How To Answer 'Tell Me About A Time When' Interview Questions

How To Answer 'Tell Me About A Time When' Interview QuestionsBehavioral interview questions are used to gain insight into how you’ve reacted in various work-related situations. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, answers to behavioral questions should “provide verifiable, concrete evidence as to how a candidate has dealt with issues in the past.” By posing these types of questions, your interviewer is using your prior performance and experience to gauge your potential for handling similar situations within their organization in the future.

So, what exactly do behavior questions look like? Here are a few examples:

Tell me about a time when you learned from a mistake.
Tell me about a time when you dealt a difficult customer or colleague.
Tell me about a time when you managed a conflict
Tell me about a time when you stepped out of your comfort zone.

To avoid succumbing to shock or panic when your interviewer hits you with a “Tell me about a time when...” question, here’s a step-by-step guide to help you answer with ease.


Telling Your Story

Whenever a hiring manager throws a ‘tell me about a time when…” question at you, they’re looking for you to share a specific story. What it boils down to, is selecting the right types of stories to showcase your skills and experience in a way that’ll resonate with what the employer and position are looking for. Before your interview, researching the company and reviewing the job description will help you gain an understanding of what you should be highlighting in your answer.

For example, if the job description calls for a candidate who has strong problem-solving or communication skills, you’ll want to craft a story that exemplifies how you've used these skills to achieve a successful outcome. Remember to choose stories that allow you enough flexibility to adapt your responses accordingly.  

Commonly, employers like to see how you act during times of conflict or failure, so be prepared for questions surrounding a time you failed or faced a disagreement with a team member or manager. These types of queries aren't meant to back you into a corner or make you recount a particularly unpleasant encounter you had in the workplace. Instead, they’re designed to explore how you handle conflict and how these situations have helped you develop as a professional.


Deliver a Strong Explanation

Preparing a few strong stories in advance is the first step in setting yourself up for success. The next piece of the equation requires you to take a deeper dive into the context with which the question is posed – i.e. what is your interviewer trying to uncover? Even though you may be prepared to start relaying your story, take a moment to collect your thoughts and make the appropriate statement to introduce the premise of your story.

This is important because you may decide to discuss a particular scenario that is interpreted in the wrong light by your interviewer. For instance, maybe there was a time where you voiced concerns about a new software implementation reacting adversely with existing software to your manager. You share how you experienced conflict with your manager, who ultimately pushed for you to move forward despite your input. In the end, you were right; the process was missing a key technical component to be executed seamlessly.

Although this story seems suitable, it may not translate the way you envisioned. The hiring manager could point out that you didn’t communicate the issue correctly, allowing the problem to fester until it was too late. To ensure you’re using a clear-cut, effective story, you always want to make an introductory statement to set up the premise behind what you’re talking about.

For this particular story, you could start off by saying something along the lines of, “In my previous role, I discovered that it’s fine to disagree or raise concerns, all long as you can reinforce your opinion with data.” By making this statement, you’re not only illustrating a time you experienced conflict, but showing what you learned from that experience and how you’ve applied it to future conflict you've encountered.


Make a Lasting Impression

In order to feel truly confident and convey your story naturally, you need to practice. Enlist the help of a friend or family member to rehearse telling your stories, tailoring each one to fit the question that’s asked. Like any epic speech, the final piece of the equation requires you to complete your story with a strong ending. You don’t want to deliver an impressive answer only to finish off by saying, “Umm..and…yup, that’s it.”

The key to wrapping up your story is to make a final statement that connects your answer back to the role or company. You could either briefly touch upon how you would bring your experience to the position you're vying for or provide a short summary of the story you discussed. For example, you could say something along the lines of “In short, while I used to shy away from multitasking and would only work on one project at a time, I’ve now discovered working on various projects simultaneously and setting priorities produces more effective outcomes and allows me to exercise more creativity."

Crafting a stand-out response means framing your story in a way that provides your interviewer with clear takeaways and sheds light on who you are as a professional. Communicating with stories is a great way to showcase your strengths, especially if you’re interviewing for a position where you don’t necessarily have the exact experience they’re looking for. At the end of the day, when you arrive prepared, you will be able to present your candidacy in the best light.