The question behind the question in job interviews

One of the most important techniques to learn in successful interviewing is understanding the question behind the question. The ability to understand the real question that is being asked will increase your interview-to-offer ratio significantly.

Often times you will hear generic interview questions like “what’s unique about you as a candidate” or “where do you see yourself in 5 years”. These questions are commonly used simply because most people don’t have time to prepare, or they don’t want to veer to far from what’s “commonly acceptable” and get in trouble. In situations where the interviewer comes up with their own questions, they risk getting in trouble with HR, or coming across as informal. Therefore, most interviews at big companies follow certain guidelines with slight variations.

In smaller to medium sized companies, there are more informal variations. However, you would be surprised at how often middle level managers still default to the status quo. It’s just the safer and easier thing to do.

So this makes your job easy, right?

Unfortunately, job applicants often forget the importance of body language and tonality in our communications as human beings:

According to Professor Albert Mehrabian at UCLA:

7% of personal communication is the spoken word

38% if voice, tone

55% is body language!

This means that your words only account for 7% of your influence. 38% is your tonality. In a job interview where body language can be limited, that means HOW you say it is sometimes more important than WHAT you say.

The scope of micro-expressions, reading body language and tonality each require another blog post. For this post, I am going to explore what we call “subtext” – the subcommunication of the common questions people ask in interviews, and how you can respond with an answer that will maximize the likelihood of receiving an offer.

Remember that subtext changes depending on the role of the person interviewing you. For example, a CEO’s subtext for “why did you apply for this job” could be, “prove to me quickly you’re the right person because I’m busy” and your direct manager’s subtext might be, “are you someone that can report to me without problems and support me and my team?”

A coworker’s subtext might be, “are you going to be easy to work with, or a pain in the butt?” or even “why are you applying for the role I applied for”, in which case, you may have to handle the potential conflict and jealousy underneath if it becomes a barrier for you getting the offer.

Therefore, be aware that subtext changes on each question depending on the person’s role, their expectations, as well as their facial expressions, tonality and body language. In the following examples I am going to give you the most common subtexts from most managers / coworkers.

These insights are based on the balance of probabilities. It is a great place to start if you are new or recently failing to land job offers (low interview-to-offer ratio). A good average interview-to-job ratio is 1 to 3. If you are getting more than 3 invitations to interview with the hiring manager and team (on-site) and not getting an offer, consider getting coaching or reviewing your whole interview funnel for blind spots.

Q: “Why did you apply for this job?

Subtext: are you taking this seriously and should I take you seriously?

The interviewer wants to know that you’re excited and enthusiastic about the role. Even if this is not your ideal role, your job is to communicate that you’re taking this seriously, and you know why you are there.

Potential Answer: “I really resonate with company X’s mission to Y. For the last few years, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to continue to master my skills in this area and am excited when this role opened up. So far, everyone I’ve met have embodied the values I’m looking for. I understand there will be challenges and I am looking forward to learning more”

Your answer can never be, “I need the money” or “I have no other options” or even “I thought I’d apply it looked cool”. It has to be serious, even if you applied for thousands of jobs. No one wants to be a “side option”.

Find something about the role that resonates with your eventual goal and build an authentic story bridge to it. For example, this role will help you continue to hone your financial skills, even though your true passion is working with people – focus on talking about the financial part and how you can improve your math skills.

Q: “Tell me about your work history so far and what led you here today

Subtext: without boring me, tell me a little bit about yourself so I know you’re right for the role and if you’re easy to work with.

The interviewer wants to know if you have the skills, qualifications and temperament to do well in this role, and the people you will be working with. A concise history, filled with 1-2 memorable stories without bragging, is the way to answer this. You want to make sure you keep it concise but allow for clarification questions. You also don’t want to bore them. Them is why stories that tie to a common emotion is so important. In the answer below, you see how I mentioned “getting rejected 25 times”. Everyone loves an underdog story. It also shows perseverance. I’ve used the story in many interviews and it always gets a positive reaction. The donation to charity from a student-run business gets the same reaction. You want the person to EMOTIONALLY relate to you and root for you, without feeling envy or jealousy, and the way to do this is to position yourself as an underdog, who overcomes. Remember you’re telling this story like you’re striving for something, instead of bragging about your accomplishments.

Potential Answer: “Sure. I will give the abbreviated version, please feel free to ask me any questions if you want more details for each of my previous roles. I went to X school because I wanted to study Marketing. In our 2nd year, we started a student-run company that generated profits and we donated 3k to charity at the end of the year. I went onto management consulting for a year in New York. After that stint I moved back to the bay area, where my extended family resides. I wanted to get into Google, and after applying over 2 years and getting 25 rejections, I finally got an interview. I went in prepared, organized, and in my mind there was no way I wasn’t going to give it 100%. I got the job. That kicked off my tech career. After 4 years, I spent a few years in the SEO world here. I took a year off to deep dive into self development, meditation and salsa and to learn about new skills that I could not get in Silicon Valley. I’m now back and more excited than ever to combine my technical skills and the self mastery I’ve gained over the last year. I’m excited to be here today. Thanks for having me.”

As always, calibrate based on the interviewer’s reactions. If you sense they are getting bored, move onto the next phase of your career. Sometimes, an engineer prefers to hear about Google, while another person is very intrigued by the 1 year break into meditation and self development. Calibrate as necessary. Your goal is to connect with the person, and get them on your side. Always imagine them having a round table discussion about you later – is this person going to root for you or talk you down? What do you need to do to get them on your side? This is the ultimate goal. Win over the individual, and you’ll win the job offer.

Q: “When was a time you had a conflict with a coworker, and how did you resolve it?”

Subtext: this is a trick question, designed to see how you handle the inevitable conflict that happens when human beings work together. With a “good intentioned” interviewer, they’re seeing how you handle conflict and handle tough questions. With a “less well intentioned interviewer”, they’re seeing if you crack under pressure. You never, ever want to mention a conflict that was deeply personal, emotional or unresolved. The answer to this question is ALWAYS a small conflict that had a positive resolution and a lesson, and how you grew from it. There’s no exception to this rule. The only minor adaptation is, if you are talking to a CEO or founder and you’re looking at a long-term, close partnership, you can talk to him/her about the challenges and lessons you learned. Usually though, these interviews are not done formally in the office, rather at the CEO’s hangout place, a more casual lunch break, or at their house. They’re looking to hire a strong right hand man and for you to be part of the family. These types of interviews are rare and they usually occur after a friendly introduction of someone they already trust. You are hanging out and it’s 50% social and 50% professional.

Potential Answer: “Yes, that’s a good question. As someone who is always looking to improve, I try to learn as much as I can from all my professional relationships. One time, I had a miscommunication with one of my partners involving a campaign. He wanted to drive app installs, and I wanted to drive ROI. The client wasn’t clear on their goals and gave us a fixed budget. A day or two passed, and I realized that we needed to have clarity to succeed on this project.

I setup a group meeting. In the meeting I clarified with the client what their end goal was. They were not sure. I asked some clarifying questions like, “if you had to choose, would you rather have more installs, or a return on ad spend?” They were able to be guided to a conclusion that, anything above $10000 spend a day, they would prefer an ROI on the spend. With this clarification, my partner and I were able to direct our teams to hit a 2x return on ad spend over the next 6 months. Best of all, we increased our revenue as a result of the clarifications. My partner and I also improved the way we communicated and clarified goals with each other. I learned that, without making things personal, to identify the clarifying questions with our partners and clients. This change in our relationship is one of the main success factors in the 50% year-over-year growth of our accounts.”

Giovanni Side Note: Look, we ALL have had tough conflicts at work. After all, it’s how you feed your family and emotions get in the way. But, for this interview question… you never, ever want to tell a story about emotional, personal attacks with or from coworkers. Leave the ugly stuff at home. This is an interview. Like a date, you’re presenting your best, truthful self. Avoiding these types of stories is also a sign of respect for the process and the person you’re speaking with. You are respecting them by bringing your best professional self to the interview.

Q: “What are you biggest strengths?”

Subtext: This is usually an opportunity to shine, but be wary of interviewers looking for how overly confident you are. Be careful to answer this question with humble self awareness.

Potential Answer: “Yes, fair question. I find that my strengths are enhanced with great people around me, so I can’t always take credit for all the results of leveraging my strengths. Over the years, I’ve learned that I am good with analytical situations. For example, I built a forecasting model for a large pharmaceutical that ended up with a 5% deviation from what actually happened in the marketplace 2 years later. I have found that I enjoy working and leading a team, because I get an opportunity to serve my teammates, help them with obstacles, and listen to them to make them feel understood and that their thoughts are being incorporated into the projects. I look forward to continuing to develop my skills in these areas everyday.”

Q: “What are you 3 biggest weaknesses?”

Subtext: This is a trick question, and sometimes an interviewer will as you up to 3 weaknesses. If it’s just one, it’s easier. You never want to list your major weaknesses. You want to talk about minor weaknesses and how you overcame them and are now stronger. Sometimes the interviewer wants to see if you can politically handle tough questions or situations... and if you’re dumb enough to sabotage yourself if someone asks you a loaded question. Being diplomatic and recognizing tough questions is a quality high level managers must have.

Potential Answer: “Yes. My previous business partner gave me some great advice a few years ago, he said, “be fast, but don’t hurry” in response to us growing so fast and dealing with many things at once. What he meant was, focus on one thing at a time, be fast but focused. When you hurry, you start focusing on too many things and get nothing done with 100% focus. I’ve since taken that advice. No matter how crazy things get, when I feel like I’m hurrying, I take a deep breath, slow down, and realign my priorities for the task at hand. This has helped me tremendously and I thank him for that feedback.

I have been told by 1 person that they felt like I was too friendly in a meeting. I realized afterward this feedback and clarification from them, that they needed me to be neutral and listen to them, letting the emotions go where it needs to go, instead of being positive and supportive right away. From this feedback, I realized it’s important to observe what the other person is feeling if they initiate the conversation. After this observation, support them how they want to be supported, instead of always coming in with how you think they need support. Since that conversation, I’ve maintained a positive but neutral stance in the beginning of conversations with people I haven’t closely worked with, asking them clarifying questions until I know what they need support on. From that point on I support them however they need it, be it technically, in leadership, or just with focused attention and listening.”

“A 3rd weakness? I supposed my mom would always tell me to stand up straighter! Every time I call her, she reminds me of this hah!” (This one you need to calibrate – if they laugh, you’re good. If they continue to ask, “no, that doesn’t count. I meant professionally”, then you need to give them another example).

Usually they will not ask if the vibe is going well. Be prepared for 3 just in case. If you meet a “tough interviewer”, don’t be disparaged. Remember they probably are tough with everyone. And if you are prepared, the tough ones that you “win over” that the rare ones that will have your back at the round-table discussion because you were one of the few who passed their test.

Q: “How would you handle having to let someone go?”

Subtext: This is a common manager-level question. The interviewer wants to know if you are on the side of the corporation and if you have good people skills. They want to know if you can handle tough situations professionally and efficiently. It’s important here not to have any emotions or expressions of enjoying letting someone go. It’s also important to stay professional. Refrain from person feelings on this one. This is not the natural thing most people want to do, but it’s what’s going to get you the offer.

Potential Answer: “Sometimes in business, this is a process that happens. It’s important to handle it professionally and respectfully. If I know the person well, I would tailor it best for their comfort. For example, if it is an employee I worked with who prefers to get to the point, I would let him know quickly that the decision has been made instead of making small talk for too long. I would follow-up on any questions he or she has about the HR process, health insurance, and final compensation issues and be knowledgeable of these before the meeting. If the person was a good worker, I would offer myself as a reference for his or her next role and assist them to the level that’s most appropriate for the situation. I believe that handling these tough situations professional can lead to a strong reputation for the company a well as develop deeper bridges as all or our careers progress.”

Q: “What are you plans 3-5 years from now? Bigger vision of your goals?”

Subtext: Are you going to be around in 3-5 years if we invest in you?

Potential Answer: “Yes, my goal is to continue my growth in digital marketing. It’s something I really enjoy doing and a lot of value has been delivered to my teams and I look forward to continue to master this skill set. I plan to develop in different areas, including learning how to lead projects. One thing I have been studying in my time off is the project management processes so I can more efficiently plan, manage and lead different stakeholders on a team. I would also like to learn more about our cross functional teams like PR, engineering and creatives, so I can better support them.”

You have to answer this question with the intention of being there long term. Yes, times have changed and things can change fast in today’s job market, but traditionally managers want people who will stick around. There’s no getting around this one, even if you only plan on staying for 1-2 years, always envision 3-5 at least. Who knows, maybe after you get the job you’ll like it. None of this matters if you don’t get the offer, so stay focused!

Q: “How do you envision your role growing at this company?”

Subtext: This is different depending on if it’s a manager or coworker. For managers, never challenge their role. For coworkers, offer a spirit of cooperation instead of competition. Focus on developing skills over climbing the ladder, even if the latter is true.

Potential Answer “My main focus is to do my job well and be a strong problem solver. Whether that problem is in digital marketing, or gaining a better understanding of the teams we work with – creative, engineering and PR. I’m also looking forward to embodying the 3 qualities of the company culture – Empathy, Growth and Leadership. As I learn more about the business, to see where I can add value, take ownership, and offer my analytical and communication skills to help you advance your team forward. If I can do this I will feel like I’m doing my job well and growing professionally.”

Q: “How would you handle marketing/building/engineering X, Y, Z?”

Subtext: did you do your homework and research publicly available information on our products?

Potential Answer: [This answer is easily a test of your preparation skills] I always add, “based on my research with information that’s available publicly, and of course you have more extensive knowledge than I do from your vantage point, my initial plan would be to tackle these areas…”

Q “Do you have any questions for me?”

Subtext: Are you going to be boring and are you prepared with some interesting questions? The best questions are prepared ahead of time, based on research of the person you’ve speaking with.

Potential Answers:

“You’ve spent 2 years on the east coast in management consulting. What were the top 2 lessons you learned from that experience?”

“If you had to hire someone and you can build that person from scratch, what skills and temperaments would that person have?”

“What would have to happen a year from now, for you to look back and say, “wow, [YOUR NAME] was a great hire””?

“What are some of your biggest challenges right now, and how can this new role help you with them?”

“What do you do for fun?” [Calibrate this one depending on mood towards end of interview – you’re trying to make a real personal connection, which can make the difference between the interviewer supporting you later or not. You can ONLY get personal if you meet the minimum professional requirements for the job, not the other way around]


You now have the most common interview questions, their subtext, and a good idea of how to answer them properly.

Congrats! You’re one step closer to landing your dream job.

As always, tailor these to the role you’re applying for, the company and the person you’re speaking with. Adjust your answers based on your own professional experiences and what stage you’re in in your career track. Manager level positions and executive positions require different answers than individual contributors and usually involve higher strategic thinking, team management and handling tough situations. In general, individual contributor roles require more demonstration of empathy, loyalty, stability, discipline and willingness to help the team.

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