Answering the Interview Question that is REALLY Being Asked

Answering the Interview Question that is REALLY Being Asked
One recent morning, one of my children had this conversation with me:

Dear Child (DC): “Mom, what is the temperature and what’s the high for the day?”
Me: “Ummmm, it’s 34 degrees, and the high will be 48.”
DC: “So should I wear a winter coat or a spring jacket?”

All parents who have faced this kind of exchange with their preteen and teen children quickly learn that the real question is, “Will you let me make my own decision about this?” (It took me a few times before I realized what was happening here.)

The same thing can happen in a job interview — you are asked one question, but your interviewers are looking for the answer to a different one. Here are some common interview questions that can trip you up if you don’t know what they are looking for:

Tell me about yourself.

This may seem innocent enough since it makes sense that they would want to know about you. However, what they are really driving at is “How do you present yourself?”

This is becoming more and more important to companies; virtually every employee is perceived as a representative of the corporate brand, not to mention that the reach that employees may have is stretched thanks to social media.

If you blather on and on, including many details that have nothing to do with the job you are interviewing for, you aren’t doing a good job of answering the question that is really being asked.

What is your greatest weakness?

Even though it has been a common question in job interviews for a long time, folks still miss the mark with this one by either:

a) blurting out “I’m so terrible at doing X” and not offering further explanation,
b) giving a weakness that supposed to be a strength (but isn’t) like “I am such a perfectionist,” or “I’m a workaholic,” or
c) disavowing any weaknesses whatsoever (even though we all know that’s not true).

What they really want to know is “Do you possess enough honesty, humility, and self-awareness to identify one habit that can hurt your work performance or name a past experience where you made a mistake? Do you also have the discipline and consideration to take steps toward eliminating the problem?”

If you are able to answer the questions behind this interview question, you’re doing well.

What are your strengths?

The real questions here are: “Do you have the skills that will help us deal with our pain points? How have you used those skills in past jobs?”

In preparation for the interview, have 3-5 skills that line up with the requirements of the job description, along with anecdotes that breathe life into those strengths. That will address the underlying questions.

Conversely, giving a laundry list of every positive attribute you possess will do nothing but make you look like an egomaniac. Don’t be that guy/girl.

Who was your worst boss?

This one is hard because basically EVERYONE has that one boss who was a complete jerk. But you need to bite your tongue before you slam into your former boss because that’s not the question they are asking.

What your interviewer really wants to know is, “How diplomatic are you?” The way you answer the question will show whether you are or not.

Have you ever had co-workers who irritated you?

This is similar to the worst boss question in that it is looking to see how diplomatically you respond.

But it goes a little deeper than that. Because we all have had situations where a colleague has been irritating, the unspoken question here is “How have you handled conflict in the workplace?”

If you can describe a situation in which you successfully handled a co-worker’s annoying behavior (focusing primarily on your actions in the anecdote), you’ve done a good job of addressing their underlying inquiry.

While it may seem like a job interview is a series of landmines waiting to blow up in your face, understanding what a prospective employer is looking for and taking the time to practice your answers beforehand will go a long way in helping you navigate it successfully!

Image courtesy of Adam Sporka

Melissa Cooley of The Job Quest, LLC unearths clients’ career examples to showcase the talents and results that make them must-hire candidates. Click here for more information on ways to partner with Melissa for your career success!

Melissa is a contributor to the book Nourish Your Career, has been quoted on, The Daily Muse,, and Quintessential Careers, has interviewed numerous times for The Voice of Job Seekers podcast, and has written guest posts for multiple job seeker blogs.

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