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What's an Interviewer REALLY Asking?

Quick quiz: When an interviewer says, “Tell me about yourself,” is she asking you to a) recount your weekend, b) summarize all the jobs you’ve had or c) discuss your personal life—where you were born, hobbies, etc.? 

The answer: none of the above. Yet that is exactly the kind of question job candidates constantly stumble over, often answering in one of the three ways above. The thing to keep in mind during an interview is that sometimes a question is not what it seems. Sometimes when your interviewer asks you something, he is really probing for something else. Your job is to know what this “something else” is and to answer in a way that satisfies the interviewer without distorting your experience. Achieving this usually requires two things: listening and picking up on the interviewer’s cues. 

Why It Pays to Listen
There’s an old adage that hearing is not the same as listening. And in a job interview, this rings especially true. Listening during an interview is critical. “Sometimes job candidates are so anxious to make a good impression that they don’t listen and don’t even wait for a question to be completed,” says Ell Miocene, a career coach who has worked more than 10 years as an HR manager for both corporations and nonprofits. “They think they know what is being asked and interrupt with their answers when in actuality, they may not even be answering the question.” 

Listening takes time and effort. An interview, however, is usually conducted within a certain time frame so you might wonder, “How can I do all the things I have to do during an interview and really listen at the same time?” You can—by keeping in mind that regardless of the kinds of questions an interviewer throws out, most of them are targeted at finding out:
  • Can you—and will you—do the job?
  • What do you have to offer that the company is currently lacking?
  • What special skills or experiences do you have that others don’t that would qualify you for the job? 
“The bottom line for companies that are hiring is they want to know what you have to offer that makes you different from other candidates and how can you contribute to the company,” notes Miocene. “Questions such as ‘Tell me about yourself’ or ‘Why do you think you’re a good match for this job?’ are an interviewer’s way of getting to an answer, so your responses should be targeted toward that direction.” 

Another question an interviewer might ask to measure your appropriateness is “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” Here, provide examples of certain job situations where your strengths came through, instead of reciting a rote list of your strengths. Many of us have heard about turning a weakness into a strength, “but it is also okay to admit you have a weakness,” says Miocene. “More important, speak to what you have done, or plan to do about it—how you are working on improving your weakness.” And a request to “walk me through your resume” is not an opportunity to recount in exhausting details each and every position you’ve held but to showcase the skills you gained from each position and to present an overall picture of whom you are today based on what you’ve learned throughout your career. 

Before you even step into an interview, put yourself in the interviewer’s seat and anticipate the kinds of questions that an interviewer might ask to find out if you’re the right person for the job. Know at least the basics of the company and job you’re interviewing for, information that may be readily available on the company’s website and from your FPC recruiter. After all, how can you reply in a way that will resonate with the interviewer if you don’t know anything about the company or the job? 

Be prepared with specific examples that will put the interviewer’s mind at ease about your qualifications and ability to perform the job in question. While you do not want to manipulate your answers or falsely present your credentials just to get the job, you do want to answer accurately and succinctly based on your own experience. 

When an interviewer asks what may seem to be deceivingly open-ended questions, keep your answers brief by focusing on your job and performance. And above all, listen. Don’t interrupt the interviewer because you think you know what is going to be asked. Not all questions will be asked the same way. “For example, instead of asking, ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ an interviewer might ask, ‘What might your current (or former) supervisor say is your strength and weakness?’” says Miocene. “It’s a subtle difference that requires you to answer a little bit differently and will take a little more thought on your part.” 

The interviewee who doesn’t pick up on that slight variation and rushes into a reply runs the risk of not answering the question to the interviewer’s satisfaction. It’s okay to take a minute to make sure you understand a question before you reply. When in doubt, ask for clarification. An interview is a conversation, an exchange of information. It is not a barrage of rapid-fire questions and canned responses. 

“Reading” an Interviewer’s Cues
Oftentimes during an interview, the interviewer will give off cues that signal whether your answers are on track or not. Here are some signs that you might have gotten off track:
  • The interviewer keeps looking at his watch or the wall.
  • The interviewer is slouching or picking lint off her jacket.
  • The interviewer is constantly interrupting your replies, showing obvious impatience. 

 This may happen when you’re unfocused in your answers or you’re talking too much. “Many questions can be answered in 60-90 seconds,” Miocene points out. “When you’ve been speaking for 2-3 minutes,that should be a cue to you that you’ve probably lost the interviewer, unless he is looking directly at you and nodding in affirmation.” 

We all have different communication s and that goes for interviewers as well. Some interviewers prefer longer, more analytical responses while others prefer you just cut to the chase. Going into interviews thinking you can reply in the same manner for each interview can be detrimental to your job search. As a job candidate, you want to adjust to each interviewer’s , keeping in mind not to misrepresent your resume but to change the way you organize and communicate your answers to match the interviewer’s . 

If you find yourself speaking in long paragraphs or speeches and your interviewer is showing signs of not paying attention, adjust your answers to make them brief, to the point and focused on the question. Someone who asks what you would do in a certain situation most likely wants to know just exactly that—not what all your options are and the pros and cons of each option. 

If, on the other hand, your interviewer seems to be asking more behavioral types of questions (e.g., “Tell me about a time when…”) or is asking you to take him through something step-by-step, be patient and be prepared to answer in a more comprehensive manner. In this situation your responses might be more methodical and systematic. For more information about the different types of interviews, consult the article “Not Your Old Fashioned Interview: How to Prepare for Situational and Behavioral Interviews.” 

In both situations, the art—and importance—of listening comes into play again. It’s crucial to really listen to how the question is being asked so you can answer in a way that best convinces the interviewer you are the right person for the job. 

If it becomes clear that you’ve lost your interviewer’s attention, the natural instinct might be to get upset and throw in the towel. “But you have to keep your cool and bring that question to closure,” advises Miocene. “Keeping in mind that an interview is a dialogue, think of a question you can ask of the interviewer to get the interview back on track for you.” 

And, during the course of an interview, if there is a constant disparity in communication s, you might want to ask yourself if this is the right company for you. “You have to think if that’s the company’s or the department’s culture, or if this person just represents the gatekeeper,” says Miocene. “It’s always good to know who you’re speaking with and that person’s relationship to the job you’re interviewing for.” It’s one thing to adjust your communication for an interview, but it’s another to do so constantly on a day-in, day-out basis when you’re working for someone. 

Keep in mind, however, that there might be things going on with your interviewer you are unaware of. He might be worried about a sick child or thinking about the stack of resumes on his desk. In other words, don’t judge a company too hastily based on your experience with just one person from the company. Speak to your FPC recruiter, who can provide a clearer picture of the company’s culture and whether or not it’s a match for you. 

The Final Word: How FPC Can Help
When you work with an FPC recruiter, you are assured that the recruiter knows the company you’re interested in inside out, thereby filling you in on the nuances and of each company and the person you will be interviewing with. Because FPC recruiters have longstanding relationships with their clients, they can help shed more light on the company you’re interviewing with and how best to answer questions in a way that doesn’t distort your resume but highlights elements in your background to meet the company’s needs. Before your interview, your FPC recruiter also conducts an interview preparation session, helping you to bring out any experiences you might have that would be relevant for a job as well as sharing with you tips on how to communicate with a particular hiring manager.

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