When I first began recruiting I used to talk about having ‘a gut feeling’ about a certain candidate or that they would be a ‘good fit’ to the team. What I didn’t realise then was that I was actually judging their ‘soft skills’ – their communication abilities - both verbal and non-verbal, their presentation skills and the way they handled themselves in the interview. By asking them about problems they had solved or what they would do in certain situations I was actually testing their soft skills ability. Like many recruiters, these types of questions have become very popular in the interview process and have led to what we now call situational and behavioural interviews.
But what is the difference between a behavioural question and a situational question? Despite their similarities, these questions are actually quite different, as they have completely separate philosophies.
Behavioural interview questions lead you to describe stories in your past that will demonstrate the behaviours the interviewer is looking for or trying to avoid.
Examples of behavioural questions are:
Describe a time where you had to make a critical decision.
Tell me about a time when you disagreed with a supervisor.
Describe your biggest professional mistake.
All of these relate to situations in your past. The interviewer believes that if you managed a situation well in the past then you will repeat this kind of behaviour in the future.
Situational questions, on the other hand, look at the future. Instead of “Tell me about a time…” you will be asked “What would you do if…” The interviewer presents you with a potential problem to see how you would handle the situation.
What would you do if you had a supervisor who was unfair or difficult to work with?
What would you say if a client interrupted you in the middle of a presentation?
Situational questions are fairly reliable indicators about how you would deal with problems in the future. If you supply an answer that would adequately solve the problem, the chances are that you would also perform that same action if you were put in that situation.
In both types of interviews, the interviewer is testing your soft skills to see how you communicate, analyse and solve problems, manage people and remain calm under pressure, among many others.
During any interview, you should be sure to emphasize both your hard and soft skills. This way, if you lack a particular hard skill required by the company, you can make up for it by emphasizing an important soft skill that you know would be valuable to that position.
And don’t forget, once you are in the company you still have to prove yourself. Whether it’s facing a three-month probation period, during your annual appraisals or when promotional opportunities are fiercely fought after amongst staff. Strong soft skills will help you liaise with colleagues and senior members of staff and are a must for making a good impression to fast track you on the road to success.
It is important that you identify which type of question the interviewer is asking, so you can apply the appropriate strategy in your answer.
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