Negotiations to end the Vietnam War began in Paris in 1968. They did not start well. There was a significant procedural dispute over seating arrangements and the shape of the meeting table in the conference room. Was it going to be square, circular, rectangular, oblong or elliptical? It took eight long months before an agreement was reached. I can’t imagine having to endure eight months of bickering over the shape of a table. It would have driven me nuts. The parties eventually reached a compromise. Representatives of the northern and southern governments would sit at a circular table. Members representing all other parties would sit at square tables.

I remember how this debate over table shapes and sizes enraged a large number of people. It was seen as petty and a total waste of time. Meanwhile, while they were arguing the merits of certain tables, thousands of people continued to die and be maimed as result of the war.

What many people lost sight of was that the table shape was not the real issue. It was a matter of who controlled the agenda. According to attorney Ivan Hoffman, controlling the agenda means “establishing or redefining the subject matter and tone of the discussion and negotiation and in the process, causing the other party to respond to your agenda.” It’s a standard negotiating technique. Whoever controls the agenda will control the negotiations. It may sound simplistic but these were high stake negotiations and neither party was prepared to give up one single inch. Table shape and size mattered.

Some interviewees will use this approach. The first they do when they enter the meeting room is try to control or commandeer the agenda. They start asking questions and demand procedural changes.

I’ve experienced this in employment interviews. I remember one candidate who didn’t give me an opportunity to get a word out of my mouth. They didn’t even have their bum in the chair and they were firing all sorts of questions at me: “What’s the salary for this job? When do my benefits kick in? How many employees are in the department? How long will it take me to get a raise? When can I expect to be promoted?” And on and on it went. I had allocated 45 minutes for the interview and only spent about 15 minutes asking my questions. The interview didn’t leave me with a very good picture of the candidate’s skills. It was pretty early in my career when this happened and I learned valuable lessons from it, notably:

  • As the interviewer, you control the agenda, not the other person. It’s your interview. Take charge.
  • If you don’t control the agenda, you will end up like a dog who’s chasing its tail in a circle. You’ll waste valuable time and resources.
  • Once you let the other person take control of the agenda, it’s hard to get it back.
  • You’ll be giving the interviewee a small moral victory. They’ll think they pulled one over you.

I’ve also seen this technique used in combination with the Patton technique of attack, attack, attack. The interviewee tries to control the agenda by attacking the process claiming it to be unfair and biased in favor of the employer. The don’t ask for, but demand changes to the process. They are loud, aggressive and sometimes profane.

Hold your ground. Don’t cave in to the demands. When you lose control of the agenda you will also lose control of the interview. Keep bringing the interviewee back to what you want to do.

Check out my next few blogs as I explore more interviewing deceptions.