SmartRecruiters Blog

“The Only Icebreaker You’ll Ever Need”: Recruiting Takeaways from Terry Gross’ Conversation How-Tos

Here’s what the TA industry should learn from NPR’s “Fresh Air” host as she lays out her conversation fundamentals for the New York Times.

Recruiting is all about conversations – with candidates, hiring managers, leadership, you name it. As a whole, recruiters tend to be an outgoing bunch, but there’s more to quality conversations than not being shy. That’s where Terry Gross comes in.

After 40 years in radio and thousands of interviews, Gross has learned a thing or two about talking to people. Her catalog includes famous personalities like Stephen Colbert, reclusive celebrities like author Zadie Smith, and interesting unknowns like Marine Corps Mortuary Affairs officer Jessica Goodell.

Comedian Marc Maron named Gross as “the most effective and beautiful interviewer of people on the planet” and, in 2016, former President Barrack Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal. Yet, Gross’ career started humbly back in the 1970s when she landed a job with the Buffalo radio station WBFO after struggling to find her way in post-collegiate life.

Through Gross’ many-many encounters with the wide spectrum that is humanity, she’s walked away with several tenets to live by, and though you, as a recruiter, may never find yourself interviewing foreign dignitaries or movie stars, conversations are key to good recruiting!

Follow along with Gross to see what your interactions are missing!

*Photo via Terry Gross’ Twitter

Be funny, and if not, be organized

“A good conversationalist is somebody who is fun to talk to,” says Gross. Yet, not everyone can be humorous all the time. When gravity is the order of the day, organized and clear communication is a close second to levity. This is especially true for interviews where clarity is key.

Know who owes you an answer… and who doesn’t

Gross makes the comparison between a politician and an artist; the former “owes” the public answers, while the latter doesn’t. Before pushing on a question, ask yourself under which category this person belongs, and if the question you are asking is ‘need to know’. Let’s look at two examples:

A hiring manager passes on a stellar candidate and is evasive about why.

Push! This is a colleague and the information is pertinent to your job… check out below to learn how to push like a pro.

You ask a candidate why they left their old job and their answer is vague.

Move on! A vague answer doesn’t necessarily reflect negatively on the applicant. Perhaps they are nervous to say anything bad about their former employer, or they could have experienced harassment or bullying. Either way, a better question to ask is why they applied for the job they are interviewing for now.

Here’s how to get an answer when you need it

If you already have determined that this question should—and must—be answered, then keep asking. “[I] keep asking and re-asking and asking,” says Gross, “and maybe I’ll ask it in separate ways, and maybe I’ll point out that they haven’t yet answered the question.”

If you don’t want to seem too pushy, explaining why you need an answer is a good strategy. Referring to the above example, you could inform the hiring manager that you need a specific reason for why they rejected the candidate so you can refer stronger applicants in the future.

Prepare, preferably overly so

“It helps to organize your thoughts beforehand by thinking about the things you expect you’ll be asked and then reflecting on how you might answer,” says Gross.

Applied to recruiting, this advice means having a clear idea of what you need from the conversation, the relevant role-criteria, and a concrete value proposition for the candidate. Having structured questions, i.e. a predefined list of questions you asking each interview helps to avoid bias, so win-win.

Curiosity killed the cat, not the interviewer, so get interested

Gross says the key to engagement is “being genuinely curious, and wanting to hear what the other person is telling you. I can respond to what somebody is saying by expressing if I’m feeling sympathy or empathy, and explaining why.”

Another way to describe this is “being present”. As a recruiter, you may talk to 20 candidates in a day about the same job. It may begin to feel like a repetitive factory line. To avoid checking out, practice mindfulness and be keenly aware of the present moment, paying particular attention to the person being interviewed.… they’re a beautifully complex and infinite human being after all.

End the conversation gracefully

If you are trapped in an endless conversation Gross prescribes some sugar-coated honesty. For example, “Well, there’s the truth, which is ‘I’d love to talk some more, but I’m really late.’”

“Late” is not a great excuse if you are at a networking event. In this case, using the restroom, needing to call home to check on the kids, or introducing a third person into the conversation are all tactful exits.

“Tell me about yourself”… a.k.a. the ultimate icebreaker

Gross recommends this simple phrase for any awkward conversation. Say you’re driving cross-country with a friend’s boyfriend – à la When Harry met Sally – or stuck in a broken elevator with a coworker, these four words will carry you through any situation.

Gross points out that it’s one of the few questions (though not technically a question) that make no presuppositions. Even the classic “what do you do?” query assumes the person has a job or profession that defines them. “Tell me about yourself” allows the responder to guide the conversation and set their own boundaries.


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