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How to behave in behavioural interviews

If you've just answered the question, "tell me about a time" then you're probably facing a behavioural interviewer. What's a behavioural interview? It's a well proven recruitment tool based on the premise that what you've done in the past will predict what you do in the future. There are definite do's and don'ts when answering these questions and if you've found yourself struggling for an answer in the "past", then read on for some tips from job search consultant Karalyn Brown.

What's behind behavioural interviews?

Good behavioural interviews are put together after careful on the job research. The recruiter "benchmarks" top performers in a role, isolates in detail the competencies required to perform that role, then writes questions to allow the interviewee demonstrate those competencies.

How are you assessed in a behavioural interview?

You are judged on the "quality" of the example you provide. Under each competency there's a set of behaviours that the recruiter will mentally, if not physically, be ticking off as you answer each question. You may be asked the same question in different ways to verify that your skills are well developed and that you've used them consistently.

So how do I answer "tell me about a time"?

The answer to this question is exactly that—it's a story. The interviewer wants you to give an introduction, describe what you did and what happened in the end.

You need to be specific in answering these questions. Not what you would do. Not what you usually do. Not what you do every day. But something you have actually done, and preferably an example from your work environment.

Why such specifics? If you can provide recent examples that you can easily recall, you are actually demonstrating, rather than just claiming, you have the skills the interviewer is looking for.

How much detail should I give?

You need to provide detail about how you achieved something, but be cautious. Don't provide so much detail that you lose track of what you are talking about, but just enough to be credible; to reassure the interviewer you've done what you say you have. If you don't provide detail then a good interviewer will ask probing (yet not leading) questions until they isolate the skills they require.

So why the detail? A good interviewer will ask follow up questions if you haven't provided enough information, but a poor interviewer may not. You may miss out on a role because you have not showcased your full set of skills.

If you think you are providing too much detail, then ask the interviewer this question. Or use your cue from the body language of the interviewer. If they stop writing, then it's a good idea for you to stop talking, and check back in.

What if I can't think of an example?

It should go without saying that it's not a great idea to pass on too many questions.

Having said that, it's easy to freeze up under the stare of an interviewer. Don't put pressure on yourself by trying to think of your best scenario and second guessing what the interviewer is looking for. If you can't think of your best example, then think of your most recent. What you think are everyday skills, may not be to the interviewer. So give an example of the last time you came across the interviewer's situation.

How do I answer a negative question?

Quite often a recruiter will ask what sounds like a negative question "tell me about a difficult person you've managed?", or "describe a client relationship that didn't go as planned". When faced with these questions. There are rules that you should follow regardless of whether you are facing a behavioural interview or not.

Never get personal. Describe the person's behaviour but don't label it. And don't over emphasise it. The recruiter is looking for examples of how you handle setbacks, not how "bad" that person was.

Always talk about the efforts you made regardless of the response you received from that person.

What if there were no happy endings?

If you don't have a happy ending, don't be afraid to provide an example that didn't turn out the way that you would have liked.

Experienced and good recruiters are human. They've worked in corporate environments and understand that success depends on many circumstances, possibly beyond your control. A happy ending is good. But the next best thing is that you have worked through the steps to find solution to a problem.

What if I can't provide examples based on a similar role?

One of the beautiful things about behavioural interviews is that they allow you to showcase competencies. You may have developed these skills in a role unrelated to the position for which you are applying. So listen carefully to the question and provide an example that answers that question, regardless of where you have gained that experience.

Practice makes perfect

Preparing for a behavioural interview is a very good way for you to determine whether you are the suitable for the role, or indeed, if you actually want the job.

Take a copy of the advertisement, or even better, the job description and look at the skills and experience listed. Think about where you have demonstrated those skills in your role. Describe what the situation was, what you did and what the outcome was. Practice with a friend, or better still, a professional.

Be mindful however, that you can only second guess the level of skills you may need for the advertised job. And unless you have inside knowledge you won't know the culture. However if you find coming up with the examples easy, then you're likely to be a good fit for the job. If not, you may want to review your skills and your job search plan.

About Karalyn Brown

Karalyn has over 10 years experience as a decision maker in recruitment, in a consultancy and in corporate HR. Karalyn owns and runs Interview IQ who provide personalised interview coaching and job search advice. For more information visit

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