It's interview time, and you've cleaned up and brought along the best version of yourself. You show you're responsible by arriving early and dressing appropriately. You show you're interested by researching the company and asking questions. You show you're a good fit by answering tough questions and sharing glittering personal anecdotes.
But how do you show that you're listening? Here's the thing: You don't show; you just do it. Listening -- not hearing, but fully receiving and digesting what another person says -- is tough work under normal circumstances. And when you're anxious or nervous for the interview, the skill becomes even more elusive. However, while listening attentively to the interviewer may be tough, doing so will help you determine if you and the company are a good match.
Plus, listening isn't a bad skill to present to your interviewer. "If the company values collaboration, that means people are listening to one another," points out Paul Donoghue, psychologist and co-author of "Are You Really Listening? Keys to Successful Communication." And you'll likely compete with other candidates who dressed sharp, asked great questions and provided thought-out answers, so "you can stand out by being a good listener," he says.
[Read: How to Be an Active Interviewee.]
You can also stand out if you're not a good listener. Heather R. Huhman, public relations and marketing expert and a hiring manager, describes her perception of job candidates who don't appear to fully listen: "It seems like they're not really interested, and that's huge to me, because surely there will be other people I interview who are going to be truly interested in what I'm talking about." Besides that, Huhman says she'd question how well those candidates would do if hired. "If they're really that distracted in the interview, how are they going to perform on the job?"
Don't give the interviewers any reason to doubt you. Here's how to stand out from other candidates:
1. Practice. "Don't presume you're a good listener," Donoghue says, adding that listening well is a skill that takes continuous work and practice. Strutting into an interview assuming you can just do it is like thinking, "In this audition, I'm going to wing it and play Chopin," he says.
Thicken your skin and ask your partner, friends or family members to tell you when you're not listening in everyday conversations and in a mock interview, Donoghue suggests. You may not realize that you tend to interrupt, zone out or fiddle instinctively with your phone as others speak to you. While this tough love may sting, it'll help you catch those poor listening behaviors and reverse them.
2. Prepare. You know how much "listening" you do in those 9 a.m. meetings after a late-night Netflix binge? You'll need to do better than that in an interview. Take care of yourself so you have the energy to focus on active listening, says Pamela Cooper, president of the International Listening Association, which teaches and researches listening. In case your mother doesn't say it: Get plenty of sleep before the big day, and eat beforehand. ("There's nothing more frustrating or embarrassing than having your stomach growl during the interview," Cooper says.)
Cooper stresses that listening is about being mindfully present and in the moment. You're digesting what the interviewer is saying right this second, rather than silently rehearsing the "Where do you want to be in five years" response or wondering if your current boss suspects you're at this interview. Center yourself right beforehand with a couple deep breaths, she says.
3. Eliminate distractions. Two words: No cellphones. Put them away -- out of sight and out of mind. One innocent buzz can shift your attention and annoy your interviewer. And, let's face it, many of us have a Pavlovian response to check out that buzz, Huhman says. Vibrate? Reward! ("And it's probably just that your mom has 'liked' your most recent Facebook post," she notes.) Check that phone, and you're telling the interviewer that the phone is more important than him or her.
4. Show that you're listening. Body language speaks volumes. "The whole body can communicate that I am really interested, paying attention and taking in what you're saying," Donoghue says. He urges eye contact, having a "receptive and interested" look on your face and leaning in slightly toward the interviewer.
Be sure to nod as the interviewer speaks, too, Huhman adds. Nods often work better than verbally agreeing with "yeahs" and "uh huhs," she says, which can feel like interrupting. Speaking of whi --
5. Don't interrupt. Sure, of course, no duh. But it's not an uncommon offense during interviews, Huhman says. Often, nervous candidates are so enthusiastic (or trying to appear to be) that they jump the gun and begin answering questions a beat or two before the interviewers finish asking them. "Excitement is good, of course, but maybe they don't know totally where I'm going with the question before I'm done," she says. So while yes, you finessed an impressive answer to the strengths and weaknesses question -- and finally the interviewer is asking it -- wait for that breath and second of silence before wowing him or her with your response.
6. Ask for the interviewer to repeat the question, if necessary. No one is a perfect listener. If you catch yourself mentally checked out, Donoghue suggests simply chiming in with something like, "I didn't quite fully understand what you're saying; could you repeat?"
[See: The 25 Best Jobs of 2014.]
7. Repeat after the interviewer. Here's a classic way to tell someone, "I hear you:" Say what he or she just said in your own words. Donoghue's example: "It sounds like this company really values a culture of collaboration." Note that there's no need for parrot talk. ("I'm hearing that you're saying it's a nice day.") But summarizing important or confusing points of the interview will help you fully digest those statements while showing the interviewer that you value what he or she said.
This repetition also works for summarizing the interviewer's question before answering, Huhman says, because the interviewer gets a chance to speak up if you've misheard or misunderstood the question. Plus, these few introductory words will buy time to craft your answer and avoid any awkward silences. "Most job seekers sort of fear silence in an interview," she says. "It probably feels like an eternity for every second."
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