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How to to ace your behavioral interview

Adeline Ionescu

June 23, 2020

We know how stressful behavioral interviews are and sometimes, even though you are super confident in your technical skills, just thinking about questions like ‘tell me about yourself’ or ‘what are your strengths and weaknesses’ is making you want to just stick to your current job.

Well, worry no more. As always, we got you covered.

We had a chat with Martin McGovern, the Lead Coach, and Founder of Career Therapy, as well as a Career Coach with The Muse. He has partnered with many educational organizations like Udacity and General Assembly, where he shares his knowledge, experience, and career advice and he shared some of the best advice with us when it comes to behavioral interviewing.

Soft skills are as important as Technical Skills

Relationships and soft skills are incredibly important in order to not just get the next job but to continue getting jobs throughout your career and building long term success.

80% of jobs are found through the social connections that we make. What's nice about the world today is that there are far more ways to connect with people then there were in the past and if you can build a direct relationship, you can get a job.

But even if you can technically get the job done, if you don't have the confidence in yourself to be able to do it and to talk about it, then you can't instill that confidence in others.

One big thing about social skills is a huge percentage isn't even the words you're saying. It's how you're saying those words. You could be saying all the correct words, but doing it with the wrong tone and attitude won't come through very well. The key here is being able to talk about yourself, sell yourself, and communicate in a strong manner. 

Don’t focus on what is missing

When dealing with interviews and job seeking, most people seem to have trouble focusing on what is missing. 

We spend so much time analyzing job listings and thinking there are so many requirements to be covered and we don’t have all of them, so eventually, we decide not to apply. When in reality we only need 60% of what's in that job listing to give it a shot.

We tend to focus so much on where we're deficient, we forget that literally just being able to show up to work on time, do the tasks in front of us and not create interpersonal problems is like 60 to 80% of what we need to do in order to do a good job.

Being rejected or ghosted after an interview is fine

Everyone has been rejected at least once in their career time and it does not feel good. 

What we've learned throughout these experiences is that most of the time when we're being ghosted or ignored or getting a rejected, it's usually because the other person is either stressed out, they have their hands tied by a legal team, they might be outvoted by their senior players or just struggling with something else. Realizing that just because three days have gone by and you haven't heard back doesn't mean that they hate you. It just means that they're probably busy and we should be more empathetic.

Or maybe, for whatever reason you might not be the right fit for them, they just might not like the type of work you do, or maybe even your personality might not be a fit for their environment. But that's absolutely fine. You shouldn't be working in an environment that is like that anyway.

It's a difficult mindset to adopt, especially when you're deep in the trenches of the job hunt, but once we start realizing that literally the worst possible thing that can happen is someone just not wanting us in the room anymore, and then we can go and move on to the next thing, everything gets a little bit easier and a little bit lighter. And honestly, none of this stuff is personal.

People aren't actively trying to destroy you. They're just at most going to ignore you and being ignored is fine.

There's a second question behind any interview question

If you're talking to a recruiter or a screener or you're talking to the hiring manager or the CEO, there will be slight differences in each of those conversations and what they want to hear. However, the one thing that is fairly consistent throughout is that behind the literal words that they're asking you, there's a second question. 

Let’s take the dreaded ‘tell me about yourself’ question as an example. When someone says this, almost every single person freezes up and goes blank, although it’s a simple question.

What they're really saying to you here because most people are not trained interviewers, is most likely ‘I Googled a list of interview questions and the first question on the list is tell me about yourself and I don't know how to start this conversation. Would you mind starting it for me?’

So they are expecting us to lead the conversation and this is actually an opportunity to set a tone.

When we’re answering questions, we need to give the interviewers what they need to know first and then tell them the other details of our work life that will lead to the conclusion that we are confident about the reason we’re here and that we’re curious about what they need help with. Remember: the job search and the interview process are not about impressing people. They are about convincing them that you can solve problems. You don't have to be the best, you just have to be able to solve the problem. So if you can clearly communicate their problem and show how you can solve it, you're in an amazing spot.

The simplest way to do this is something called the present past future set up

For example, to answer our question, first, start with the present: What problems am I currently solving and for who? Try to focus on their outcomes and your skills that help them with their outcomes.

And then we go into the past: How did I get here? And that's the present now matched with the past. Then we're going to look at the future and the future is how you’re going to help their business.

Most people start with the past first and we are not giving context when we start with the past. We need to connect the stories. So even if you are going to do linear past to present, at least explain the learnings between each phase of your career.

Balance your strengths and weaknesses

Another important topic in interviews is about our strengths and weaknesses. Whether it comes as a straight forward question or not, at some point you’ll come across talking about your qualities or the lack of them when discussing responsibilities.

When it comes to this topic we often get filled with our own insecurities. We're told our whole lives not to brag and to fix our weaknesses. So talking about our weaknesses makes us anxious and talking about our strengths makes us self conscious. Martin gives us a simple solution here: outsource it. If you have feedback from past managers or coworkers, use it. If you don’t, you can always do a personality test and start from there.

What the interviewer is really asking behind this question is, are you self-aware? Have you sought out feedback throughout your career and have you implemented the things that you've learned? 

When talking about your strengths and weaknesses,  part of it is what you're saying and part of it is how you're saying it. So for instance, if I say I procrastinate, it's just a whatever answer. If no one would ever say the opposite, then what you're saying is probably not that impactful. No one's going to say I'm not a hard worker. So saying my strength is that I'm a hard worker means nothing. The main thing is to have an example, a specific example to pair with your answer. So instead of just saying what the strength is, show it.

So instead of saying I work too hard, you can talk about how you mitigate that and try to improve yourself. If you say, I'm prone to burnout, that is self-aware because then you can say, so what I need to do is practice consistently good sleep hygiene in order to keep myself healthy and on task. 

It's all about balancing your strengths and weaknesses and bouncing them off each other and then giving examples.

Trying to do that thing where you take a negative and spin it into a positive always just seems weird. Just balance it out instead of trying to spin it. 

It's all about how you engage the person who's listening to you

Other areas that are also very common in interview discussions cover topics like previous experience, accomplished projects, or any products that have been built. We've come across a lot of different approaches to how to answer these questions. The star method is quite popular in this matter and we have been also recommending it to our candidates.

The STAR method breaks out: Situation, Task, Action, Result. Another way Martin would frame it is: problem, approach, implementation, and outcome. The key here is to set up the story. So when we start answering questions, we want to set up the situation

If you think about the hero's journey or you think about the rising action, climax, falling action of storytelling, these are all really important ways to frame up a story. We all love movies, we know when movies are bad and usually, movies are bad when they just drag on or when they don't lead us through the story with all the information we need.

You need to become really good at telling a story. You need to engage your audience right from the beginning. Kind of go in with a punch, get their attention, and try to keep them engaged. Just try to make sense out of it. For example, if you're talking about yourself, you want to put the point out there, a point that makes sense to them, resonates with them and their company, the mission or product you're going to be working on whatever it is that is kind of right here in between you and this position. You first want to establish that. Then you want to build a story that makes sense to them.

So the most important thing here is to be structured, to make sense. At the end of the day, we don't need to put on a show. We just need to explain the problems that we can solve and how.

As an exercise, you can record yourself answering interview questions. Download a list from the internet and just talk into your phone, listen back to yourself and see how little sense your stories make. It'll be shocking and subconsciously you will start figuring out how to do it better.

Always showcase your learnings

Another set of sensitive questions can revolve around problems and frustrations you faced during your past experiences. You’ve probably wondered what does the recruiter is trying to find out through this question and what kind of information you should be sharing.

First, they want to know if you have worked on any project recently. Second, they want to see if you are going to be honest about the struggles you had and the third thing is what aspects of your work are you trying to develop? So instead of focusing on the frustrating part, which is what it sounds like we should talk about during this question, what we need to talk about is our learnings

The trap people fall into when it comes to this question is going through their memory bank to find frustration that they'd never thought about before the interview. So emotion pops up and suddenly they get transported back to that emotion and this completely changes the tone of the interview.

The important thing is not to focus on the frustration, focus on the thing we learned from doing that project. 

Practice is key

When we're deep in the emotions of the job search and struggling with all the ups and downs, we forget that Google exists and that we can find the answer to pretty much anything that we're having trouble with, when it comes to the job search. 

What you should really keep in mind when practicing for interviews, is to use the resources that are out there. Chances are you're probably downloading the same list of questions that the interviewer panicked five minutes before the interview and downloaded themselves.

A great piece of advice from Martin is you download that list, read that set of questions, practice them, and try to come with five good answers that can answer a dozen questions. You don't need a new story for every question. You just need five good stories that will answer most of the questions. Just by doing this, you’re going to be in a great spot. So download that list, practice, record yourself and you should be in a much better place than sitting down and waiting to be surprised by the next question your interviewer asks.

We hope you’ll get the opportunity to successfully apply all this knowledge to your interviews.
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You can find Martin live streaming every day on LinkedIn and YouTube, discussing all kinds of topics that are related to the job search.


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