Getting to the Heart of it: The Questions that Make for a Meaningful Interview

Getting to the Heart of it: The Questions that Make for a Meaningful Interview

Wendy Gilbert, HR Account Representative at Xenium, contributed to this post.

The goal of every interview is to walk away with a clear understanding of who someone is, what they’re looking for in their next opportunity, and a vision of how they might function in a role within your organization. But it takes training, practice, and strategic in-the-moment thinking to be able to steer an interview into the heart of where an applicant is coming from.

So what’s the best way to do it and what are the key questions to ask?

Many people think that good interviewing is about asking open-ended questions to get the applicant talking, such as, Tell me about your experience in customer service. Or perhaps, Explain to me how you would handle this situation. These are fine, but they’re the kind of questions that applicants come prepared to answer.

A behavioral interview question challenges the applicant to tell a full story – one with a beginning, middle, and end. They’re situational and prompt a specific type of answer that’s unlikely a candidate has rehearsed to perfection.

However, it doesn’t stop at simply asking the right question. As the interviewer, you must be strategic in your follow-up questions and guide the interview toward where you want it to go.

Soft Skills Are Where it’s At

Finding top, skilled talent is currently difficult with such a low unemployment rate. As a result, many organizations are prioritizing softer skills in their applicant search with the idea that the more technical skills are more easily trained. Fitting with the team, understanding the company culture, and possessing the right communication-based skills for the job are hard and sometimes impossible to train someone on.

However, you want to go at it cautiously. “Don’t pigeonhole someone,” Wendy Gilbert, HR Account Representative at Xenium, advises. “For example, many people conclude that if someone is an introvert, they won’t be good with customers. But they might actually be amazing with customers because they thrive in that one-on-one setting, whereas someone who’s a huge extrovert may need to be reminded to tone it down in one-on-one settings and not dominate a conversation.”

It’s also important to not completely discount technical skill aptitude when evaluating applicants. “One time I was hiring managers for a large company and in addition to overseeing a team, another part of the role involved some spreadsheet work, specifically analyzing profits and losses,” says Gilbert. “I always thought, oh we can train a great manager on that, no problem. But some people are just not numbers people, and to excel in that role they needed to have the people management skills, operational skills, and the ability to look at the profit-loss margins and ensure that was informing their management choices and coaching decisions.”

What To Look For

When asking a behavioral interview question, keep in mind that your candidate may need a moment to come up with a fitting scenario. Their response may also not be as eloquent as some of the questions they were likely able to practice for, so keep that in mind in your evaluation. “I always am looking for someone who really tries and is thinking it through,” says Gilbert. “I’m looking for a well thought out response, a lesson they learned from the experience, and an attitude of refusing to give up. I once had someone call back 10 minutes later to say I couldn’t think of a story for that question in the interview, but I have one now! And I included it in my notes!”

Questions To Ask

Here are several of Wendy Gilbert’s go-to behavioral questions, including ways to follow-up and gain a fuller picture of a candidate’s response. “The best way an interview can go is when it becomes a conversation,” says Gilbert.

  • Tell me about a time when you could not please a customer no matter what you did. How did you handle it?
  • Tell me about a time when you had several competing deadlines, and then an unexpected emergency was thrown on your plate. How did you handle it? Why did you choose to go about it that way? What was the outcome? And, what did you learn?
  • Tell me about a time when you were responsible for implementing a plan or vision that you did not agree with? How did you handle this? Why did you take this approach and what was the outcome?
  • Tell me about the most highly effective team you have led. What was the team’s purpose? What made it so effective? What was your role? How did you contribute to the team’s effectiveness?
  • Tell me about a time that you hired the wrong person. What did you do? What was the long-term result?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to step in between two colleagues who were upset with each other and the difficulties were impacting the rest of the department/team/class. Specifically what did you do? Why did you step in?
  • Tell me about a time that you had to deal with someone who was very challenging to work with. What was the situation? What did you do and how did you maintain a positive interaction, or was that possible?
  • Share a time when others sought you out to help in getting a challenging task done. What was the situation? Why were you sought out and how did you support the work task? How often are you sought out?

Allison Julander


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