Thoughts on Listening in Interviews 👂

Mia Wähälä
5 min readApr 12, 2021


Before I started working in early stage startups, let alone in a People & Talent role, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about interviewing. I quickly got quite the education though. Fast-forward to now, through the ups and downs of interviewing anywhere between five to fifteen people a week, I learnt a thing or two to share. Out of the many skills you need to interview well, I found listening one of the most important ones to master.

What’s a Great Interview & Why Does it Matter?

1 | A Place for Learning

The good news is it’s possible to learn interviewing, even if you’re one already pretty decent at it. If you’re interested to learn and paying attention, each conversation will teach you something.

Also, if you frame great interviewing in your mind as a space for exploring, you’ll be leaving each talk richer than when you started.

2 | A Two Way Street

I think of great interviews as conversations, but as more purpose and mission driven ones. As someone responsible for hiring for a role, it’s your job to make a call of judgement on fit. It’s just as much about whether the candidate fits the role as the role fitting the candidate.

You want to make it a clear win-win for both sides — regardless of a hire coming out of it or not. A great interview I’d therefore frame as a two-way street.

3 | The Clues are in the Feelings 😻

A great interview is also a conversation where both leave feeling good, energised or inspired after the talk. You felt heard, respected and seen. The best talks are those that felt light and right, even if the questions were challenging or the time was tight.

To quote Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. If you are able to clue into this datapoint on how the candidate made you feel, you can unlock a whole host of other insights far more telling than the content itself.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” — Maya Angelou.

Five Lessons to Better Listening 🖐

Through my experiences of interviewing I’ve realised how much influence I have on how well a talk can go. I’ve seen how the level of self-awareness, practice, preparedness, curiosity and presence all play their part. Let’s unpack those lessons one by one.

1 | Raise Your Self-Awareness

  • One of the first steps to becoming better at interviewing is to turn inwards and do a sort of self-assessment, tuning in and listening to yourself. How do you show up? Who do you want to be? What impression do you want to leave?
  • It’s the starting point to unpacking your own pitfalls and biases, knowing you’re not as objective as you want to believe. This process will help you see where facts end and your opinion and story begin. You’ll understand the storyline you’ve built in your head making sense of the uncertainty and complexity of a person in front of you. What are you reactive to and why?
  • Paying attention to your emotional state is important too — the levels of confusion, stress or happiness will influence your judgement. You can just take a personal note of that and compare at a later stage. Are there are big differences at other stages in the funnel or with other people’s impression?

2 | Practice Makes Perfect

  • I know the cringe factor here, but recording your own interviews is incredibly insightful to learning how to listen better. Remember to get the advance consent of the interviewee or you can also just practice with team members internally though.
  • Another great source of learning is doing a quick lunch break exchange with team mates, practicing on each other. In just a half an hour improvised role play of an interview, you’d be surprised how much you can learn. 💪

3 | Do Your Homework

  • I know this is an obvious one, but preparation is also the one we tend to get laziest with over time. Preparing doesn’t have to take hours, but the minimum you need is knowing who you are speaking with, why you are speaking with them and what key question marks to uncover. 🤓Make that a priority, because it will save you time along the way and help your team mates know what to look for in their chats too.
  • Having a clear interview structure clarified beforehand, with a rough story line and key questions will also allow you to focus on listening the content. Pick out a handful as general favourites, tailor some to the role, and leave some room for open questions depending on the situation.

4 | Stay Curious

  • I’ve seen candidates barely getting three words in an interview before it’s already over. Your job is to lead the process, challenge and assess and get the candidate to shine.
  • To do that, I think you have to remember to stay genuinely curious and care about what the other person is saying, ask open ended questions, and let the candidate do most of the talking. Simply put, a bit of silence your end is golden here.

5 | Be Present

  • For the time we’re in the interview, pay full attention to what the person is saying, body language included. For the time of the interview you should do your best to stay present 🙋‍♀️. Put away phones and other messaging even if you’re in a call and not face to face.
  • Staying connected and fully present in the interview is in my experience one of the fastest ways to gain trust and respect of another person. It’s far more helpful than any smart question you can ask, because it’s power really is in it’s simplicity to make others feel they matter.

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That’s that for today. I hope you found this guide helpful to show you why listening is important and how to practice your ability to listen better in future.

Thanks for reading!