How will you behave in a behavioral interview?

INTERVIEWER: “We need someone who can handle difficult issues. Describe a time when you had to communicate unpleasant news to someone. How did you approach the situation? What were the results?”

JOB APPLICANT: “I have excellent communication skills.  I’ve always been able to communicate my ideas clearly, even when the subject matter is challenging.”

INTERVIEWER: “Good. Please describe one example. Describe the people involved, the nature of the problem, your communication strategies, and the outcome.”

The days of interview questions like “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” are nearly gone. Hiring is an expensive, time-consuming process, so many businesses have adopted behavioral interviewing as a way to obtain tangible information about each applicant. In behavioral interviewing, every question is designed to elicit a story — an anecdote that illustrates the applicant’s skill.

It’s one thing to list planning as a skill, but can you describe a time when you were responsible for planning a project from beginning to end? Can you define your role, describe the challenges you overcame, and summarize the positive outcomes?

To avoid being caught off guard by this style of questioning, consider these tips:

  1. Ask questions first — when you are invited to the interview, seek details. Is this a one-on-one interview or a committee? What type of questions will be asked?
  2. Look for clues — typically, the job posting will include information about the duties to be carried out. Have you demonstrated success in those particular areas? If you’re having trouble coming up with examples, brainstorm with a trusted colleague.
  3. Develop your STAR stories — for each story that illustrates a key skill, summarize the Situation, the Tasks involved, Actions you took, and the Results. Practice telling these stories out loud.
  4. Take a moment — when you’re in the interview, ensure you understand the question being asked. When in doubt, ask to have the question repeated or clarified. Let your interviewer know you are giving this careful consideration, by saying something like “That’s a good question. Let me take a moment to choose the right example…”
  5. Circle back — if you are truly stumped, ask the interviewer to come back to that question later.
  6. Use any example — you do not need to use an example from your most recent job. Call upon relevant example from any past experience, even if it’s from years ago. Likewise, you may have related examples from your personal life, hobbies, or volunteerism.
  7. You have permission to brag — often, we are hesitant to discuss our achievements. The interview is no time for humility. With confidence, share all relevant (and impressive) information in a way that highlights your talents.
    In behavioral interviewing, every question is designed to elicit a story — an anecdote that illustrates the applicant’s skill.
    In behavioral interviewing, every question is designed to elicit a story — an anecdote that illustrates the applicant’s skill.

I always advise people to bring their own questions to the interview, so they can learn more about the company — its culture, work environment, and mission. This may be an opportunity for you to use your own behavioral interviewing skills.

JOB APPLICANT: “Can you share a recent interaction that illustrates the culture you are trying to cultivate?”

INTERVIEWER: “We value collaboration and teamwork here.”

JOB APPLICANT: “Terrific! Can you describe a situation that demonstrates your role in creating that culture?”

Then, pause while they come up with an example.

April McHugh is a career and educational counselor for the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. McHugh helps adults with career transitions and continuing education through individual sessions and workshops. Contact her at april.mchugh@wisc.edu.

This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.