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Breaking Down Behavioral Interview Questions in 4 Simple Steps Breaking Down Behavioral Interview Questions in 4 Simple Steps

Zany interview questions are the stuff of legend. For example:

  • If you were a flavor of ice cream, what flavor would you be and why?
  • How many windows are there in Montana?

Needless to say, these aren't the kinds of questions you're going to face when you interview at Johnson & Johnson. But, on the other hand, we do want to get to know you a little bit better, learn about how you work and how you approach problems—and that's where behavioral interview questions come into play. Plus, since these questions have become a staple of interviews today, it's a good idea to show up for your interview prepared to answer them. So here's everything you need to know to handle these questions with confidence.


What Are "Behavioral Interview Questions"?


Behavioral interview questions ask you to talk through specific situations you've encountered in the past, whether on the job or in the classroom. These are open-ended questions like:

  • Tell me about a time you had to complete something on a tight deadline. What was the project? Who were you working with? What was the end goal, and how did you approach this challenge?
  • Describe how you've worked to achieve a specific goal in the past. What was the goal? What steps did you take to achieve it? How did you benchmark success?
  • Give me an example of a situation where you disagreed with a coworker or peer. What was the cause of the disagreement? What was your approach to resolving it? What was the outcome?

The underlying idea is to get at how you've handled situations in the past in order to give your potential employer insight into how you'll handle similar situations in the future. Of course, your response is also a chance to demonstrate your communication skills, but there's more to it than just that. Let's dig a little deeper.


Recognizing the Anatomy of the Question


What does a behavioral interview question look—or, er, sound—like? In general, you can be confident that you're in the presence of a behavioral interview question when you hear any one of the following three priming phrases:

  • "Tell me about a time ..."
  • "Describe how ..."
  • "Give me an example of a situation ..."

There are other permutations, of course, but these are probably the most common. Grammatically, behavioral interview questions tend to begin not as questions, but rather as imperative statements, with questions then added at the end. It's like the long runway that begins a flight—only in this case, you're going to be the one doing the flying. But before turning to how you can prepare successful answers, let's continue deconstructing these questions.


Unpacking Behavioral Interview Questions


To understand the best approach to answering behavioral interview questions, we need to unpack the questions themselves a little bit. What's the deal with these questions? Why have they become such a staple for recruiters and hiring managers today?

From a high level, there's one key thing to realize about behavioral interview questions from the outset: While behavioral interview questions ask about specific behaviors, they're really a lens to better understand your skills.

To make this clear, consider the following questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you needed to motivate coworkers or peers. What did you do? What was the result?
  • Can you give me an example of a situation where you may have made a mistake at work? What were your next steps, and what were the consequences?

In both instances, your job is to take a challenge that was specific to you—the need to motivate peers, the slipup you made—and frame it in an ascending organizational hierarchy: teams, reporting structures, processes and outcomes. In so doing, be sure to mention specific skills that might be relevant to the job you're applying for. (And if you're struggling to land on the right ones, check out this comprehensive and conveniently alphabetized list of relevant skills to help you present your candidacy.)


Answering Behavioral Interview Questions


We've broken down behavioral interview questions, decoded their structure and identified how you can recognize them. Now it's time to get to the heart of the matter: How should you go about answering these questions come interview time?

Four final steps to master:

  1. Prepare three answers. As a baseline, it's a good idea to have three stories ready to go in the event that you're asked a behavioral interview question: one about a challenge (and how you overcame it), one about a setback (and what you learned from it) and one about an accomplishment (and what you did to achieve it). Aim to keep your responses in the range of two to five minutes.
  2. Practice (and polish) your responses. The more rehearsal time you can put in before your interview, the calmer you're likely to feel. If possible, pair up with a friend and ask for feedback. Keep practicing until you feel like your delivery is flawless—to the point that it doesn't seem canned.
  3. Be prepared to answer all parts of the question. Your interviewer will likely be interested in the situation, what action you took and the result of that action. So be sure to include all these pieces in your response.
  4. Take your time in the interview. These aren't yes-or-no questions, so you're going to need to answer at some length, in a structured manner and with relevant details. As long as you've prepared ahead of time, that shouldn't be too hard. But breath control matters more than you might think in these situations—it's not called being "long-winded" without reason. So give a thoughtful pause before you reply, take a deep breath ... and begin speaking on the exhale. You're off to a great start already!

Armed with these tips, you should feel empowered to handle behavioral interview questions with far greater confidence, which in turn can help you land a job where you can grow, make a positive impact in the world and explore your passions and interests.

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