Tricks for Decoding the Thorniest Interview Questions

Arnie Fertig
September 11, 2012

There's more to an interview than just answering questions. In fact, often the answers you give are less important than the inferences that an interviewer makes from them. If you understand this, you can demonstrate that you have the strong communications skills that so many people claim, but far fewer actually possess.

A good interviewer is trained to get to know a candidate's personality, temperament, self-confidence, overall maturity, and more. These are qualities that can't be ascertained directly, but make a key difference in hiring decisions. Here are some ways that they may go about it:

1. Open-ended questions. General questions are good to get a conversation going, and to put you at ease. They have no particular "right" or "wrong" answer and permit you to go off in many directions. For example, "Tell me about yourself," is the most commonly asked first interview question. When responding, do you get to the heart of the matter quickly and concisely, or do you meander? Do you spout prepared talking points, or do you check yourself along the way to make sure you are giving the kind of answer that the interviewer wants to hear? Does your tone of voice, body language, and style reveal a sense of insecurity or self-confidence? Do you focus on your professional, business-self? Do you get sidetracked into a discussion about extraneous elements of your life? What you say is extremely important, but how you say it greatly impacts how you're perceived.

2. Pointed questions. Interviewers often ask you to take a stand to see how you will respond. For example, they might ask a standard phone screen question that could be seen this way: "What are your salary expectations?" Are you willing to take a position and be aggressive? Do you show a sense of desperation by offering to take whatever is offered? Are you respectful or evasive in the way you decline to give a specific answer? While the substance of your answer may be very important, how you handle it is often a good indicator of your ability to "think on your feet" and stay calm under pressure.

3. Redundant questions. Sometimes interviewers will circle back and ask about something you have already covered, or something else you might expect them to already know. Commonly, they will ask, "Do you have any experience with X?" knowing full well that you have answered the question in your resume.

Many people have scuttled their chances of getting the job by retorting with an element of anger or frustration in their voice: "Didn't you read my resumé" To do so reveals an ability to be easily insulted, thin skinned, or "fly off the handle." Instead, you would've been better off just talking about that skill or experience without referencing the resume, patiently demonstrating your competence in an even and unperturbed tone.

4. Behavior-based questions. When trying to figure out how you will act in the future, interviewers often turn to your past. Look out for questions that begin, "Tell me about a time when you?" For example, they might ask you to describe a time when you saw a co-worker clearly not performing well, and what you did about it.

There are so many things that might be asked, it is virtually impossible to prepare for all of them. And that is exactly why these kinds of questions reveal so much. The more the interviewer can get you to go beyond where you have prepared to go, the greater his or her ability to really get to know you. In many instances, the specifics of your answer are less important than what they reveal about you.

The sophisticated interviewer looks beyond what you say to evaluate what kind of employee you are, how you think, how you learn from prior failures, and how you grow both as a person and as an employee. If you present yourself as a person with both competency and maturity, and as a team player with strong communications skills, you will ace your interview. Why? Because you are the kind of person employers always strive to find.

Happy Hunting!

Arnie Fertig is the head coach of JOBHUNTERCOACH.COM, where he utilizes his extensive background in HR Staffing and as owner of a recruiting company to help mid-career job-hunters land their next job. Arnie provides one-to-one coaching services to individuals throughout the U.S. in all aspects of the job hunt, including: resume writing, personal branding, utilizing social media, enhancing networking skills, preparing for interviews, and negotiating compensation.