When I first became a hiring manager I had to learn to say No about people. Because we tended to use recruitment agencies I didn’t have to No directly to the individuals, but I did have to say it to the agents, and I learned how to be specific in my critiques.
Often, someone just didn’t seem right, or they just felt wrong, or their answers were a bit off. The problem with all of these views, though, is that they’re incredibly unhelpful. I wanted the candidate to get constructive feedback, and I wanted the recruiter to know that I was thinking carefully about the candidates, and to provide useful guidance to them.
It was initially very difficult to turn those vague feelings into specific reasons. I had to think back to the conversation, and interrogate myself carefully on what I was expecting. I also had to make sure what I was saying was objectively defensible—that it sounded reasonable to someone who wasn’t there. I needed to make sure I wasn’t just being prejudiced for whatever reason.
That was helpful to the recruiters and (I hope) the candidates, but I quickly found there was another benefit, too. I was learning more about what I wanted in a candidate. I wasn’t just providing guidance for the recruiter; I was providing guidance for my future self, too. As I saw more candidates it became easier to identify why someone was promising, or not.
Of course, turning vague feelings into clear explanation isn’t just about recruiting—this practice is useful in other areas, too. If someone proposes a way of doing something that seems somehow lacking, I need to be able to express exactly why. It requires introspection (“Exactly why does that seem poor to me?”) and articulation. Often that initial discomfort doesn’t turn into an entire counter-argument, but will at least start the conversation (“You’re tackling a complex part of the system, and your plan seems far too straightforward by comparison. But I admit I can’t say what you’re missing.”). Starting a constructive conversation is helpful… and if we learn that my concerns were misplaced, that’s fine.
Turning vague doubts into clear and defensible language is hard at first, but it gets easier with practice.