For a really productive and insightful interview, you need to be able to open people up and get to really know them so you can make an informed, rational and fair decision. If all you have is a list of ‘clever’ questions, then you won’t get the best out of your candidates, and you might as well just send them the list to complete!
Here are some of our tips for insightful and to the point questioning techniques, including how to open up the conversation, examples of probing questions to drill in deeper as well as questions that establish motivation. We’ve even included some questions to avoid!
There are different types of interview questions, two categories:
Primary questions are your opening questions, the starting points and within this category, you have open and closed questions. Supplementary questions are the ones you use to drill in further, expand on issues, get explanations and within this category, you have probing and hypothetical questions.
Open questions do exactly that: open up the conversation. They often start with why, how, where, what or when. You could say “did that make you unhappy?” But a more open way would be to ask: “how did you feel when that happened?” This will make it more of a conversation and also allow you to get more information so that you can ask supplementary questions to drill in further.
A closed question closes down the conversation and usually get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. This is not usually such a good idea, as it can make the interview more mechanical and clunky, less relational. However, if it is to clarify issues then they can be really helpful. For example: “So that’s when you decided to leave?” We can see that this is unambiguous, it clarifies a point.
Probing questions allow you to drill in further to expand or explore. For example, your primary question might be:
“Why did you decide to leave?” They answer: “There was no career path.” You could leave it there, but then you wouldn’t be doing your job as an interviewer. So, you ask a supplementary, probing question: “When you spoke with your boss about this issue, what did she say?” This is good because if they did speak to the boss, you’ll get an expanded view, if they didn’t you’ll want to know why.
Sometimes a supplementary, hypothetical question is helpful:
“What if your boss had offered you a clearer career path, what would you have done?” This allows you to check both sides of the issue, and it makes the candidate think so you can see their thought processes.
Some questions can help establish motivation:
“Why have you applied for this position?” That’s really helpful as motivation works in two ways: coming from and going to. So, do they focus on why they want to leave their current role (coming from) or the potential opportunity your role offers (going to)?
You can probe deeper motivation issues by asking some supplementary questions:
“Does your boss know you are here?” or “What could your present company have done to prevent you applying?” Another helpful, illuminating question is: “What would your boss say if she knew you were here today?” or “What will your boss do to keep you?” These are really useful in opening up their motivation, their relationship with their boss and it will open a dialogue about them.
Checking out how much basic information they have researched about your company is also helpful:
“Tell us what you’ve learned about us.” Or you can ask: “Tell us what you think the role is.” If it’s a more senior role you can probe further and be more assumptive: “What did you think of our website?” or even “What would you change about our website.” This not only checks they have done some research but checks their thinking.
Go through the CV with a planned and structured approach, so that you highlight gaps, areas that are interesting or to clarify issues. For example: “Why did you stay so long at Blog’s Engineering?” This is helpful to understand their motivation, thinking and ambition. You can also ask: “You were only there a year, how come?” In comparing roles, you can ask: “It looks as if you took a step down there?” or “That seemed to be a step up for you?” You can also probe deeper: “What were your thoughts when you took that role?” And then deeper still: “How did it work out?” “Why do you think that was?” And deeper still: “What would your boss tell us happened?”
There are some questions you just shouldn’t ask at an interview:
“Tell me about yourself.” Where would you like them to start, “I came out of the womb!” And the perennial question: “What are your weaknesses?” This is such an old chestnut and everyone has learned to humble-brag: “I work too hard, I am overly dedicated, I can’t let go until something is finished,” etc, etc. They get you nowhere, they are archaic and most importantly: they are fakeable!
There are some questions that you should ask as they uncover some nuggets of gold:
“What would your 20-year-old self think about you now?” This really gets people thinking, and elicits a lot of truth; and they won’t have practiced for it!
“What would your friends tell us about you?” It’s strange how, by ‘third-partying’ a question people are far more truthful.
“What have you failed at?” This really helps dig deeper to get to know the person. It may be that they tell you, or it may be, as sometimes happens, they post rationalise, which is worrying and overly positive. You something like: “I haven’t failed, only had learning experiences,” yeah right. Or “There aren’t failures, only opportunities!” I wish, there are so many insurmountable ‘opportunities’ we’ve all had to face.
Asking a question like: “What are you proud of?” really helps, as it, once again, makes people think and generally you get a truthful, ‘not-made-up’ answer.
Here are some final tips:
Rather than ask about strengths and weaknesses as these will be prepared-for, ask better questions: “What do you get praised for, what do people say you’re good at?” This usually hits the spot in terms of truthfulness. And even if it doesn’t, the follow on does: “And what do you get criticised for, what do people say you’re not so good at?” Even those on a boast-fest struggle to overly positive this one! Just by inserting ‘people say,’ makes it more difficult to bluff.
“What’s the best way to manage you?” This is helpful in establishing how they like to be managed (or not) and what you’ll need to do to get the best out of them.
Asking about interpersonal skills is risk, as it is, once again, fakeable. However, if you ask: “What sorts of people do you have difficulty working with?” it usually gets an honest response and it allows you to do some probing about real life interpersonal problems and how they dealt with them.
Interviews are usually overly-positive situations so asking about motivation is often best achieved with a counter question: “What de-motivates you?” This is an interesting psychological trigger as they will have prepared their piece on what they like and what motivates them, so this will make them think, and when you make them think then the answer is more honest.
For everything else you need to know about interviewing, from preparation to making the decision take a look at our Interviewing course.