“Tell Me About a Time . . .” It’s Time to Put Your Strengths to Work in Your Interview – Part 5

Behavioral and Situational Questions

Tell me about a time an interviewer asked you to tell her about a time that you had to answer a behavioral interview question.

The previous posts in this interviewing series covered several question types and provided some suggestions about how to answer them. If you missed any of those post or need a refresher, they can be found here:

Part 1- Interviewing overview.

Part 2 – Interview questions: ability, qualification, knowledge.

Part 3 – Interview questions: opinion, quirky, stress.

Part 4 – Interview questions: personality.

Part 5 is about behavioral and situational interview questions.

Behavioral and situational questions are about dealing with situations.  Behavioral and situational questions, which frequently begin with some variant of Tell me about a time, are invitations to tell a story about yourself.  These types of questions may be a request for you to respond to a situation that the interviewer describes. They could also be phrased as a direct question like, “Do you take responsibility for your mistakes?”

It is probably obvious from the name that behavioral questions need to be answered with more than a mere yes or a no. “That never happened”, should also not be considered an appropriate response. Answered properly, behavioral questions are opportunities to tell stories in which you are the hero.

Behavioral and situational questions at first may seem to be hard to prepare to answer. However, you can prepare for tell me about a time questions by understanding what issues are likely to be of concern to the interviewer. Successful answers to tell me about a time questions are going to be about how you solved a problem rather than just describing what you did. Remember, you are the authority about how you have handled situations. You are also the expert on how you might deal with a situation.

The key to answering tell me about a time questions is to have the framework for several stories ready and then as much as possible make them fit the question. Some examples of behavioral or situational question are:

1. “Tell me about a time you had to deal with an angry customer”.  

2. “Tell me about a time that you led a team of people you barely knew.”  

3.”Tell me about a time you had to enforce a rule, that you did not personally support”.

As stated in previous posts, the best preparation for an interview is a thorough reading of the job posting. The posts should give you an idea of what the job entails. Breaking the job down into components will help you prepare stories about the skills that the interviewer is likely to ask you about. If the job post or just the nature of the work is related to customer interaction, you should be prepared to tell the interviewer about a time that you have dealt with customers like in number 1 above. Management or leadership roles, especially ones mentioning temporary or ad hoc teams, should alert you to a need to prepare for questions like number 2 above. If the job listing indicates some version of enforcing or monitoring policy, then be prepared for questions like number 3.

The way that “Tell me about a time questions are phrased may seem to assume that whatever they are asking about is something that has happened to you. You have dealt with an angry customer. You have led a team you barely knew. You have had to enforce a rule that you did not personally support.

However, the reality is that you may not have had to deal with that exact situation. If the described event has happened to you, then you do have a direct experience to draw upon. If you have not experienced the exact circumstances, then determine what the main issue is and modify their question. The purpose of the number 1 question above is to see how you handled someone (like an angry customer), who was unhappy. The question is mostly about addressing anger and deescalating situations.

If you haven’t led a team which was made up of people you barely knew, then talk about a situation where you were a member of such a team. If possible, show how even though you weren’t in charge, you were able help bring cohesion to the team.

In cases where you cannot draw on experience, it is acceptable to hypothesize. ” I’ve never had that exact experience, but having always been able to speak to strangers, I might try . . .”

Behavioral or situational questions are best answered using the STAR method. STAR is an acronym for situation, task, actions and result.

  1. Situation – There was the following situation.
  2. Task – My role related to this situation.
  3. Action – I did the following to deal with the situation.
  4. Result – This was the outcome of the situation.

For example, the question might be “Tell me about a time that you had to deal with an angry customer.”

  1. Situation: “A long-standing customer placed an order for some hard-to-find parts which they needed to keep an older piece of machinery working. When all the items did not arrive on time, the customer became quite irate. He yelled at the delivery person for only bringing some of the items. He called the president of the company and expressed his extreme displeasure.”
  2. Task: “It was my job to find hard to acquire items. I took the order, assuring the customer that we would do our best to find them in a timely manner. No promises had been made. However, keeping customers happy, especially ones of many years, went along with my responsibilities.”
  3. Action: “Knowing that another customer who had similar equipment was planning to purchase new equipment, I spoke to him, offering a deal that induced them to replace their equipment sooner. This gave me the ability to offer “used, replacement parts” as a temporary solution to reduce the angered customer’s upset.”
  4. Results: “Providing used parts provided me with time to find new replacements. The angered customer’s operational stoppage was allayed. And as a bonus, the customer buying the new machinery was aided in their upgrade and received a discount to boot.”

A behavioral question occasionally remind you of a “what is your greatest weakness” question. Expect at least one tell me about a time question to be about when you made a mistake.  “Have you ever been overwhelmed? How did that turn out?” The upside of the behavioral version of the weakness question is that you can tell the story with how you worked around your misstep and show what you did to avoid a possible disastrous outcome. Maybe you can even make yourself the hero of the story.

Every situation does not end successfully. If the outcome was not the best one possible, try to explain what you learned from the experience include how you have or will apply that hard earned knowledge in the future. If you can, get the interviewer to see that you have grown because of your mistake.

The best preparation for behavioral and situational interview questions is similar to what you need to do to customize your resume to connect to the job for which you are applying:

  • Review the job posting to figure out what the successful candidate is expected to be able to do.
  • Review your experiences to be prepared with stories that highlight what you have done related to the interviewer’s needs.
  • Share the golden lining if the story doesn’t at first seem to put you in the best light.
  • Always, remember that you have already overcome a great hurdle by getting the interview. Now give the interviewer the confidence in selecting you and the impetuous to offer you the job.

Interviews are much less scary when you think about what the interviewer is likely to ask and then prepare yourself.

Trust me. You can do this.

Thank you for continuing to follow these posts about job search, resumes and interviews. Please check out other posts in this series about interviewing, or others related to resumes, or how you can put your Strengths to work.

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Since you are reading this, I have to believe you are considering a job search. Crews Strengths would treasure the opportunity to share how we can help you “Put Your Strengths to Work!” Let’s talk .

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