Why You Shoudn’t Use the Phrase “Tell Me About a Time” in Interviews

October 19, 2015

These days, most interview questions begin with the words ‘Tell me about a time…’ or ‘Give an example of a time…’ or ‘Talk about a time…’ 

For example, you might ask a candidate: 'Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a coworker” or 'Talk about a time you successfully persuaded someone to see things your way at work.’

The problem is, whatever the exact formulation, all of these phrases have something in common: They’re commands, not questions.

Whether you say ‘tell me’ or ‘talk about’ or ‘describe a time,’ you’re issuing a directive to the candidate. ‘Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a coworker’ isn’t even technically a question. It’s punctuated with a period and not a question mark, which makes it a directive. And those kinds of directives sound a lot like a TV cop demanding ‘tell me about the first time you met the victim’ to a suspect in the interrogation room. You don’t want to shine a bright light in the candidate’s face and hiss ‘vee have vays of making you talk!’ 

Why this approach does more harm than good

Issuing directives or commands to job candidates makes them feel like they’re in the interrogation room. And when a candidate gets hammered with interview questions, especially questions that sound like orders (‘Tell me about situation A, then you will tell me about situation B,’ etc.) it constantly reminds them that they are in a powerless position.

This communicates that everything they say is being critically judged. As a result, they become guarded and highly reticent in what they are willing to share.

When you put candidates on the defensive with directives, you’re only going to hear the carefully rehearsed answers they practiced prior to the interview; you’ll never get to the real person underneath.

How you should be asking questions 

Instead, you want to make candidates feel comfortable and relaxed so they lower their defenses, drop their guard, ditch the rehearsed responses, and reveal their true attitude.

One of the fastest and easiest ways to make candidates feel at ease is to begin your interview questions with the words ‘Could you tell me…’ For example, ‘Could you tell me about a time you had a conflict with a coworker?’ Note how adding on “Could you” turns this into an actual question.

When you ask 'Could you tell me... ?' it's a subtle way of saying: 'You have control because you can choose whether or not you want to answer this question.' This makes candidates forget that they're in a position without much power. They feel more like they’re having a conversation with a new friend, and that inspires more open and honest communication.

Of course, no one is actually going to refuse to answer an interview question - not without knowingly forfeiting the interview. But just the fact that you've suggested that they have a choice in the matter plants the psychological seed that they have more control, just like they would in a conversation with a friend.

Every good clinical psychologist who works with young kids knows that you can force kids to get in the car by saying: "Get in the car, now!" But it's a lot easier, and way faster, to instead say: "You can get in the car by yourself, or I can help you get in the car. It's your choice. " Kids love this because it really does feel like a choice to them. You know it's not really a choice, just as you know answering the interview question isn't really a choice, but to the person on the other end of those words it 'feels' like a choice. And when we're talking about interpersonal communication, perception truly is reality.

Final thought

Even small changes can make big differences in job interviews. Remaining friendly and relaxed yourself will make most candidates more open and forthcoming. And asking questions by starting with the words “Could you” instead of issuing commands gives candidates the feeling of being part of a conversation and not the subject of an interrogation.

Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a NY Times bestselling author, and a sought-after speaker on leadership. Check out Mark’s latest Leadership Styles Quiz to see what kind of leader you are.

*Image from Shrek

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