What Happens When Your Emotions Show Up at the Interview?

What do you do when your emotions show up in the middle of an interview? What can you do to recover from the situation, and what can you learn to do to prepare in the future? Learn what you can do to be your best version of yourself when your emotions show up in the interview.

What Happens When Your Emotions Show Up at the Interview?

It would be an understatement to call 2020 an unprecedented year. Divisive politics, police violence and uprisings, COVID 19 and the unnecessary deaths, all happening while millions of Americans are trying to hold their lives together and try to make personal progress. And for some people, they might need to find a new job if their previous job closed down temporarily or permanently due to any of these unprecedented factors.

Trying to stay positive amid all of these things happening to us and those we know around us is emotionally exhausting. And sometimes our emotions show up when we least expect them – like in the middle of an all-day interview. This happened to me in 2019 and I thought I would update the post to reflect strategies that you can employ now. Not to avoid the emotions but to make them work to your advantage if possible.

Above all, I wish you all the best and know that those emotional releases are only going to help you focus in the future. Don’t hold in those emotions but let them remind you that you are making progress. Be well, everyone.

It Started Because I Sing

Outside of my life working in higher education, I sang in my local gay men’s chorus. This is an important part of the story, since it intersected with an interview I had at the time. In March 2019, we had just finished our Spring concert, which was situated in social justice and told the story of seven African American men killed in violence.

The piece was written by Joel Thompson titled The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. It was an incredibly powerful and moving experience singing the piece, as it intersected with my professional and personal life in many ways. I invite you to watch the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club performance available online or the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus version from 2019.

I had spent the last 2 and a half months singing and learning the words and stories behind the piece we performed. Right before the last performance, the composer Joel Thompson spoke with us about how and why he created the piece, and his words resonated with me. He didn’t want a piece with any light or hope, as the situation described in the music was sad and awful. He wanted to have the weight of the piece carried through the humanity of real men killed and who would be voiceless now. Hearing this was heavy to my heart and stayed in my head.

The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson, performed by the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, March 2019.

Interviewing with a Heavy Heart

The day after our final performance, I had the opportunity to interview for a director-level position at an area university, working with the diversity and inclusion office reporting directly to the Provost of the institution. I have been interviewed several times during the last few months for the position, so I wasn’t wholly unprepared for the day-long interview.

But I wasn’t necessarily focused on the questions being asked of me in the vacuum of the interview day. Given that the work and the questions about the position were about creating an intentionally inclusive community that valued diversity, the weekend’s performance weighed heavily in my heart and mind all day. I had brought up the concert earlier in the day when speaking with the hiring manager and how it was still fresh in my head from the day before, and how the concert was a reminder of the work we need to do to create a community where Black men are not senselessly murdered.

Eight hours later, when I met with her again, the message of the concert was still just as fresh.

Talking about the weight of doing diversity and inclusion work, while being reminded that lives are literally at stake, can be heavy for anyone to carry.

Two Important Thoughts

When I began to thank her for the opportunity to speak with her on the topic and how thrilled I was to see the work the institution was committed to doing on diversity and inclusion, the voices of the men come quickly in my head and I choked up.

I didn’t cry like I had two weeks previously, but the weighty emotion of my personal life just sneaked up on me in a way I had never had happen before during an interview.

When the hiring manager was quickly getting me a tissue, two thoughts went through my head:

  1. I was sure that I had just killed my chances to get this job.
  2. I wouldn’t take a job that made me feel like I couldn’t be connected to the purpose of the work I do.

Quickly, I apologized for being that emotional in an interview. Thankfully, the hiring manager quickly understood the motivation to do the work related to diversity and inclusion can be very personal. Her understanding did make me feel better about the situation but didn’t necessarily put my fears to rest. I can only wait until notified about the outcome of the search process to know what the impact of this will be.

And I know that next time I will be more prepared.

Feeling Prepared for the Next Opportunity

Whether you are job-searching while still employed, trying to find a job while dealing with long-term unemployment, or you’re dealing with the complexities of life while interviewing, there are going to be times when your emotions rise to the surface unexpectedly. And I am here to tell you that this is normal, natural, and you’re going to be okay. Here is I learned from the situation that I found valuable:

Don’t underestimate authenticity. Be raw, be vulnerable, be real.

Many factors lead us to the jobs we desire, but those that are an extension of our values often have personal ties to the work we wish to do and how we want to extend these values into the world. When asked why we want a job, or how this job will help us achieve our goals, be honest. Speak about an authentic reason, rather than giving the generic “This position will help me become a leader within the industry and drive the department toward exceeding its goals.”

It was important to show up authentically during our interviews. Sometimes connecting the real world with the work world requires us to break down these walls. I can see that more clearly now than before.
It was important to show up authentically during our interviews. Sometimes connecting the real world with the work world requires us to break down these walls. I can see that more clearly now than before.

Take a breath (or two) but don’t leave the room!

What I was feeling was deep emotion, which I didn’t want to discount or dismiss, but I needed to complete my thoughts and leave the interview with my composure. I paused for a couple of seconds, and said that the concert I had spoken of earlier reminded me of why I do what I do, even when the work is emotionally taxing and the world sometimes doesn’t get it right.

Taking a minute to get to the point, while acknowledging the situation, was all I needed to move on. But if you leave the room to compose yourself, you might lose the moment to shine on your own terms.

Connect it with your passion.

I knew what I was crying about, and what it meant to me to be in the moment trying to work with this institution to achieve the world we can all hope to live in. So my emotions matched the situation and pointed out what I was feeling was just an extension of my values.

At that moment I was overcome with the emotions, but I wasn’t embarrassed by them. But I did connect what I was feeling with my passion for social justice and the tough work we want to achieve. This was a good way to end the day and at least allowed me to move on from the moment.

Our emotions are our connection to our passions. These passions can be private or personal, or sometimes involve the world, but when these passions are disrupted, it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to ignore them. Don’t feel the shame of embarrassment when your passions come through in an interview.

Know and understand your triggers that might elicit this response in future interviews.

The day of the interview was a tough day because of the emotional roller coaster I was on from the concert. But sometimes there are traumas that have happened that might spark a tear or two, like the recent death of a loved one or a sudden loss of a job that you loved. I know and understand that talking about the closing of the college where I used to work brings up many different types of emotions but I am more prepared to talk about the situation from a thoughtful (but distant) way and have learned that I need to be responsible for re-directing the conversation when it gets uncomfortable after answering the question.

It would be good to practice how to answer questions that might be triggering or bring up strong emotions prior to the interview in order to be in control as possible. You may still feel strong emotions but you might get centered and back at the moment sooner than later.

Our Emotions Show Our Values

I strongly believe that our authentic self is our best selling point and that showing emotion is never a negative. While not every hiring manager may feel the same, I am certain I wouldn’t want to work for a manager or institution that did not value my humanity and the passion this brings to the workplace. If leadership is an expression of our values than we should be prepared to demonstrate these values in unexpected ways and I hope for the best when I do share my values in an interview.

Want to Explore This Topic Further?

I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop job-searching skills.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.


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