Powerful questions to get below the surface
1. Ask for specific "stories" of complete situations
"We all meet situations where people disagree on the correct way to proceed. Can you give me an instance from your own experience where it was up to you to deal with this kind of disagreement? Perhaps a time when you had to lead a team to find an answer everyone could rally behind?"
2. Build on answers with specific questions on "how?" and "why?"
a) "What exactly convinced you to chose this career path?"
b) When the candidate has answered:"Exactly why were you convinced?"
c) Finally: "Why has this proved to be the right path?"
If you must ask multiple questions, make sure each part builds extends the previous one in a single direction. It's better to stick to simple questions if you can. In interviewing, less is more.
3. Stick with actual happenings
General, non-specific answers let people talk about what they wished they had done, not what actually happened.
a) "Please tell me about a specific situation where you were able to show your ability to cope with a tough deadline. How did you handle it?"
b) "What did it teach you?"
Abstractions are easy to handle...and fake. Talk is cheap. Stick to verifiable actions, not intentions.
4. Put an unexpected "spin" on a question
a) "Has it become easier or harder to plan a marketing campaign over the time you've been doing that kind of work?"
b) "Why is this?"
Look for evidence of how the person reasons and learns from experience. How long he or she has worked in a specific field can be learned from their file. What matters is what those years have taught them. That's what they'll carry into their next job.
5. Ask for comparisons
"How does leading your present team compare with the first group you ever had to lead?"
Comparisons bring out how someone thinks and uses past experience.
6. Mix statements with questions
"I find it tough to convince people to change when they're comfortable with the status quo. It puzzles me how to do this well."
Make an interesting statement, pause and wait for a comment. We do this all the time in informal conversations. It's a natural invitation to the other person to add their ideas. Too many questions, one after another, sound like an interrogation.
7. Avoid hypothetical questions
"If you were promoted, what would be your first action?"
Hypothetical questions invite hypothetical answers. They're worthless.
I once sat in on an interview when the interviewer combined a hypothetical question with an attempt at pop psychology -- and got more than he bargained for!
"If I were to ask you," he said, "What would you say was the most vivid memory you retain from childhood?"
The candidate paused, then said: 'Sitting naked in the bath with my sister."
The interviewer nearly fell off his chair.
"What did you learn?" I asked him afterwards.
"Heaven knows!" he said.
I'd learned the candidate was cleverer than the interviewer and had a wicked sense of humor.
8. Never ask leading (or rhetorical) questions
Leading questions assume an answer. Rhetorical questions are statements dressed up as questions.
"When did you stop abusing your spouse?" is the classic example of a leading question. Try to answer it and you agree with the assumption that you're abusive. Translated into working life, you get questions like: "When did you first discover you need help with creating budgets?"
An example of a rhetorical question is: "Of course, I'm sure you'll agree that labor relations are best handled with firmness, wouldn't you?"
9. Take your time
Complex question need to be split into natural parts and asked in a logical sequence. Lead the candidate where you want him or her to go. Don't overwhelm the person with a mass of questions asked all together.
10. Avoid questions that invite simple answers
"How much do you want this job?" ("Very much.")
"Do you have experience in financial controls?" ("Yes.")
That kind of closed question stops progress and leads nowhere.
Follow these simple steps and your interviews will be more productive and easier on you and the candidate.
Adrian W. Savage writes for people who want help with the daily dilemmas they face at work. He has contributed more than 25 articles to leading British and American publications and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Chicago Tribune.
Through his web site, http://www.thevirtualmentor.net, Adrian publishes "E-Mentor", a monthly e-zine for people interested in making their working lives happier and more effective.