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The Critical Interview Question

Updated on June 10, 2012

Whether you are the applicant or the interviewer the job interview is your opportunity to ensure this is the right fit. As an interviewee you dress up, study the latest buzz words and prepare for the "what are your strengths and weaknesses" question. I've heard a lot of people that think that is the critical question, but over the years I have found that regardless of the profession, there is a more "magical question" that gets me the information I am seeking about an applicant.

As the interviewer, you set the tone and it is you that really controls the opportunity to measure up this person as a potential good fit in that first 20 minutes. So this hub is mostly written with a suggestion to the interviewer, it's the critical question that I have found gets the best results, I've used this question over the last 20 years in various industries and positions, it works across the board, from hiring part time sales staff in a retail store, hiring a new welder for friend's company, or hiring technical staff for an IT shop. I will confess I haven't used it in Real Estate but I don't do any hiring there, I simply sell houses.

So what is the question and when do you ask it? I usually start out the interview getting them warmed up and relaxed, asking one or two easy questions so that they are not taken off guard. Then, at question #3 or 4, it comes...."So, Tell me about a time that you felt like you were in over your head" and if they look confused and need more time to start answering, I follow with, "It can be anything, maybe you were tasked with something you didn't know how to do, or you had too much to do and not enough time to get it done, it could be from school or work or some other social activity, really just anything where what was needed was more than you were prepared to handle, and what did you do, how did you handle it, etc"

Yes that really is one question, it is "how do you rise to a challenge" but if you ask it that way you will get a BS answer that they have practiced with a friend, when you ask it they way I have they have to tell a real story and if you keep track of the details you'll spot a liar real quick. It may be that the person is lazy and has never been challenged because no one will ask them to do anything, it may be that the person has a habit of blaming others for all of their own problems. It may be that the person reacted with anger to a stressful situation and refused to make things happen, it may be that the person asked for help, did their best and still failed, but they have a great attitude and if you continue to dig when they provide an answer you'll see that they learned something from this situation and have applied it again since then. Sometimes the person did what they had to do to get through it, they didn't "fail" and they too learned something.

It's not really that complicated. The key to making this question so great is to dig, listen in their answer for the situation they describe, did it happen to them or did they create it? listen to the issues they described as a problem, did they run away from them, blame someone else or muddle through, listen to the result they offer, do they know how they would do it differently, are they just glad it's over, or are they too busy blaming management and others for the bad outcome to have any reflection at all. All of this will tell you if the person is most likely a team player, if they step up when needed and if they take ownership in the goals and mission, or if they are the type that expects to sit back and be served by you, the employer. It should also tell you if they are a leader or a follower, either one can be good, in some positions you might not want a strong "leader" because they are too busy making a better "widget or service" to bother to just produce the one you requested. This question helps you find if they have balance between thinking outside the box and sucking it up and just doing what has to be done. If they were too much of a perfectionist to complete a task or too scattered to care about details it will likely show in the answer. Whether or not any of this is a good fit is of course based on your organizations needs. They key is to know what you need and to use this question to see if the person is a good fit.

Of course if you are the applicant reading this, my best suggestion is be prepared for this question, think about how you would answer it and if you find that you are busy blaming others, then you need to work on that more than you work on your planned answers. Changing your attitude about who is responsible and what you can do or not do in any given situation will have a far greater impact. Broadening your perspective and attitude is the key, the answers will fall in line once you have done this.


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    • MomTech profile image

      Connie Klemme 5 years ago from Oklahoma

      Thanks for the comment!

    • yssubramanyam profile image

      yssubramanyam 5 years ago from india, nellore. andhrapradesh

      useful hub. interview decides the candidates aptitude, confidence and honesty besides attitude. irrespective of written, verbal, nonverbal body language and way of answering is the only tool to measure the correct candidate. i love this hub.