Handling Behavioral Questions

When you think of a traditional job interview question, you might think of something like "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" or "Where do you see yourself in five years?" While these types of questions are still popular and you should be prepared for them, behavioral questions have become more and more common in job interviews. Hiring managers want as much concrete evidence as possible that you have what it takes to do the job.

A behavioral question is one that asks about your behavior in a given situation, or for examples of your behavior that exemplify a particular trait needed for the job at hand. These come in two general flavors: "Tell me about a time when..." and "What would you do if...?"

The important thing to remember is that all behavioral questions should be approached the same way, regardless of how they're asked. That's because they all have the same underlying question, which is "How will you handle this situation if it arises on the job (and do you have evidence to help us trust your answer)?"

These are the appropriate ways to respond, in order of preference:

  1. If you've handled the situation before, talk about how you handled the situation before. Even if they ask in a hypothetical sense ("How would you handle this?"), it's always preferable to be able to say, "Actually, I've dealt with this / something very similar before, and this is how..." Then connect it back to the position at hand by explaining briefly either how you believe your past experience(s) prepare you for this job or how your other skills will be helpful in any ways that this job differs significantly from your past experience.
  2. If you've never handled the situation or one like it before, talk in detail about how you would handle it. Even if they ask for a specific example ("Tell me about a time when..."), you want to answer that underlying question, rather than just saying, "Hm, you know, I don't think I've ever encountered that before." Instead, you want to instill confidence in your ability to handle said situation with a response like this: "I've actually been very fortunate to have excellent supervisors in my past roles. However, if I did have a conflict with my supervisor in this job, I would approach it this way..."

No matter how you're asked a behavioral question, your answer should address that underlying question and reassure the hiring manager that they can trust you to act appropriately in a difficult situation.