September 3, 2010 2 Comments
Last night I was writing a blog post when this friend of mine signed in to MSN. She said ‘Hi’ and then asked me to read a paragraph from her term paper in history. It was something convoluted about ‘how Pakistan is an islamic ideological state involved in a war against muslims and whether I thought that this involvement is hypocritical or in line with the islamic ideology.’ I asked her what she meant by ‘islamic ideology’. This set of terms can be interpretted differently by different people. I honestly did not understand what she meant by the term and told her that she needed to clarify what components this ideology had. Only then I could make a comment on it. For some reason, that offended her. She felt that the word ‘ideology’ was self explanatory, while I felt that I had no clue what that entailed. She stormed away. This is the sort of communication breakdown that we will be discussing in this blog post, with special emphasis on interviews for the Fulbright scholarship.
The opinions expressed in this post are based on my understanding of conflict resolution through workshops and courses on the subject. Based on educational experiences, and their real life implications, I believe that the two general principles of conflict resolution that I am going to talk about here, especially, being clear and reasonable with statements and asking questions are key skills to interview success.
All intelligent people have opinions. They see life around them and make conclusions about how the world works both at macro and micro levels. Some of those opinions are extreme and ingrained in us. Religious and political opinions tend to fall in this classification. Professional negotiators will tell you that the ideal situation regarding opinions, is not to have one. The best way is to see everything neutrally. However, few people are capable of truly seeing everything from a neutral point of veiw. We all tend to gravitate towards having a certain opinion about things that matter to us in life.
When we go for an interview, or for that matter, when we are in a discussion of any kind, what is considered civil is that we express your opinion and then let others express theirs. We may or may not agree to, or even like what other people are saying, but listening with an open mind is what is expected of us. Remember, the key words are ‘listening with an open mind’. Now add another layer to it. It’s called ‘respecting someone else’s opinion’. So, now it is ‘listening’ and respecting’. We all know that, and that’s really simple stuff? Right? So why did I feel the need to highlight this? It is because I have seen people being rejected in the interview because they thought they had it all figured out. I remember this one guy who was very much against abolishing the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. He never made it past the first five minutes. It was not because the interviewers cared what he thought about the blasphemy laws. The interviewers did not care. That is why the scholarship program is there, so that people from different backgrounds and different ideas go and see how things are done and laws are made in other parts of the world, outside Pakistan, and then reconsider their opinions. The interviewers raise controvertial issues, not because they care what the candidate thinks about them. The interviewers are always going to play devil’s advocate here and try and negate the candidate, only to see how he or she reacts to a challenge. This gentleman who I was talking about earlier took the challenge very badly. He was very defiant. He was repeatedly asked if he thought there was no right answer other than his own, and he claimed that there wasn’t. That in my opinion, is asking for trouble. The interviewers don’t really care what you believe in, as long as it is within the boundries of normal human ethics and rights. If the aforementioned gentleman had chosen to listen to what the interviewers were telling him, which was essentially the view of the interviewers, he would have a good chance. He got rejected because one needs a certain amount of flexibility to survive in a new culture. He did not have that flexibility and understanding, in our humble opinion. I hope that you would not face such a situation, but if you unintentionally get into such, keep your cool and back off. Be diplomatic. Try and understand what the interviewers are saying. The people called for interviews are all bright and intelligent. Chances are that you will find reason to relate to what the interviewers are saying, who usually have a few years, if not a few decades of experince over you. In the end, what will matter is how reasonable you are and how well you understand what others are saying, even when you don’t agree to it.
The second thing that I would like to emphasize is clarity of statements. Ambguity lies at the root of most conflicts. If you are saying things that are ambigous, then the exact meaning that you may have in your mind may not be the exact meaning that I am going to understand. Let’s consider the opening example of this post. I was afraid to give an opinion, because the word ‘ideology’ sounded amorphous to me. Wikipedia defines an ideology as ” a set of ideas that discusses one’s goals, expectations, and actions.” So what are those ideas? I needed to know what those ideas were before I give my opinion on the effects of something on those ideas. I might be talking about the effect on the religious right-wing ideology, while she might be thinking that I was talking about a liberal left-wing mindset in the name of ‘ideology’. That’s why clarity of statements is important in interviews.
This brings us to the third part. What if what you are saying is clear but you suspect that you really don’t follow what the interviewer is saying or asking. What do you do then? This is also a potentially conflict generating situation. You must, and I repeat you must ask from the interviewers what they mean, or to clarify the statement. Please do not confuse this with understanding and respecting and opinion. You can only understand and respect an opinion when you know it clearly. What usually happens is, that an interviewer asks a question that the candidate does not understand well. However, the candidate answers it to the best of his or her ability. The interviewer either cuts him short or lets him complete the answer, then rephrases the question to make it clearer for the candidate to answer. When I was being interviewed, I found it better to ask the interviewers outright about the part of the question that I did not understand well. They were very happy to tell me what they meant, and I am very happy to explain when I am on the asking end of the table. Lesson: Always make sure you understand what the question is asking. If you are un-sure, ask the interviewer to clarify, or rephrase the question in your own words and ask the interviewer if that is what they wanted to know. The interview is more of a discussion and less of an interview and I personally am happier when a candidate is communicating well and clearing things up while he is being interviewed.
Disclaimer: The author is a Fulbright alumnus. He is not affiliated with the Fulbright program in any other capacity. He is also not affiliated with the US Education Foundation, Pakistan. The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not represent the views of any of the aforementioned agencies and programs.