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Questioning Techniques

Types of questions to ask or avoid in an interview

The best interviewers employ a flexible questioning technique to elicit pertinent, accurate information. Interviewers should vary the questioning technique according to the goals of the interview. For example, an appropriate technique in one instance may yield false, incomplete, or misleading information in another. The best interviewers use some combination of the following techniques as the situation demands.

Closed-ended Questions
Closed-ended questions are most commonly asked in interviewing and are the most commonly misused questions. The following is an example of an ineffective closed-ended question: “Can you work under pressure?” Only “yes” and “no” are the possible answers. The interviewer has no information and no way of evaluating any one candidate against another. However, a closed-ended question would be appropriate and useful as a questioning technique when looking for a commitment from the individual, for example: “Can you start on Monday?

A closed-ended question also helps interviewers in an attempt to refresh their own memory or in verifying information from earlier in the interviewing sequence: “You were with Company X for 40 years?

Interviewers may also utilize the closed-ended technique as preparation for a series of questions on the same subject.

Open-Ended Questions
Open-ended questions often yield better results than close-ended. Open-ended questions do not lend themselves to monosyllabic answers; instead, they question requires an explanation. For example, the following open-ended question requires a detailed answer: “How do you succeed in working under pressure?

As a rule, open-ended questions are preferable to closed-ended questions because such questions require the candidate to speak while the interviewer listens. Open-ended questions often begin as follows:

  • Tell me about a time ……
  • Describe a situation where …..

Behavioral Questions
The technique of asking behavioral questions has developed into a unique style of interviewing. Behavioral questions are based on the premise that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance.

Behavioral questions are open-ended and request specific examples of past behavior. Such questions elicit conversation and are usually prefaced with something similar to the following:

  • "Share with me an experience when …..
  • "Give me an example of …..

Used appropriately, behavioral questions make it difficult for the candidate to misrepresent past performance.

Negative-Balance Questions
Interviewers often assume, albeit incorrectly, that a candidate who is strong in one area is equally impressive in all areas. This is not always the case.

To avoid this assumption, an interviewer may ask the following questions:

  • “That is very impressive. Could you please describe an occasion when the situation did
    not work out to your advantage?”
  • “Additionally, please offer an example of an aspect in this area where you struggle(d).”

Negative Confirmation
When interviewers have sought and found negative balance, they may feel content that they are maintaining their objectivity and move on or that an answer they receive may be disturbing enough to warrant negative confirmation.

For example, an interviewee tells the interviewer about a situation when the individual felt that it was necessary to go around or behind a supervisor to achieve a goal. A manager should be troubled because if such behavior is common, the person may not be desirable to hire. Consequently, negative confirmation should be sought with perhaps the following: “That is very interesting. Let’s talk about another time when you had to …..

Successive examples will help interviewers confirm negative traits and perhaps save the employer from hiring a candidate unfit for the employment position. On the other hand, interviewers may establish that the negative situation was a peculiarity or one-time thing and nothing that would potentially disqualify a candidate.

Reflexive Questions
Reflexive questions function to close a line of questioning and move the conversation forward. Reflexive questions help interviewers calmly maintain control of the conversation no matter how talkative the interviewee.

When a candidate begins to stray from the topic of the questions, the interviewer can easily interject with a reflexive question that will allow the interviewer to proceed with other topics.

An interviewer may accomplish this by adding phrases, such as the following, to the end of a statement:

  • Don’t you
  • Couldn’t you
  • Wouldn’t you
  • Didn’t you
  • Can’t you
  • Aren’t you

For example, the interviewer might say, “With time so short, I think it would be valuable to move onto another area, don’t you?” The candidate’s reflex is to agree, and the conversation moves on.

Mirror Statements
Mirror statements function as a subtle form of probing in conjunction with silence. To use the technique, the interviewer mirrors or paraphrases key statement made by the candidate and then remains silent while offering positive reinforcement through body language such as nodding, and looking attentively at the interviewee.

Interviewers should use mirror statements to fully understand a candidate’s answer and gain more insight through the candidate’s detailed explanation. For example, an interviewer would repeat the substance of an interviewee’s key comment in a question form, “Whenever you arrive two hours early for work, you then leave work two hours early to compensate yourself for your time?” Upon completion of the question, the interviewer would patiently wait for the interviewee to expand on the mirrored statement, without a further interjection from the interviewer. This technique allows the candidate to hear verbatim the words they chose as an answer and volunteer further details.

Loaded Questions
Loaded questions are inappropriate as they may lead to manipulation by the interviewer. Loaded questions are fundamentally problematic because questions require the interviewee to decide between equally unsuitable options. For instance, the following is a loaded question: “Which do you think is the lesser evil, embezleent or forgery?

Obviously, the interviewer should avoid absurd, loaded questions. However, carefully balanced judgment-call questions may have a place in a good interview. The technique may allow the interviewer to probe the interviewee’s decision-making approach.

For example, the interviewer may want to recall a real-life situation where two divergent approaches were both carefully considered and may do so by framing the situation as a question:

  • “I’m curious to know what you have done when …..”
  • “What has been your approach in situations where …..”

Half-Right Reflexives
Half-right reflexives can be utilized to glean specific answers and determine an individual’s propensity for specific work-related incidents. To employ the technique, the interviewer must make a partially correct statement and ask the interviewee to agree.

With half-right reflexives, the interviewee has the opportunity to offer personalized and experienced insights in regard to workplace dilemmas and situations. However, the interviewee may also demonstrate a lack of experience or inability to perform required tasks of the job.

This technique creates enlightening insights. For instance, this example of a half-right reflexive always generates fascinating responses: “I’ve always felt that customer service should commence only after the bill has been paid, haven’t you?

Leading Questions
Leading questions allow interviewers to lead the listener toward a specific type of answer. Leading questions often arise accidentally when the interviewer explains what type of organization the interviewee will be joining. For instance, the interviewer might proudly exclaim, “We’re a fast-growing outfit here, and there is constant pressure to meet deadlines and satisfy our ever-increasing list of customers”, then ask, “How do you handle stress?

In the interviewer’s statement the basic principles and requirements of the job are made clear and thus, the correct answer to any further question is a simple paraphrase of the interviewers own statement.

Leading questions are often useful, but like closed-ended questions, the interviewer must use leading questions appropriately. As information verifiers, leading questions encourage the candidate to expand on a particular topic, for example, “We are an organization that believes the customer is always right. How do you feel about that?

However, leading questions should be used only after establishing a candidate’s belief or performance in a particular area. In any case, leading questions should not be used early in the interview or be confused with the half-right reflexive.

Question Layering
A good question poorly phrased will be ineffectual and provide the interviewer with incomplete or misleading information. However, question layering allows an interviewer to thoroughly probe and answer on many different levels. For example, when an interviewer wants to determine whether a candidate could work well under pressure the basic line of questioning (“Can you work under pressure?”) may prove to be the wrong approach because the question:

  • requires only a yes or no answer, which fails to provide adequate information for the interviewer
  • leads the interviewee toward the type of answer the individual knows the interviewer wants

Instead, interviewers can use a combination of all the questioning styles and techniques to examine the topic from every angle. For example, to examine all angles of a topic the interviewer may ask:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • How?

Similarly, the interviewer does the same by joining the closed-ended question with some of the other question techniques. The following sequence demonstrates how much more relevant information an interviewer can glean through question layering:

  • Tell me about a time when you worked under pressure (Open-ended)
  • So, it was tough to meet the deadline? (Mirror statement)
  • How did this pressure situation arise? (Question layering)
  • Who was responsible? (Question layering)
  • Why was this allowed to occur? (Question layering)
  • Where did the problem originate? (Question layering)

These questions illustrate several different angles to the same question, each revealing a different aspect of the personality, performance, and behavior of the candidate. The question layering technique makes the possibilities for questions theoretically endless, depending only on the interviewer’s thoroughness.

Additional Input Questions
Interviewers can use the following techniques to gain more information from a initial question:

If the interviewer wants to hear more – whether dissatisfied with the first answer or interested in obtaining more information – the interviewer could say, “Can you provide more detail about that? It’s very interesting,” or “Can you give me another example?

The interviewer may hear an answer and then add, “What did you learn from that experience?” This is an excellent layering technique that can give insight into judgment and emotional maturity.

Perhaps the best technique for gathering more information is for an interviewer to simply sit quietly, while maintaining eye contact with the interviewee and saying nothing. If the conversation lulls, the interviewee may instinctually attempt to fill the silence and provide more information and/or details. Although an interviewer may initially find the silence difficult to manage, patience and allowing the interviewee to speak without encumbrance can be effective.

Additional Questions
Interviewers should try to include questions that go beyond a candidate’s technical competence or knowledge. The interviewer should probe for qualities needed to succeed at the job:

  • Organizational skill
  • Willingness to put in the extra time and effort necessary to complete a project

Relevant and job-related questions might target the following:

  • Incomplete information on application form
  • Work experience or education
  • Gaps in work history
  • Geographic preferences
  • Normal working hours
  • Willingness to travel
  • Reasons for leaving or planning to leave previous job
  • Job-related achievements
  • Signs of initiative and self-management
  • Specialized knowledge or expertise
  • Meaning of former job titles

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