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Making the Most Of a Bad Interview

You may recognize this scenario: not only have you heard about a perfect job, but the employer is a great company, one that's always being written up for its stellar management and benefits packages.

Already you can see yourself in the position and your career going places. And you haven't one, but a whole slew of interviews with top brass. You buy a new outfit and matching shoes for the occasion. This is the job of the century, well worth a little credit-card abuse.

On the day of the interview, you're more than ready. Your new outfit looks great, and you've packed extra resumes in your briefcase. You have honed your three-minute "commercial" to perfection.

When you arrive at the company, the building's great lobby and beautiful interior are spectacular, as rumored. You're ushered into your first interview and...you hate it from the start. The manager's handshake feels like a week-old flounder with the bones in. And she seems much more interested in her nails than in you. She's talking very slowly, even sluggishly. You glance around the office and down the hallway. Something is off and you know it. Your gut has been right before and now it's screaming at you, "Go home."

Not wanting to make a snap judgment, even one supported by years of proven intuition, you proceed to the next meeting, which happens to be with your prospective boss. He keeps you waiting for a half hour, which feels more like a month. When this interview finally begins, you hate it more than the previous one. Your potential manager crushes your knuckles, then takes three phone calls while you struggle to establish rapport.

He asks you one of the strangest questions you've ever heard. Now you really know something's wrong. Is this the hot company everyone raves about? You decide you'd rather have surgery without anesthesia than work here.

What's wrong? Is it you?

Bad interviews happen to good people -- a lot. Nationally acclaimed workplaces aren't for everyone. The "perfect" job isn't perfect if the chemistry isn't right between you and your prospective boss and colleagues. But instead of exercising your right to end an awful interview, you should see it through.

"Continue the interview as if you're interested," advises Kay Henry of Kay Henry Inc., a Feasterville, Pa., recruiting firm that specializes in advertising, public relations and marketing fields. "You never know how things might turn around in the future. The interviewer may not be there forever. And even if the job doesn't feel right for you, that doesn't mean the whole company isn't right."

You may learn a lot from even the most uncomfortable interviews, plus have some fun, by following these steps.

1. Practice nonattachment

Nonattachment, a concept practiced widely in spiritual circles, can help you loosen your grip on a situation and let destiny take its course. Nonattachment means giving up control of situations and people and accepting what happens as for the best. By using nonattachment, you can become comfortable with any outcome because you believe it's uniquely right for you.

For job hunters who use this concept, rejections and other so-called disappointments aren't intrinsically bad. Instead, they're welcomed as opportunities for growth.

Mastering nonattachment takes practice and is often viewed more clearly through hindsight. For instance, a public relations executive can laugh now about an interview she had 10 years ago to be director of communications for a Princeton, N.J.-based management consulting firm.

"I wanted an offer so badly it hurt, but the interviewer and I developed an almost instantaneous, palpable dislike for each other," she says.

The recruiter handling the assignment confirmed her perception that the interviewer didn't like her, and she didn't receive an offer. "Apparently the interviewer had disliked me as much as I had disliked her," she says. But even though she would have declined an offer, "I felt rejected," she recalls.

Instead of viewing the outcome as positive given the circumstances, she felt strongly that she should have been offered the job, and her self-esteem took a dive.

If you're overly invested in the outcome of your interviews, you may want to reframe rejection and view it as positive ("I wouldn't have been happy anyway"). Often what you want may not be a great idea after all.

2. Become a grateful, wise observer

If your interviewer is droning on about something irrelevant or having a long phone conversation, take a moment to discreetly observe your surroundings and your feelings about them. An office environment speaks volumes about a manager and the corporate culture.

During one atrocious interview, I noticed papers, phone messages, coffee cups, used tissues, leftover lunch and uncapped felt-tipped pens on the desk in front of me. The window blinds were askew and one bookshelf had almost completely dropped off the wall. If the interview hadn't convinced me I didn't want to work there, this messy office would have.

Use this technique if you're kept waiting for an interview. Instead of seething, accept these moments as opportunities to observe the people and activities around you. Are the employees laughing? Are office doors open or closed? Do people walk in and out of each other's work spaces at will? Are managers yelling? What reading material is on display? If you've been there more than 10 minutes, has anyone asked if you need help?

Look beyond the reception area, says Susan Guarneri, a career counselor in Lawrenceville, N.J.

"If you want to get a feel for how much a company values its employees, ask to be shown the employee lunchroom," she says. "I've been in places where the cafeteria is gorgeous--clean, filled with light and plants. And I've seen the other extreme. One employee lunchroom had no windows and the walls were a slimy green color. I couldn't imagine how anyone could eat lunch without throwing up, and the people I did see were grumpy."

A lack of visible clocks and no personal belongings in employee work cubicles are other indicators of morale, says Ms. Guarneri. Just don't rifle through the interviewer's in-box if he or she leaves briefly. One candidate who tried this was quickly shown the door, says Ms. Henry.

3. Ask questions

Don't leave the interview with unanswered questions. Ask about company policies about continuing education and training, prospects for promotion, how your interviewer likes his or her job, what qualities the company seeks in new hires and anything else that intrigues you.

Not only will you learn a lot, but your questions can really enliven a bad interview and pull it back from the brink of disaster, says Ms. Henry. By asking the interviewer questions about corporate vision and career paths, he or she will find it easier to ask those questions of you.

Practice responding assertively without being impolite. For instance, if you're asked to describe your greatest weakness, answer the question, then ask the interviewer to describe his. If your interviewer lacks a sense or humor or seems irritated, this alone can help you decide if this company is for you.

4. Learn trust and self-acceptance

This is a perfect time to fine-tune your radar and give yourself the gift of trust, because if you don't already recognize the subtle ways your intuition manifests itself, bad interviews are an excellent way to learn them.

Most people experience physical reactions to uncomfortable situations but don't always realize it. The body and mind can and will team up to give you warning signals. Cultivate your insight by noticing how you feel physically during and after the interview.

"Some people will develop physical symptoms from interview stress alone, [but this] doesn't mean it's going to be a bad place to work," says Ms. Guarneri. "On the other hand, if you go into an interview in a good mood and come out at the end with a migraine, pay attention."

Your warning might not be as obvious as a crashing headache. You may have far more subtle signs. Use a bad interview to benchmark your reaction to other, less obviously offensive meetings, particularly if you think you want the job. If you have a stiff neck and sore shoulders following the session, you may have been bracing yourself against the experience.

Become aware of what's happening to your body by mentally scanning up and down, inside and out. If your stomach hurts, don't chalk it up to bad coffee. If you haven't eaten anything since dinner last night but your jaws ache, pay attention. Sudden lower backaches, throbbing joints and shortness of breath also may be telling you something. And if you feel lousy now, imagine how you'll feel if you take the job.

Learn to honor your perceptions. Every rotten interview allows you to realize how instinctively smart you're and that you can take care of yourself.

I've endured job interviews that were so boring I had to poke myself awake. I've been interviewed by groups of people who clearly disagreed among themselves about what they wanted. I've been asked to describe myself in five words. Eventually, I realized I learned more from the bad interviews than the good ones. Intuition is born of experience. Trust it.

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