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Active Listening Techniques for Candidate Interviews

A guide for recruiters to use active listening techniques to conduct optimal candidate interviews

Josef Mohamed
Experienced technical writer and software journalist
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As a recruiter or part of a hiring team, you may have seen guides that refer to the importance of active listening while conducting an interview. It would be surprising if you hadn't, given how important active listing is to conduct truly meaningful and insightful candidate interviews.

Active listening goes beyond simply hearing what an interviewee has to say; it involves genuinely engaging with the candidate and paying attention to verbal and non-verbal cues - how they say it.

In This Article

By mastering the art of active listening, we can pick up on cues, understand motivations, and evaluate a candidate's potential beyond their resume.

A candidate smiling during their job interview with recruitment professionals practicing active listening.

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is a communication skill that goes beyond simply hearing words. It requires fully engaging with the speaker and paying close attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues. Active listening means you are fully present in the conversation, and focused on the interviewee’s responses.

Although it is much more nuanced than simply these points, active listening happens when an interviewer:

  • Faces the interviewee
  • Maintains eye contact
  • Notes subtle facial expressions and body language
  • Has set aside distractions, such as electronic devices
  • Listens without preconceived notions
  • Does not interrupt the interviewee’s answers
  • Gives clear cues that they are listening and interested in what is said
  • Imposes no opinions of their own
  • Confirms understanding by summarizing or paraphrasing what the candidate has said, and
  • Asks questions to move the interview forward

Why Active Listening is Important in Candidate Interviews

By becoming better listeners in candidate interviews, we can foster more robust connections, make more informed hiring decisions, and ensure a mutually beneficial match between the candidate and our organization. Here are the most notable benefits of using active listening in candidate interviews.

Active Listening Builds Rapport

Listening is one of the most underrated social skills of successful leaders, and hiring managers. When we use active listening to interview job candidates, we create a positive and supportive atmosphere. This helps candidates feel more comfortable and encourages them to open up, leading to more authentic and insightful responses.

Deeper Understanding of a Candidate's Motivations

Active listening enables an interview to delve deeper into a candidate's personality. This helps for a better understanding of their motivations and aspirations. By attentively listening to their responses and non-verbal cues, we can better identify what drives them as opposed to just noting down their answers.

Bear in mind that candidates prepare for interviews and, to a certain extent, will rehearse the most favorable responses to popular interview questions. Through active listening, we can pick up on subtle nervousness or keenness that their words alone may not convey. These markers help us understand their career goals, and how well they align with our organization's values regardless of what they actually say.

For example, when asking a candidate how they respond to negative feedback from a manager, the response (if they are serious about the job) will almost certainly be that they listen attentively and take it as constructive criticism to implement. If the question itself makes the candidate guarded, defensive, or nervous, it could be that they actually take negative feedback very poorly.

Active Listening Allows for More Insight from Virtual Interviews

In video interviews, we generally don’t have the same level of face-to-face interaction as an in-person meeting allows. Even the best video interview software can’t replace the nuanced insight gained from active listening and picking up on non-verbal cues.

Paying attention to a candidate's visible body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice can provide valuable insights into their enthusiasm, confidence, and overall engagement.

Interviewer using active listening techniques during a job interview.

It Helps Interviewers Uncover Hidden Qualities

It is completely possible that a candidate can bring much more to the table than what you’ve seen on their resume. Even the best applicant tracking systems and resume parsing tools cannot vouch for a person’s interpersonal skills, charisma, wit, or confidence.

Through active listening, we can discover qualities that may not be evident on a candidate's resume. It helps us identify their problem-solving abilities, communication skills, and ability to articulate their thoughts effectively.

Asking Relevant Follow-up Questions

We understand a candidate's responses more deeply when actively listening to them. This allows us to ask targeted follow-up questions that clarify and demonstrate our genuine interest in their experiences and qualifications.

Active listening remains a powerful tool to engage with candidates effectively. It demonstrates your commitment to understanding their unique qualities and evaluating their fit for the role and company culture.

5 Active Listening Skills for Interviewers

Active listening sounds like a no-brainer, but it's not always mentioned in tips for conducting interviews. Compared to the tons of surface-level information processing our brains do on a daily basis, it’s also not that easy. To master active listening, as an interviewer, you’ll need to practice the following important skills

1. Maintaining Full Attention

When an interviewer is completely present in an interview, it builds trust between the company and the candidate. By extension, it enhances the candidate experience and your employer brand.

Effective listening creates a positive atmosphere where candidates open up and respond authentically. Maintaining full attention means that you, the interviewer:

Clear your mind: Before the interview starts, take a moment to clear your head of any distractions. Your focus should solely be on the candidate and their responses.

Embrace the pause: Pauses can be powerful. They can indicate thoughtfulness or hesitation. Don't rush to fill these gaps. Instead, use a natural pause in conversation as an opportunity to digest what the candidate has just said.

Do not interrupt: Respect the candidate's train of thought. Interruptions can derail their responses, preventing you from getting full insight into their abilities and personality.

Paraphrase and summarize: This technique not only shows the candidate that you're really listening but also provides a chance to clarify any unclear points.

Recruiter displaying attentive body language as an active listening technique.

2. Mastering Non-Verbal Cues

The ability to pick up on non-verbal cues plays a significant role in good communication, particularly in video interviews where face-to-face interaction may be limited. An interviewer can gain valuable insights by paying attention to facial expressions, tone of voice, and visible body language (such as fidgeting).

Some more body language cues to look for in your candidate are:

Eye Contact: This is a biggie. If a candidate can't hold eye contact, what they say may not be 100% truthful, or they are very self-conscious about it. But bear in mind that pointed eye contact is considered inappropriate in some cultures, so they may just be polite. Too much eye contact can feel intense and unsettling— something to bear in mind for client-facing roles.

Posture: Slouched shoulders can indicate low self-esteem or lack of interest. On the flip side, an upright posture can signal confidence and engagement.

Fidgeting: While a certain amount of nervous energy is expected, a candidate who displays excessive fidgeting may suggest discomfort or anxiety.

Gestures: Animated hand gestures can imply enthusiasm and passion for the subject matter. But too many can be distracting and may indicate restlessness or impatience.

On the other side of the coin, active listening requires that the interviewer is conscious of their own body language also. Maintaining a friendly and engaged facial expression, using hand gestures purposefully, and sitting with good posture can help convey interest and professionalism to the candidate. Additionally, nodding and maintaining eye contact (whether in person or through the camera lens) shows attentiveness and encourages candidates to open up.

3. Asking Probing Questions

Probing interview questions are not your everyday, run-of-the-mill interview questions. They are strategic, open-ended inquiries designed to delve deeper into a candidate's experience, skills, and personality. Unlike straightforward, closed-ended questions that garner simple yes or no responses, probing questions are encouragers that require thought and elaborate answers.

By using open-ended questions, we create opportunities for candidates to share detailed responses and provide valuable insights. Probing questions go beyond surface-level information and encourage candidates to share their achievements, challenges, and point of view.

These questions help uncover hidden talents, problem-solving abilities, and critical thinking skills that may not be evident on a resume. It also demonstrates our genuine interest in their background and experiences.

Remember, asking probing questions is not to put candidates on the spot but to create a constructive dialogue that fully lets them showcase their skills and experiences. Good examples of probing questions are:

  • Can you tell me more about your experience with [specific task/role]?
  • Can you walk me through how you handled a major challenge at your previous job?
  • How have you implemented feedback from your supervisors in the past? Can you describe a project where you had to collaborate with a difficult team member?

4. Patience

When we approach interviews with an open mind and exercise patience, we create an environment that fosters effective communication. Being patient means giving candidates time and space to express themselves fully without interruptions or rushing them. Moreover, patience demonstrates respect for the person speaking, making them feel valued and heard.

All this helps to create a supportive and inclusive interview environment where candidates feel comfortable expressing themselves and sharing their true capabilities.

5. Empathy

Empathic listening allows us to step into the candidate's shoes, understand their unique circumstances, and respond with compassion and understanding. When we practice kindness during interviews, we build trust. This, in turn, creates a safe and supportive space where candidates feel heard and are encouraged to share more.

Empathy in an interview situation means acknowledging the candidate's feelings and seeking to understand the underlying motivations, challenges, and aspirations. This understanding helps us assess their organizational fit and make more holistic hiring decisions.

Recruiter listening attentively to a job candidate during a job interview.

Active Listening Techniques for Candidate Interviews

To help you master the art of active listening, we've compiled a list of powerful ways to enhance your interviewing skills.


Listen attentively to the candidate's response and restate it using your own words. For instance, you might say, "So, if I understand correctly, you successfully led a team through [challenging project], leveraging your strong communication skills to resolve [conflict] and ensure timely delivery. Is that an accurate summary of your experience?"

This approach clarifies your understanding and invites the candidate to provide additional details or correct any misconceptions.

Reflecting on Their Feelings

This technique acknowledges and validates the candidate's emotions, showing empathy, and fostering a deeper connection. Reflecting on their feelings demonstrates that you truly comprehend what the candidate is saying and how they feel about their experiences and achievements.

For example, if a candidate expresses excitement about a particular accomplishment, the interviewer can verbalize the corresponding emotions by saying, "It sounds like you were genuinely proud and fulfilled by achieving that milestone. That must have been a rewarding experience for you."

This empathetic approach encourages a candidate to delve deeper into their experiences. It fosters a sense of connection and mutual understanding, making the interview process more meaningful and memorable for both parties.

Asking Follow-Up Questions

Asking follow-up questions based on a candidate’s responses shows that you are actively engaged and seeking a comprehensive understanding of their answers. This allows you, as the interviewer, to gather additional information that may not have been initially shared.

For example, suppose a candidate mentions their experience in project management. It would be insightful to ask for specific examples of projects they have successfully led, the challenges they encountered, and the strategies they employed to overcome them.

Summarizing Key Points

When we summarize, we concisely reiterate the main points of a candidate’s answer and highlight the value of what they have shared. This clarifying technique confirms your comprehension and reassures the candidate that their interviewer has captured the essence of their message accurately.

For example, we might say, "So, if I understand correctly, you possess a strong track record of successfully leading cross-functional teams, fostering collaboration, and achieving project milestones ahead of schedule. Is that an accurate summary of your expertise?"

Candidate displaying enthusiastic body language during an online job interview.

Dos and Don’ts of Active Listening in Candidate Interviews

As a good listener, practicing active listening during candidate interviews can yield numerous benefits. The goal of active listening is not only to understand what the interviewee is saying but to make the person feel heard and respected.

Here are a few important dos and don'ts to help you become an effective active listener during interviews.

Do focus on the interview: Eliminate distractions and give them your undivided attention.

Do take notes: Jot down key points to demonstrate an interest in what the candidate is saying.

Do use encouraging body language: Nod your head and smile to convey that you are interested in what they say.

Do paraphrase: Repeat what the interviewee said to ensure you understand their point of view.

Do clarify: Ask open-ended questions and follow-up questions to clarify their responses and demonstrate a genuine interest in their thoughts.

Do empathize: Acknowledge the interviewee's feelings, especially if they speak about challenging or personal experiences.

Do stay neutral: Refrain from passing judgment while listening to the candidate's responses. Be mindful of your words, tone, and body language at all times.

Do summarize: Run through key points after the candidate has answered a question.

Do show gratitude: Thank the interviewee sincerely for taking the time to participate in the interview.

Don’t interrupt: Interrupting or talking over the candidate can be off-putting and disrespectful.

Don’t prejudge: Entertaining assumptions and biases about the candidate make it very difficult to give them a fair chance and see their true value.

Don’t multitask: Focusing on other tasks, calls, and personal matters during an interview can signal an unprofessional lack of interest and affect your ability to understand the candidate's message.

Don’t dominate the conversation: Allow the interviewee to express their thoughts and views freely and without interruption.

Don’t show impatience: Agitated body language such as eye-rolling or sighing can signal a lack of respect and disinterest in their responses.

Don’t use leading questions: Avoid questions that sway the interviewee's response or steer the conversation in a particular direction. For example, “You work in HR, so you’re fine with using HR software, right?”

Don’t ignore nonverbal communication: Body language can be as insightful as the candidate’s words. Pay attention to their posture, sense of ease, and tone of voice.

Don’t be insincere: Don't pretend to understand or care about the candidate's responses when you're not engaged or interested.

Final Thoughts

By implementing all the active listening techniques mentioned here, you can create a positive, valuable, and engaging interview experience for candidates.

The benefits of active listening are numerous; it builds trust, enhances communication, and fosters a deeper understanding of their qualifications and experiences. As you embark on future candidate interviews, remember the power of active listening. Practice these techniques, hone your skills, and observe their positive impact on the interview experience.

Remember, the goal of active listening is not just to hear what the candidate is saying but to truly understand their perspective.

Josef Mohamed
Experienced technical writer and software journalist
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Josef Mohamed is a Content Marketer and Web Designer with over six years of experience who writes about marketing, technology, and other related topics. He is the founder of josefmohamed.com, where he shares his knowledge and expertise. When he's not busy crushing the content game, he's likely pumping iron at the gym or adding another skill to his already impressive arsenal. 

Also featured in: Classic Informatics, ContactOut, Cience, and Determ

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