The Art of Interview Questioning
Feb 5, 2021
The Art of Interview Questioning
Feb 5, 2021

The more we learn, the better our decisions, and the very best way to learn from people is by questioning.  Questions are, of course, the single most fundamental element of interviewing. All Interviews ask questions, however, to really get results from your questioning Kieran Delaney of Langley James IT Recruitment recommends that you prepare questions and interview strategy ahead of the interview, pre-empt potential answers and how you can drill down to find the answer you are looking for.

An internet search will yield hundreds of articles focused mainly on the use of open and closed questions, promoting the benefits of the former over the weakness of the latter. In interview terms, the art of questioning involves the mindful, tactical, and deliberate application of both, together with more conversational prompts and themed approaches designed to help you gain as much insight as possible before making your final decision.

In this blog, we will explore the various ways of drawing information from a candidate, the types of interview questions you might ask and highlight some of the pitfalls that lay in wait. 

Why is it so important to prepare interview questions?

We are all designed to gather information, we are constantly acquiring new information via our five senses, making assessments, judgements, and decisions along the way. Much of this is automatic however, in our day-to-day working lives, our decisions are based largely on conscious evidence, some factual, some assumed, and a lot subjective. When it comes to interviewing candidates, a Manager’s evidence is limited to a candidate’s descriptions, perspectives, motivations and agendas, which can often make it extremely difficult to make confident, informed decisions. 

Poorly executed, under controlled and biased questioning can easily result in expensive recruiting mistakes. Nearly every aspect of an interview can be predicted so, considered, planned questioning is our greatest weapon to uncover the right information, separate bias and expose truth.

candidate testing

IT Recruitment Questioning Tactics

There are many ways to pose a question but under the veneer of style, tone, delivery, and content, they mostly fall into two basic categories: Open ended and closed questions. Both have distinct purposes and when used appropriately in a deliberate, intentional, and mindful way, you will benefit from their full potential. Like all techniques, it can take time and experimentation to get right. Regular application and awareness of the results can help turn your questioning technique into a real skill, so practise until its truly inert.  

 Closed Questions

A closed question can only result in a limited answer, such as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘maybe’, ‘don’t know’, or any other pre-selected group of multiple-choice answers. These enquiry questions can be used to establish clarity or qualification and generally start with words like Have, Do, Did, Will, Can, Won’t, Shall, etc.

 Open-Ended Questions

An open-ended question inspires answers with depth and explanation and cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Asking broad questions starting with, ‘Who, What, Where, Why, When’, or their cousin, ‘How’ forces people to answer with sentences, statements and stories giving the interviewer far greater levels of insight together with new conversational and questioning opportunities.

Demands

Instead of a question, a demand for information is simply a conversational call to action. ‘Tell me’, ‘Explain’, ‘Speculate’, ‘Give me’, ‘Show Me’, etc, all demand information in some form and are generally used to support a question with greater detail or evidence of application. 

Leading Questions

A leading question offers subtle information in the question itself that can directly help the candidate answer. Generally, this is a bad idea in an interview unless you have a very specific, planned purpose. If you asked, “You’re good at public speaking, right?” you will almost certainly receive a positive answer because the candidate believes that is what you want to hear, even if they detest public speaking. Usually, unplanned leading questions stem from assumptions which is dangerous at the best of times. Best advice – steer clear during the main part of the interview. 

That said, leading questions can be useful when pitching the job opportunity. In that instance, you might consider asking a leading question to support a feature or benefit statement. For example:

“You mentioned earlier that your current employer offers basic statuary holiday. Is that right?” (positive response) “Well, here at ABC Ltd, we offer 25 days plus bank holidays and an extra day for your birthday.” 

Linking the candidate’s complaint with your company’s feature increases the impact significantly. Follow it up with an open question like, “What would you do with all that extra holiday?” encourages the candidate to imagine working with you, benefiting from the feature.

 

Using Questions

Using Open and Closed questions, demands and prompts, and even the odd, well placed leading question, will give you all the tools you need to interview effectively. The simplest way to start is to turn every closed question into an open one. For example:

Instead of “Have you ever used MS Excel?” ask, “What experience do you have of MS Excel?” 

If you are ready for a more complex strategy, try deliberately using Closed Questions to qualify, a Demand for evidence, followed by an Open Question to further explore: For example:

  • “Have you ever used MS Excel?” (closed) 
  • “Give me an example of where you’ve used Microsoft Excel for a similar purpose.” (demand)
  • “What other features of MS Excel are you proficient in?” (open)

You will see now how dangerous it can be to just use closed questions. Had you failed to gain more insight beyond the initial yes or no answer, you’d run the risk of making a terrible recruitment decision, relying on pure luck that the candidate possessed well-matched experience.

Question Themes

You can now apply your questioning tools to any section of the interview by theming. This is where planning really starts to work for you as you predict challenging topics and come up with a robust interview strategy to really get to the core of your candidate investigation.

Factual Questions focus on the hard facts detailed on a CV and are used to simply confirm and qualify as a you tour the candidate’s career. These might include titles, times, dates, locations, qualifications, package benefits, sectors, skill sets, interests, etc. 

Experience Questions explore the structural aspects of a candidate’s professional, educational, or personal CV features such as role responsibilities, objectives, and day to day duties or perhaps a broader explanation of university studies, hobbies or interests.  

Knowledge and Tecnical Questions dig deeper into a candidate’s skillset to find out just what they know about a subject. It is very easy to mistakenly assume that many years of experience in something means a wealth of knowledge. Often, when context is understood, the reality can be somewhat different. For example, if a person’s job was data entry using MS Excel, does that make them an expert in all of Excel’s many features, even with 5 years’ experience?

Performance Questions begin to move away from the safety of the facts and into the murky waters of the subjective as candidates are faced with explaining how well they performed against their employer’s expectations. Having already established their objectives and responsibilities, performance questions ask for results. Emotions greatly influence performance story telling as feelings of pride, embarrassment, humility, anxiety, etc, routinely alter how candidates describe their successes and failures. 

Competency Questions are designed to gain a greater understanding of a candidate’s real-world experience, focused specifically on key elements of a job. For example, candidates for a 2nd Line IT Support Engineer vacancy in a legal firm might need excellent communication skills to build relationships with the users. A recruiting manager might ask candidates to provide examples of occasions where their communication skills helped diffuse or solve situations in similar environments. Detail is critical to gain a convincing example of competence that clearly explains the situation, the strategy, the execution, and the result. 

Behavioural / Hypothetical / Problem Solving Questions test a candidate’s situational responses to real world scenarios with “if this happened…”, or, “what would you do if…”, or,  “Lets say…”, etc. These questions are useful to both test for solutions but mostly for how a candidate approaches a problem. For example, if emotional intelligence is important in a role, asking hypothetical questions requiring social consideration might reveal traits of sympathy and empathy. Remember, the actual solution the candidate comes up with isn’t that important – it’s the thought processes, considerations and ethics you’re really trying to identify. 

Motivational & Aspirational questions can yield great insight into what really matters to a candidate and can expose what truly motivates them get up and go to work. The answers are often surprising because people tend to judge others by their own standards, however gaining this kind of insight can be key in either selecting the correct mindset for the job or, in managing your chosen candidate after they start. 

Self-evaluating questions ask candidate to rate themselves, positively or negatively. This is most commonly seen when asking for a person’s strengths and weaknesses, but these questions can be applied to any subject. However, be aware that the answers depend entirely on a person’s self-worth, skewing answers along the way. Some of the greatest talents consider themselves unworthy and are prone to being overly self-critical. Conversely, there are plenty of average performers out there who truly believe they are members of the elite. Try following up with open questions and demands for examples to figure out where they really stand. 

Personal questions might help you learn more about a person’s private life, their interests, gripes, and views. Often overlooked by managers, these questions can reveal true qualities, ethics, values and motivations that otherwise might have been missed. Sometimes the answers are good, sometimes not, but always valuable. 

Summary

The interview objective is to make the best possible recruiting decision. Going into an interview without a questioning strategy is extremely risky. Given most pitfalls, scenarios and personalities can be predicted, preparation will dramatically improve your chances of recruitment success. 

Practise makes perfect, so review your job descriptions and build a robust series of question, use the format in every interview and regularly review what works and what can be improved. 

For additional interview advice, check out our blog on ‘how to interview a candidate remotely’

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