Interview questions and structured interviewing
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Probing Techniques Explained

Anne Sandberg

Getting a complete behavioural example to a question often doesn’t come right away. You often have to ask for missing information.

A complete behavioural example has 3 parts to it:

* Situation – what was it that lead up to the candidate doing what he or she did (establishes the context and is often needed to determine the appropriateness of the action taken)
* Behaviour – what exactly did the candidate do him or herself? (not what the team did)
* Result (or outcome) – how was this action received? (did it result in savings, efficiencies, improvements of some kind?)

You must train yourself to listen for all three elements and if one is missing, then you should ask a follow-up question to obtain the missing information.

If the situation is missing, you can ask: what lead up to your taking that action? what was the situation previously?

If the behaviour is missing, you can ask: what did you do? tell me the actions you took?

If the result is missing, you can ask: what was the outcome? How was it received by others?

You should not “feed” the candidate the “right answer” by saying something like:

* I assume that all worked out OK, then ….
* You don't have a problem with that, do you?

Sometimes you need to ask for another example if the one you were given was not full enough or you need more information to make an assessment. For this you can just ask:

* Can you give me another example of that, please?
* Say more about that, if you will ...

Finally, you can turn your behavioural questions around to ask about weaknesses in a way that doesn’t ever say the word, “weakness.” This is a very useful method to use in interviews and works like this: whenever you ask a behavioural question you will most likely get a positive response from the candidate in which he or she tells you something he or she did well. This is to be expected, as most people rehearse for interviews in advance and have “at the ready” some examples of projects and assignments at which they excelled, hence, these are the “stock” answers you are likely to hear. What they are not often prepared for are relating examples of behaviour that failed, or did not work out as expected and these are the stories you want to hear. You can ask for these examples directly by turning the core behavioural question around and asking for it’s dark cousin. For example:

Behavioral question is: Tell me about a deadline you worked hard to meet.

Candidate gives you a great example of how he or she met a challenging deadline. Follow that question with this one:

Now tell me about a deadline that you did not meet, even though you may have worked hard to do so. What happened in this case? The candidate has probably not rehearsed this story, but most of us have missed a deadline and will have to come up with something, so here we may learn something important about the candidate. The point of this technique is not to “catch them out,” but to gather data that is less rehearsed and reflects what they have learned from adversity and things going wrong.

It may be a bit of a cliché to say that people learn more from mistakes than from successes, but it is generally true. Making a mistake signals our brains not to repeat that mistake in the future. People who do not make mistakes do not take risks and don’t learn as much, so learning about a candidate’s mistakes can tell you a lot about how that person operates.

Let’s look at a few examples of this probing technique now. Here are 3 typical behavioural interview questions. In each case, there may be several ways to turn each one around and ask about a time when the result was less-than-perfect.

Another way to lead in to a question like this is to preface it like this:
“I think it is fair to say that we all make mistakes at times. Now I’d like you to tell me about a time when, you have to admit, you didn’t make an important deadline / satisfy the customer / meet your budget / etc.…”

This phrasing makes it very difficult not to respond and allows you to see a different side of the candidate than you might have otherwise seen with straight behavioural interviewing. You can even ask a follow-up probe, or question, to these turn-around questions:

* What did you learn as a result of that experience?
* Would you do anything differently now, in retrospect?

Learning from experience and openness to new ideas can be brought out into the open this way.


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