This article also appears on LinkedIn.
The other day I was sitting at my favorite outdoor lunch spot. Two people sat down next to me and started chatting. From the conversation, it was evident they never met each other. One lady exuded confidence and strength. The other woman sitting across from her was super friendly and kind but clearly nervous. My intuition told me what was next.
Confidence lady opened her designer leather pouch and carefully slipped out two sheets of perfectly pressed, precisely stapled paper. Pouch now laying on a spare chair and papers neatly squared with the table, the interview began.
Did you ever listen to a personal conversation and find yourself voyeuristically enjoying being the proverbial fly on the wall? That was me right then.
Having interviewed and been interviewed, I was enjoying my little view into the process without the need to participate. I even made up names for the two people. Confidence was the interviewer and Nervous was the candidate.
Nervous was doing great! She quickly regained her composure, deftly answering questions and proving her extensive knowledge and industry experience. “No,” I thought. Her name is not Nervous; her name is Composed.
After some awkward introductions, the interview was doing pretty well. Confidence asked fair and mostly open-ended questions. Composed was sitting up straight, looking Confidence in her eyes, and began answering questions with thoughtful answers.
This interview involved the care of mentally challenged children so a hiring mistake can have significant repercussions. As I’m sure you can imagine, Confidence had some difficult questions up her sleeve.
Confidence kept her cool and calm demeanor, but she was ready to play hardball in the form of targeted and [to me] tough questions. Composed kept up. Her answers remained strong, and she was able to cover her bases.
Unfortunately, Composed started answering questions without telling the all-important stories that back up her answers. As with all interviews, you need to share stories and ideas that relate back to you. These stories share who you are inside; they paint a verbal picture of your skills, personality, beliefs, and ethics. With the interview starting so well, Composed got a bit ahead of herself and could have taken a few deep, thoughtful breaths before leaping on the question with an immediate answer.
To her credit, Confidence did ask some leading questions, like “tell me how you came to that conclusion,” or “share an example of that.” I give Confidence credit because she could have politely ended the interview but instead recognized Composed needed a little help.
At this point, I believe Confidence was behind Composed as a potential candidate. They were smiling, laughing and the interview fell into an easy banter. Then came the big question.
“As I’m sure you know, working with mentally challenged people requires patience and a unique perspective,” said Confidence. She went on: “I can clearly tell you have a lot of experience, but can you tell me at least one time things did not go well or something you did wrong and what you learned from it?”
Composed took a quick breath and the words poured out of her mouth: “I knew you were going to ask that!” she laughed. “You know, I am never prepared for that answer.”. With a sinking feeling, I mentally renamed Composed back to Nervous again.
Confidence sat at the table, smiling, but not giving Nervous an out.
Realizing she had to say something, Nervous went back to rambling. She talked about how well she works with the children, how it is important to work as a team with the other staff members, and how proactive she is.
Nervous’s little ramble wasn’t too bad. It shed a very positive light on things she is good at and made a few, if not too subtle, statements that led you to believe she has been in stressful situations and worked through it. Nervous should have stopped there.
Instead, Nervous went on to say “I just don’t know how to answer questions about what I did wrong or what did not go well. I just hate that question because I’m never prepared…”. She went on like this for an excruciating period. Maybe it went on for 30 seconds; maybe it was five minutes. I don’t remember because it was like watching a train derail in slow motion.
With those last comments, Confidence took the neatly pressed resume and placed them into her leather pouch, uttering her final words. “It was great speaking with you. I will personally get back to you in about a week after the other interviews are done and will let you know where we stand.” Nervous stood to shake Confidence’s hand, uttered a pleasantry and took off in the other direction.
Chances are Nervous did not get the job. Confidence was not asking Nervous a trick question. I sincerely doubt any person with more than a year of work experience has not made a mistake, did not deal with a bad situation, or was not involved in remediating an issue.
To a candidate, being asked what you did wrong sounds like a targeted question to through you off. But you should not take it that way. A candidate is usually less interested in what went wrong and more interested in what you did to resolve the situation. Candidates are eager to see if you are willing to learn from a problem and can put a positive light on it. Your answers help the interviewer determine whether you are willing to grow and continue to better yourself or if you are just looking for a paycheck.
Before heading to your next interview, remind yourself at all times that uncomfortable questions help the interviewer learn more about you. They are not asking you questions just to see you squirm. You must prepare yourself for the hard questions beforehand, so you leave the interview with a strong, positive impression.