pushing your nervous system to the point of dissociation; these interviews are arousing an intense fight or flight response which you’re managing to just barely suppress”.

Nailed it.  I’d just mock interviewed myself and I was unsually physically and emotionally depleted. I was absolutely terrified of something, but I didn’t know what. It felt like someone unplugged the cable box and my mind turned to TV static. I was in a stupor. 

Thirty minutes later my partner asked if I’d packed for our trip, a trip we’d been planning for months.

“What trip?” 

“Our trip tomorrow!” 

For some reason, I couldn’t think. It was, in fact, dissociation. 

“Dissociation is a break in how your mind handles information. You may feel disconnected from your thoughts, feelings, memories, and surroundings,” according to WedMD. 

Here’s some non-clinical context: sometimes you go through something so traumatic, that your brain sort of “checks out”. Once the traumatic event is over, your brain comes back online but it takes a while for your body to get back in touch hours, days, or longer. (Mine took hours.) Over time, dissociation can become your go-to response to stressful events – even those that rate lower on your personalized trauma scale. 

As I thought about it, I realized I had this experience many times before, but I didn’t have a name for it. 

About 15 years ago, I was interviewing for a job for which I was not qualified. I knew I wasn’t good at behavioral-based interviews because I could never remember experiences on the fly – and I didn’t know there was a strategy I could have practiced. The interview was over the phone and my boss suggested that I take the call from home so that I could be relaxed. The more relaxed I was, it seemed, the better I’d perform. 

The basic principle of behavioral-based interviewing is that past performance is the best indicator of future performance. Don’t tell me what you might do, tell me what you did (i.e., how you behaved). Most questions start with, “tell me about a time…” or “describe a time when…”. And the preferred way to answer is using the “Situation-Task-Action-Result (STAR)” method. First, describe the situation or state the task. Then you provide the actions you (and you alone) took to address the problem and you close by explaining the result. 

The interviewer would identify the competencies needed for the role and ask a series of related behavioral-based questions. The top of the page contained 3-4 questions around a competency  from which the interviewer would  select. The bottom half of the page had space for the interviewer to take notes and score them. To this day, the mental image of that workbook makes me nervous.  

To prepare for my interview, I printed out competencies that I thought the interviewer was likely to pick. And I wrote out answers to all of the questions. Then, when it was time for the interview, I laid them all out on the floor. The strategy was to look at the appropriate sheet depending on the questions that was asked. And there were about a dozen pieces of paper strewn about on my living room floor when my interview started. 

This was obviously a catastrophe. The only thing I remember is frantically scanning the floor for answers. I was nervous. I was disappointed that this was the way I had to interview. I felt like a fraud. I felt dumb. I remember ending the phone call and being totally sure I was not going to get the job. The interviewer was pleasant, but I knew I didn’t do well. The anxiety continued to build through the interview and any hope for a release after the call was over was dashed immediately. After the interview was over, the anxiety was worse!

Fast forward 15 years, it’s a different interview situation but I had the same harrowing response. Part of my fear was that if I didn’t choose the perfect words for each sentence in each response, I’d have failed. In a 30-minute interview, you say about 2,000 words. To have each word be perfect is just unrealistic. But it’s what I thought was the only way to be impressive.

This was a big interview – the final of 4 – and the thought of getting all the way to the end and screwing things up was making me nervous. In the previous rounds, I did not feel like I performed well. In fact, after the second interview, I almost told the recruiter I was no longer interested. I just couldn’t bear to put myself through the ringer again like that. 

I told myself that I didn’t want to end the interview this way again. I wanted to end the interview and feel like I was engaged the entire time. I wanted to feel like the real me came out and that I got a good idea of who they were as well. 

To prepare, each day, I coached myself. I told myself that I don’t have to be perfect. And instead of putting papers on the living room floor, I came up with honest answers to questions about why I wanted the job, why I was a good fit, and what my career goals were – all in one compelling narrative. 

I made other lists that I reviewed, too. One list included times I was terrified, but I did something anyway and was successful. Another list gave me reminders of why I was likely to do a good job. And yet another list was made up of people who believed in me, even though I didn’t believe in myself. I literally emailed my friends and asked them questions like, “do you think I’m smart”? I looked at these lists every day. And when I would start to get nervous, I would read the lists. It was quite the process. 

The final interview has come and gone, but I met my goal. I was nervous, but I reminded myself to breathe. I paused before answering most questions to think about what message I wanted to get across. I also answered honestly and with integrity. Sometimes I thought, “oh, this is a bad answer”, but it was my answer, and it wasn’t canned. 

As I learn how to better manage my emotions, I notice different levels of something that feels like dissociation in more than just interviews. When I remember, my goal is to be curious about what triggered it and maybe try to determine the first time I felt it. It’s a challenging experience, but I think it’s worth it. I expect that I’ll be in more situations that I need to manage my anxiety and not feel the need to fight or flee. 

Using Case Study Prep for Everyday Issues

I’ve shared before that I enjoy solving problems, but I felt like I could improve my skills in that area. Sometimes I’ll encounter a new problem that will totally baffle me. I’ve started approaching this situation like as if I was preparing for a case study interview. I use a framework to do a couple of things: make sure I understand the problem, develop a hypothesis, and design a test.

I can’t do this for every issue, and really every situation doesn’t need this approach, but it helps me be more efficient with my thinking time. These guys have a YouTube channel, too. I’m currently working through the “Toothbrush Test,” a method to determine how well you’ve tailored your structure to the specific problem.

This podcast episode and video may not be the best episode to start with if you’re brand new to case studies, but if you’re deep into case study prep, you might enjoy it.