For some hiring managers, a job interview is a chance to get a candidate’s psychological profile as well as his or her direct qualifications for the job. This might include “staring contest” type questions, hypothetical situations that seem to have little to do with the topic at hand, or questions about your life outside of work. These can pull you out of your interview comfort zone, but they don’t have to.
Here are some strategies for navigating behavioral interview questions.
DON’T fall into the silent treatment trap.
Most people, when faced with silence (especially with someone they don’t know well), feel obligated to fill that silence. If an interviewer asks you a question, and you answer it only to be met with a stare and no reply, don’t try to shovel in more information or clarify further. You already answered the question, and going off the cuff could talk you out of the job. It’s okay to give the pause a few minutes, then ask, “Is there anything else you’d like to know on this point?” Make sure that when you ask, it’s not sarcastic or nervous—just a straightforward question.
DON’T try to match the silent treatment with aggression.
Staring down your interviewer, nostrils flaring like you’re in an Old West showdown, is not going to help your cause. It’s not necessarily a case of “he who backs down first loses,” but rather just a test of how you react. Keep it calm and friendly.
DO be prepared to talk about what you do outside of work...
…but try to keep it at least semi-related to the job discussion. If you do volunteer work, talk about the kind of skills you apply there. If you talk about a hobby, emphasize that it’s something that helps you decompress outside of work hours. Before you talk about any outside interests, make sure it’s appropriate for the company and professional conversation. NSFW hobbies should be left off the table completely (and hopefully your R-rated blog is well hidden under a non-identifiable pseudonym!).
DON’T let unnerving questions be a backdoor to illegal interview information.
Whether intentional or not, shifting the focus of the interview to personal activities, or to making you so nervous that you’re willing to spill anything, can produce information that the interviewer should not be privy to.
For example, if you’re asked about your personal goals and activities, and you talk about your church youth group mentoring, you’ve introduced religion to the interview. If you talk about the Mommy-and-Me yoga class you started in your neighborhood, you’ve opened up family status. Be choosy about what you discuss.
DO be creative for “What would you be…?” questions.
If you’re asked what kind of tree/animal/Backstreet Boy you’d be, answer the question. But you don’t have to answer it totally faithfully to your personality. Tailor it to what you think would best match the job and the company. For example, I wouldn’t answer, “I’d be a panda, because I’m slow and like to eat salad.” Instead, I’d say, “I’d be an octopus, because I’m great at multitasking.”
These questions may be designed to knock you slightly off your game and get to the real you, so you shouldn’t worry too much when they happen. Just be ready to keep the focus on the job that’s up for grabs, and always find a way to spin it back to your qualifications.
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