‘Tell Me About a Time’: Behavioral Interviewing Basics

Behavioral Interviewing Basics

Most of the traditional interview questions hiring managers ask focus on the candidate’s job-specific skills to assess that they can do the work at a certain level of capability. When there’s no clear-cut evidence – in other words, when competence can’t be tested in an objective or quantitative way – past behavior is the most reliable predictor of future performance (or behavior). Behavioral interview questions are the key to evaluating skills like these. Common behavioral interview questions usually start with something like, “Tell me about a time …” or “Give me a specific example of a time…”

People new to behavioral interviews don’t always know what questions to ask or what to listen for in the answers. Today, I’d like to share the four most common areas where behavioral job interviews focus and how to help you get more value from the time you spend interviewing candidates. (Of course, if you’re reading this from a candidate’s perspective, these are the areas where it’s most important to have some good stories from your career to tell.)


Example: “Tell me about a time when you were most proud of your work.”

This is a great question to ask (or be asked) in an interview. Who doesn’t like to talk about their successes? There are additional pieces of information to listen for in the candidate’s answer. These types of ‘hidden gems’ can tell you a great deal about your candidate and what they value. As they answer, listen for:

  • How do they define accomplishment and success; what do they see as most important?
  • Did the accomplishment benefit their company, or mostly them personally?
  • Do they think more about an individual accomplishment or accomplishments from teamwork? Do they give credit to others where credit is due?


Example: “Tell me about a time when you weren’t successful.”

It’s tough to talk about failure, but everyone misses the mark sometimes. The way a person reacts when it happens can tell you a great deal about their professional conduct and resilience. Questions about failure can also surface helpful insights about how someone deals with unforeseen challenges and learns from mistakes. Listen for:

  • How do they define failure?
  • How do they respond when they aren’t successful? Analytically, or more emotionally?
  • Do they take responsibility for their role in the failure or point the finger at others?
  • How did they learn and grow from failure?

Difficult Decisions

Example: “Tell me about the most difficult decision you’ve had to make.”

At every level of an organization, we rely on employees to make good decisions. At certain levels, those decisions can have very significant repercussions. People’s thought process to make decisions speaks volumes about them – as employees and as people. The more complex the decision, the greater the ‘stakes.’ Here, you can listen for:

  • What do they consider to be a difficult decision, and why?
  • Are they good at problem-solving, weighing the options and risks carefully? Or do they rely on intuition when deciding?
  • Do they tend to seek input from others or decide on their own?

Difficult People

Example: “Tell me about a specific situation where you had to deal with a challenging personality.”

Dealing with people is part of almost every job, and sometimes those people aren’t easy to get along with. Depending on the role you’re interviewing for, you might want to ask about specific kinds of relationships, such as a co-worker, manager, or customer. In the answer, you can also learn:

  • What kind of personality do they find difficult to get along with, and why?
  • Did they try to resolve their differences? How? Did it work?
  • Do they take responsibility for their share of the challenging relationship?

Naturally, these questions are only the tip of the iceberg. You can use common behavioral interview questions to learn about almost any facet of a candidate’s performance, competencies, and past behavior. This, in turn, will point to the ways they’ll most likely perform and behave as your employee. If you’re working on designing the most effective interview questions for your interview process or job search, I’m happy to help. Get in touch with me or any of our dedicated Goodwin Recruiting team.