Ask the right questions to get better answers

April 21, 2016

Holding successful interviews from an HR perspective

On the one hand, there is plenty of literature nowadays on how to present oneself in the best possible light during an interview. While some of the tips and tricks are indeed valuable when it comes to making the most of the occasion, others, though well-intentioned, may prove to be more of a hindrance than a help.

On the other hand, organizations are interested in gaining as authentic a picture as possible of candidates in order to avoid unpleasant surprises. Using a special interview technique helps get an objective impression of the interviewee.

2 people in an interview setting
"The outcome of an interview will be influenced by the type of questions asked and the overall approach to interviewing," says Dr. Gottfried Dissauer.

Many people think it is impossible to gain a comprehensive and objective picture of a candidate during an interview lasting between 60 and 120 minutes, especially in view of the fact that there is a huge number of books providing tips and tricks on how to present oneself in the best possible light. What HR professionals in businesses want is as authentic an impression as possible of candidates, not memorized answers, stock phrases and pseudo-truths. This conflict of interests poses a dilemma for us in our day-to-day work as HR consultants: When it comes to job interviews, is there such a thing as truth?

While we, too, will not always be able to establish whether what seems to be true is actually true, asking the right questions and having an instinct for creating a pleasant atmosphere during the interview helps get better answers, produce reactions that are more meaningful and make the overall picture more authentic.

To begin with, it is important to let the interviewee tell his/her own story or stories to illustrate his/her career and experience. The way the candidate does this and the things he/she focuses on—e.g. does he/she focus on successes or on obstacles and market problems—allow the interviewer to draw some initial conclusions.

The fact that people generally tend to give themselves credit for their successes but blame difficult conditions for their failures can serve as a starting point for further questions. It is usually at this stage that any discrepancies between the candidate's self-perception and the way others perceive him/her become apparent.

The outcome of an interview will be influenced by the type of questions asked and the overall approach to interviewing. If the interviewer focuses too much on failures and difficulties, the candidate will soon start to behave guardedly and tactically. As a result, the candidate's answers will become less useful and less meaningful in terms of predicting his/her future behavior.

Interviewers have to expect that candidates accentuate the positive but eliminate the negative. A skillful interviewing technique can help redress the balance. It is generally a good idea not to concentrate too much on extreme situations but instead focus on questions requiring differentiated answers that paint a well-balanced picture. “Real-life stories”, whose usefulness during interviews has been highlighted earlier, are another invaluable tool in this context as they provide excellent and relatable starting points for further discussion.

In summary, the key to a successful interview is creating a positive atmosphere of respect and appreciation, making use of open-ended questions and situational descriptions, asking follow-up questions to clarify and refine what has been said and establishing clear links to the position that is to be filled. It pays for the interviewer to carefully think, in advance, about the right questions to ask during the interview. Apart from some standard questions, there should also be questions relating specifically to the candidate. The interviewee will appreciate this personalized treatment and reward the interviewer by being all the more open and giving better answers.

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