How to Prepare for Behavioral Interviews

In behavioral interviews, the interviewer raises a specific type of workplace situation and asks the interviewee to describe how they handled something like it in their own experience. They can feel difficult, unless you've developed a way to handle them.

In fact, when handled well, these types of interviews can actually be a huge opportunity for job seekers.

There's one thing you have in common with any employer you interview with: you both want the outcome to be a job in which you can thrive. Unfortunately, pressure can throw a wrench in the works and endanger good outcomes.

You're probably well aware of the pressures that job seekers face, to get a great job in as short a time as possible. Employers have their own pressure: to find someone, often out of hundreds, who will be comfortable, happy, and well-performing in that job.

What Is a Behavioral Interview?

In traditional interviews, employers simply asked about the experience and education a candidate acquired over time. One problem with this approach is that many people, understandably, exaggerate their experiences in order to get the job. For employers, this can lead to situations where a large percentage of hires end up not working out. This isn't good for the employer, and it can be a horrible experience for the employee as well.

To address this risk, many employers will try to ask job candidates questions about how they've reacted to actual situations in the past. When these are done well, interviewers can get a more accurate picture of how an employee will fit in.

Overwhelmingly, behavioral questions are better able to tell whether a candidate is willing to learn, capable of acting as a team player, and able to adapt in a dynamic work environment.

What makes this a challenge for job seekers is that they need to recall situations that match situations established by the interviewer. For instance, an interviewer might ask you to describe a time when you handled a conflict in the workplace well. Some people are naturally able to spontaneously recall situations in this way, but the vast majority of us will get stuck. Therefore, before your interview, you'll need to spend some time reflecting about what you've done in the past. And you'll need to formulate a series of responses that will show your strengths.

What Does This Mean for You?

Behavioral questions seek to determine who you are as a person, to understand how you behave in challenging situations. Their goal is to identify whether your attitude, background, and personality will support you in those situations.

A prospective manager, for instance, may need to be able to handle difficult people decisively and take actions that are aligned with management objectives. By asking behavioral questions, skilled interviewers can usually ascertain whether a candidate will perform well in their role.

For an interviewee, this can seem intimidating, but it can also be a huge benefit. The process of preparing yourself will show you what a good a fit looks like FOR YOU. Just remember that every job seeker will face the same struggles with their behavioral questions. If you can learn to manage these questions in ways that will give you confidence with the interviewer, you can gain a substantial advantage over other job candidates who haven't put in that effort.

The STAR Response Technique

One of the best ways to prepare for these interviews is to use the STAR interview prep method. It provides a framework for responding to a behavioral question. Interviewees use this method to structure their responses in four stages. Many job seekers will know about the STAR method, but the ones who use it to actually explore how well they fit will have a true advantage.

Before you start using the STAR method, you'll need to know what the employer is truly looking for. Often, the job description is just a starting point. You should research the company and talk to people who know the company and the role to get a richer understanding. Informational interviews are invaluable here. Once you know what a good fit will look like, you can go through the four steps of STAR to prepare for the interview.

Remember that a skillful interviewer will be using the interview to ask probing questions. These will be based on things that you say. This can give you some control over where the conversation goes. Try to keep your your four-step response to within 3 to 4 minutes. You can rely on the interviewer to ask for more info it's needed.

1. Situation

For the first step, describe a situation that you'll have ready for your response to the employer. You'll need more than one situation, since you don't yet know what the questions will be. You can do a Google search for common behavioral interview questions to get an idea. For each situation, you'll need to provide background information on your job, the people involved in your story, and specific factors that were at play. Ideally, you should attempt to set up the situation as quickly as possible so that you can focus on your behavior and the outcome. Provide just enough information about the situation to set the stage and prevent confusion.

2. Task

Next, describe the task that you were responsible for in the situation you are describing. Explain how the task fit into your general responsibilities, what company protocols required, and how your previous experience and training guided your response. This ties the situation to your job responsibilities, and gives you a chance to use whatever you've learned about the company and the role.

3. Action

Now that you've given some background information, talk about the actual actions that you took. Ultimately, employers want to see that your actions were appropriate for the situation. Be attentive to what seems interesting to the interviewer. You might be able to describe your actions in terms that align with the interviewer's focus.

4. Result

Of course, it's good to show outcomes that were successful. But keep an open mind about what makes for success. Employers are interested in how creative, positive, and resilient candidates will be in the face of setbacks. If it's a skillful interviewer, you may be pulled into a little exploration of a situation that didn't work out as well as you wanted or expected. Be honest, realistic, and positive. Sometimes our best strengths only come out when we're challenged.

Practice Makes Perfect

You probably won't nail your first behavioral interview, but you may well do better than you expected. Keep working on your STAR questions, keep practicing, both on "real" interviews and your own mock interviews. If you don't get an offer, you should politely and humbly ask for feedback on your interview performance from the interviewer. You probably won't get a ton of responses, but the ones you get will be very valuable, not least because they're often a huge confidence builder. Good luck!

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