A counsellor’s ultimate guide to job interviews (1 of 2)

By Nathan Beel and Florence Ee

Recently I (Nathan) was asked by a recent counselling graduate for some tips for her upcoming interview. Rather than simply emailing the tips that might have some benefit for one person, this prompted me to consider a blog post that could provide wider benefit. I mentioned the idea to Florence who started sending in ideas from her experience.  With our combined experience on both sides of the interview process across a number of organisations and counselling related roles, we thought our observations may be useful. While the interview process will vary from panel to panel and organisation to organisation, below are some generic observations that applicants can take into account when preparing for an interview.

Evidence, not reassurances: Many interview panels will base the interview on the job selection criteria. They may be less interested in verbal reassurances that one can meet the criteria, and more interested in historical examples of when one has met the criteria (or shows the capability to meet something similar). Make sure you have clear and concise examples available that highlight how you met each criterion available to describe on request. If you don’t have examples that meet the criteria exactly, choose examples that relate to the skill in some way, even if from a non-related context.  It can demonstrate to the panel that you have the potential to perform the same skill, perhaps with some tweaking, in the work context they are interested in.

Impression management: While positions are criteria-based and require objective ratings to compare applicants, there are subjective elements that will influence the panel’s ratings. Applicants need to leave an impression that is positive about who they are and what they value.  Arrive close to the starting time. Not too early and certainly not late.  Your grooming and clothes you wear to the interview send signals about how important the interview is to you, whether you are casual or serious, and your level of professionalism.

Demonstrate your interpersonal skills and qualities in the interview itself: Another thing that makes an impression is how you personally interact with the panel.  While they may appear scary and in some cases, emotionally hard to read and overly serious, they are people who want to make a good decision on who they will employ. When answering, remember you are talking with people. You are interviewing for a position that relies on your ability to relate to people in a way that helps set them at ease. You are giving them a sample of how you build and maintain rapport with others by doing this with them. Interviewers will expect interviewees may demonstrate nervous behaviours and with this nervousness can come self-consciousness.   Find ways to connect at the human level and make comments that demonstrate empathy for their role. For instance, consider saying, “I appreciate the questions you’ve asked as I can see it’s important for you to get the right person for the position and for the clients.” Thank them for the interview for their time meeting with you and for the opportunity for the interview. As an interviewer, I’m asking myself: Would I be comfortable working with this person’s interpersonal style being demonstrated? Would I be comfortable entrusting our service’s clients to them?

Monitor your own behaviour in the interview and aim to be relaxed as possible. I (Florence) find grounding strategies helpful before an interview – progressive muscle relaxation, using your five senses, deep breathing and visualisation exercise. Aim to give sufficiently detailed answers while keeping answers appropriately concise, stay on track, and when finished, check with the panel if you have answered their question. Take a moment to answer your question. I (Florence) find it helpful to sometimes write the questions down. If you give long rambling answers, this could raise questions in the mind of the interviewer about whether this is how you normally communicate and could indicate a lack of empathy for the listeners. Likewise, too short an answer or an inability to stay focussed on answering the question they posed may raise other concerns about you.

Most counselling roles require knowledge that is deemed relevant for the role. Some knowledge will be regarded as essential while other knowledge will be accepted to develop and extend once employed. The job description and selection criteria should give an idea of what knowledge may be important to prepare for.  The depth of knowledge you have will be evident in your answers to the questions, particularly as they will be comparing what you say against their own knowledge and the answers from other interviewees. Admit if you don’t know something rather than attempting to bluff the panel. Do some research on the role that you have applied for, read what is available on the organisation’s website or ask friends/colleagues from the counselling association about the job you are applying for.

Motivation for the role: There may be a question about why you chose to apply for the position.  Many interviewers want someone who will be passionate about the position, client group, and/or organisation. Referring to the financial benefits as a main benefit of the role can send a message that this is all that is important to the applicant. Another mistake would be complaining about one’s previous position. I remember one interviewee who spent 5 minutes describing her burnout from her previous position and how unsupportive her previous employer was.  As much as we felt for this person, we considered her an unacceptable risk recognising we were hearing one side of a story. While agencies can be quite toxic at times within the human services, employers are careful about the potential risk of work cover claims, of employees who may generate stress and blame within organisations and sends a signal of the willingness of the former employee to diminish the reputation of her workplaces when dissatisfied. In comparison to other applicants, the panel will want a person passionate towards the role, willing to learn and receive feedback, the organisation’s values, and objectives, and to have minimal risk and baggage with them.

Skills: Some interviews may assume your qualifications and experience means that you will have the necessary skills. Others may ask you to describe what you might do in hypothetical situations, or skills you might have used in the past.  Some interviewers may ask you to demonstrate your skills in the interview itself in a simulated counselling interview. Regardless of how they assess your skills, the main thing is that they want to know if you can deliver the service they are employing you for.

If the panel asks you to demonstrate skills, consider what they may be looking for. Often it is simply about your ability to form a relationship with the client, particularly if they are asking for a brief five-minute simulated session. Demonstrate your counselling micro skills instead of problem-solving, ask open questions, empathise with your client, and if there’s an opportunity to summarise the session, demonstrate this in the role-play.  Many counsellors can be prepared for these through their educational experience of counselling in front of their lecturers and producing counselling videos for assessment. Nonetheless, it can still trigger anxiety performing in front of a panel in a job interview context.

Practice frameworks: Some positions will not require the counselling applicant to align with a particular modality while others may.  It is not unusual for panels to ask what framework you work from and why.  Citing a microskills textbook author or stating that one is Rogerian or Person Centred is common and can raise questions in the panel about whether one has gone beyond initial training in their development. Another common answer is that one uses an integrated approach. Be prepared to answer what you might integrate, otherwise it can be viewed as not following any model and flying by the seat of one’s pants.  Be prepared to describe any modalities you have studied and influenced your practice and why you chose these. While the panel may not be particularly interested in the selection of models that influences you, they may be interested in whether your knowledge is basic and shallow, or alternatively, well considered. You might also ask the panel what practice frameworks the organisation prefers or adopts, and if appropriate, ask why the organisation adopts it. This will both show a willingness to engage with the organisation’s own preferred treatment framework and also enable you to consider whether this is a framework you would want to learn and practice.

This first instalment has listed eight areas to consider when planning for an interview, including topics such as impression management, motivation, skills, and knowledge. The next and final instalment will describe another eight areas that may assist you in preparing for the counselling position interview.

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