How to: structure your answer to behavioral interview questions
Behavioral questions are those such as, “Tell me about a time when you dealt with conflict.” These questions, which are based on past experiences, are one of the most common tools recruiters and hiring managers use to get to know candidates. These questions provide a great opportunity to highlight your strengths and skills by sharing stories of past successes. However, because the questions are so vague, they also leave a lot of room for error if you don’t go into the interview with a good game plan.
With that in mind, here are my guidelines for the basic 3-part structure of a good answer to a behavioral interview question.
1) Be concise in explaining the context of the situation.
One of the most common mistakes candidates make when answering behavioral interview questions is that they spend too much time describing the situation. You have a limited amount of time to answer before the interviewer will start to lose focus, so you don’t want to spend all your time explaining every detail, history, and character involved in your story. It is best to give a quick overview featuring key points: the challenge at hand, your role, and any other key players who are relevant to your story. Although it is tempting to think you need to give the interviewer lots of background, try to think hard about what they really need to know in order to understand the main point of the story. You want the focus of your answer to be YOU and something great that you did.
2) Talk about WHAT you accomplished and HOW you did it.
Once you have set the scene, focus the bulk of your answer on what you did. The key here is not just to list the steps or actions you took, but to explain how you were able to achieve success. For example, if you are telling a story about getting other people motivated to take on a tough project, you would want to explain what you did in order to motivate people, not just state that you did it. To understand why this is such a powerful shift, think about this from the interviewer's perspective: they are probably talking to dozens of candidates, and everyone will claim to have done great things.
Who would you be more compelled to hire? Someone who just stated that they accomplished amazing things? Maybe. What about someone who explained how they thought about motivating people by getting to know them, understanding their priorities, and having open conversations about what had motivated them in the past? I would be much more likely to believe the candidate who told their story that way, as I suspect you would too. With that in mind, think about using the majority of your time not just to explain WHAT you did, but also to illustrate HOW you did it.
3) Conclude with the results and lessons learned.
Just like any good story, your interview answer should have a clear and compelling ending. Do not just trail off when you are done describing what happened. You want to end with a confident tone to really impress your interviewer. As a way to wrap up your story, explain what the outcome was. For example, share that you managed to deliver the project under budget and on time after working through the challenges and getting your team motivated to work together. Whenever possible, try to quantify your outcome (e.g. reduced the budget by 10%). Illustrating your success in terms of facts and figures makes it easier to understand what the positive impact was for your company. In addition to the outcome, or if there isn’t a clearly quantifiable outcome, conclude with a short sentence about your takeaway from this experience. The best candidates are confident but also self-aware, so showing that you are able to learn from successes as well as failures will help you stand out.
Kate O'Sullivan is an experienced leader and coach who has worked with a diverse group of clients to help them achieve their professional goals with KO Coaching. Kate coaches professionals who want to make career transitions to a new industry or role. Kate also coaches emerging leaders to help them develop the skills and confidence to move effectively into leadership roles.
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