Everything is going great: You have made a strong first impression, you have managed to make an authentic connection with the interviewer, and you’re sailing through the job interview. Out of nowhere, the recruiter asks you to provide an example of a time when you demonstrated strong communication skills with a difficult client.
All of a sudden you panic. You are drawing a blank and the pressure is on. You can’t remember what happened yesterday let alone conjure up a relevant experience from a few years ago. You blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. It is not relevant, and you sense that you are rambling. Of course, five minutes after the interview is over you think of the perfect example, but it won’t do you any good now.
To avoid being caught off guard, it is best to prepare for behavioral interview questions well in advance. This guide will teach you about the STAR interview method, a very effective technique to answer these types of questions like a pro, giving you the tools that you need to effectively prepare for your next job interview.
1) Identify Behavioral Interview Questions
Behavioral interview questions ask you to describe a previous professional experience that exemplifies how you handled a specific situation in the past. The recruiter is listening for certain elements in your answer and assuming that if you demonstrated specific qualities on the job in the past, you will do so again in the future.
These types of questions are easy to identify. Any time the interviewer asks you to describe a specific situation from the past, it’s a behavioral question.
Here are just a few examples:
- Describe a time when you failed to meet the expectations of your job and how you handled it.
- Share an example of a time when you had to work closely with someone who had a different work style than yourself.
- Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond on a specific project?
In some cases, your interviewer may ask you to place yourself in a hypothetical situation and describe how you would handle it. You can use this same method to structure your answer. An example of such a question would be: “Imagine for a moment you have an employee in your crew who has called off sick for the third time in a month. What would you do?”
2) Prepare for Behavioral Interview Questions
Regardless of your industry or sector, there is a good chance that you will be asked to answer at least one or two behavioral types of questions during your interview. Therefore, it only makes sense to prepare for them.
Start by researching the most common types of behavioral questions. While it is impossible to prepare for every question of this type in advance, it may be helpful to think in terms of the major categories that these questions are usually designed to assess. Prepare at least one or two examples from your past work experiences that demonstrate your ability to:
- Work well with others, even if they are different than you.
- Problem solve, particularly when under pressure.
- Adapt and grow, showing a willingness to see, acknowledge a weakness, and change to develop professionally.
- Provide excellent customer or client service, especially with people that are difficult or agitated.
- Work ethically, when faced with tough decisions.
- Communicate effectively, even when circumstances are not ideal.
As you prepare and practice your answers, use the STAR method, detailed below, to structure your answers to make sure that they include the four key elements of a strong answer for this type of question.
3) The S.T.A.R. Technique
S.T.A.R. stands for:
Let’s break these down and look at each element in turn:
Choosing an example of a situation from one of your previous work experiences is the first aspect of answering behavioral interview questions. Luckily, you have done solid prep so you have several situations “on tap” to choose from during the interview.
However, odds are that you may not have thought of the perfect example for every question. However, since you have practiced using the STAR structure with your answers, it will be easier to make sure an “on the fly” example meets all of the criteria for a great answer to behavioral questions.
The first part of your answer should clearly describe the situation that you have chosen for your answer. It should include all of the relevant details that you will need to highlight the positive qualities that you demonstrated in that particular situation.
Be wary of rambling or providing a host of irrelevant details. Ideally, you should take less than 30 seconds to set the stage for any given situation.
It is important that you address your specific role in the situation. This means that part of your answer needs to explain what your responsibilities were relative to the issue at the core of your example.
For instance, perhaps you chose to share about a time when you were dealing with a difficult client. You could add in a sentence such as, “A key aspect of my role as Project Manager was to make sure that our client’s needs were fully addressed at each stage of product development.” Notice how this sentence, which addresses the task portion of the answer, names the role as well as a specific responsibility that you had in that role.
Now comes your moment to really shine. The action portion of your answer is where you should focus on the specific actions that you took to address whatever issue you have chosen to discuss. This is perhaps the most critical aspect of your answer because it shows the recruiter exactly what they are looking for: How you responded to the situation.
It is important that you provide a detailed and specific description of the actions you took. If you took multiple actions, the more the merrier, as long as they are relevant to the qualities that you are trying to demonstrate with your answer.
If you can name the qualities that you think your example shows about you, then that is also helpful. It can help connect the dots for the listener, making it easier for them to see exactly what they are looking for.
One thing to be aware of when you describe the actions you took is to make sure you keep the focus on your actions, not those of the team. While it is fine to acknowledge that you were part of a team, it is critical that the example conveys the contributions that you personally made in tackling the problem.
Your answer to a behavioral question in an interview is not complete without a few sentences devoted to the results of your efforts. After all, the proof is in the pudding. The results should reflect that you conquered the task that you named in the T section of your answer.
When possible, quantifying results is particularly helpful. People tend to trust numbers as proof that your efforts were successful. However, it is sometimes impossible to quantify your results. In such cases, be sure your results section makes it clear that the specific actions that you took led to a significant, positive change in outcome.
4) A Prime Example
Now that you have a sense for the STAR method in theory, let’s take a look at a complete example, making note of each component:
Please describe an example of a time that you were not performing well in sales and the actions you took to improve.
My very first job in sales was at XYZ Inc. I was enthusiastic about the job and felt that I was building outstanding relationships with the clients that were assigned to me. But when the first quarter numbers came in, I learned that my gross sales were the lowest in the office.
I was determined to improve my numbers. Although I was meeting the minimum quota for a Junior Sales Representative, I set a personal goal to improve my gross sales by at least 25% over the next quarter.
The first thing I did was approach the reps with the strongest numbers to ask for some guidance which they gladly gave. After talking with them I realized I wasn’t spending enough time on lead generation. The second action that I took was to implement that advice immediately. I blocked two hours a day in my schedule for making cold calls and two days a month to attend local events where I met new people in person and could pass out my card.
My second quarter sales jumped 35%, exceeding my goal. However, the long term investment in lead generation continued to boost my gross sales over the next two quarters. By the end of that first year at XYZ, I was the second highest grossing sales rep out of the 10 reps at my branch.
This example clearly shows that the interviewee demonstrated the qualities of being able to acknowledge a weakness, immediately seek knowledge and guidance from senior team members, implement that newfound wisdom without delay, and get outstanding results. In addition, it shows determination, enthusiasm, and a “can-do” attitude. These are just the kinds of qualities the interview team is looking for in the perfect candidate for the job!