Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Exterminating Bad Answers to the Interview Question: Tell Me About a Time When You Worked With A Difficult Person

As a graduate assistant at the career center, I’ve conducted many practice interview sessions. I’ve heard good, bad, and ugly answers to everything from “Tell me about yourself” to “What questions do you have for us?” Although students prepare for different positions and bring unique experience to their interview sessions, I’ve noticed patterns in responding. Some questions seem relatively stress-free for most students, and some particular questions seem to creep into otherwise confident answers, eating away at the foundation of a solid interview. One such question is the devious “Tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult person.” A tricky little bugger that requires organization, tact, honesty, and a dash of confidence, the perfect answer to this question is elusive. Rather than attempt to craft the best answer possible, the wise course of action may be to exterminate common negative responses. 

Here are the garden-variety bad answers I work to exterminate on a daily basis, and some DIY pest control tips as you craft your own response.

Pest #1- The Rambler: This answer seems to go on and on without a particularly good stopping point, and ends off trailing into the distance…and leaving you in the dust. Your interviewer is familiar with The Rambler, and knows that this train to nowhere really means you have no idea what to say, maybe because you’re worried about becoming a Negative Nancy (see below), haven’t prepared ahead of time, or are just plain nervous.

To eliminate The Rambler, put that answer back on track! Use the STAR acronym to guide answers not only for the difficult person question, but also for any question that begins with “Tell me about a time when…”

  • S & T: Situation/Task- Briefly describe the situation or the task at hand. You’re setting up the background of your story, and you want to do it quickly so your listener doesn’t lose focus and you have time to expand on the good stuff (action and result).
  • A: Action- What did you specifically do in the situation to facilitate a positive outcome?
  • R: Result- What happened as a result of your action? Remember, the interviewer is trying to figure out if you’ll be a good person to work with, and if you’ll be a positive contributor. They want to know what you’ve accomplished in the past, because, as many of us know, past behavior predicts future behavior.

Pest #2- The Negative Nancy: Sometimes, when a job candidate hears this question, her eyes are kindled with past flames of bitterness and a hopeful, vengeful smile comes to her lips. Finally! The moment when she is able to fully process the trauma of her last group project! When she can at last, with full permission, rip every shred of dignity from the name of her worst supervisor! But this type of catharsis is best saved for your mom or roommate. The interviewer will interpret your willingness to “bad-mouth” your co-worker as a sign that you, not your deserving co-worker, are unprofessional at best, and difficult to work with at worst. Because he has a healthy stack of resumes in the wings, the interviewer will likely not take the chance that you’ll be a problem child in his organization by hiring you.

Negative Nancy becomes Tactful Tina when answers are, first of all, centered on the positive actions and results that you implemented in the difficult situation. This means that any descriptors of the difficult person are mostly contained in the brief situation/task portion of the answer, cutting back on potential for negative talk. Additionally, try to discuss the situation as a misunderstanding, difference in communication or work styles, or conflicting interests. Showing you can “put yourself in another’s shoes” communicates both interpersonal sensitivity as well as strong critical thinking skills. Lastly, I recommend practicing your answer with another person to ensure you’re avoiding sounding condescending, rude, or just old mean.  

Pest #3- The Ghost: In this haunting answer, the job candidate does whatever he can to drift right through the heart of the question, stating “Well, I’ve never had to deal with a difficult person” or “I just leave the situation as soon as I can.” Maybe you’re hoping to convey that you’re such a lovely spirit that those around can’t help but surrender their difficult-ness, or that breezing charged situations is a positive characteristic, but you’re leaving the interviewer with
chills. These answers convey avoidance: not only of the challenge of fully answering the question, but also interpersonally. We’ve all had those roommates and co-workers who have ignored conflict, resulting in problems becoming even worse. The atmosphere becomes tense and uncomfortable, and guess what-- that person who avoided the difficult situation at all costs? They’re now the subject of the answer to other people’s difficult person interview questions. 

It’s time to send that avoidance back to the grave, folks. If you truly do not confront difficult individuals with honestly, respectfulness, and assertiveness, it’s time to try out that skill before you enter the workplace. Not only will such experiences give you material for this question, but you’ll be a better, more capable co-worker as a result.

As with many interview questions, the possibilities for answers to “tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult person” are endless and not every answer can be discussed here. For the best possible feedback, call or visit the Auburn University Career Center and schedule a practice interview with a career counselor, or drop by during walk-in hours to discuss brief questions. 

Written by Shari Black
Graduate Assistant in the Career Center
pursuing PhD in Counseling Psychology
Bachelor of Arts in Theater and English

Thursday, March 27, 2014

5 Ways in Which My Higher Education Placement Exchange Experience was Like The Hunger Games

Spoiler Alert! Ok, if you haven’t figured out at this point in time that Katniss lives through the first Hunger Games, I guess I just ruined that for you, but come on, the second movie has already come out. This blog deals with how my experience as a candidate at a higher education placement exchange somewhat resembled the experience of a tribute in the Hunger Games. Before I go into that I want to say that no blood was spilled, and that I understand many professions do not have large placement exchanges like the one described here. Hopefully you will be able to take away some good advice to use in your job search in relation to interviewing. 

1. You are going to a strange city and have little idea of what to expect. 
 I landed in Baltimore, having been there only once almost 14 years ago. I didn’t know anyone else going and I only had one pre-scheduled interview. Taking a tour of the interview area, a.k.a. the arena, was daunting to say the least. The best advice I can give on this is to do your homework before hand and plan to be overwhelmed. The staff gave a great orientation so I highly recommend doing that and becoming as familiar as possible with the layout of the buildings.  Below is a picture of the interviewing area, it was enormous.

2. Your goal is to impress as many of the interviewers as possible. Just like Katniss showing off her archery skills, you want these people to think highly of you. I certainly don’t recommend shooting an arrow at any of the interviewers but there are a couple of things you can do in order to stand out.  First of all, do your research. I can’t stress this point enough, it will be very clear to the interviewers who has actually taken the time to learn about the position/institution and who is just winging it. If you have a fantastic personality, you might get by with generic answers but your best bet is to know why you like that specific position at that specific place. Secondly, know yourself. If you’re busy trying to be something or someone that you’re not, it’s going to show. You will have a much better experience if you know why you’re qualified and why you would be a great fit for the position.

3. You will get tired, possibly sick, all the while having to be “on”.
Okay, so I didn’t get stung by any genetically enhanced insects, but I did come down with a cold. I really don’t have any great advice for this other than to make sure you are taking care of yourself. Get enough sleep, wash your hands, carry sanitizer, and if do you get sick, try and take care of it as soon as possible. In terms of being “on”, realize that you not feeling well is going to impact how well you interview. Don’t stress over this because there’s nothing you can do about it other than to put on a brave face and try and make the best of a bad situation.

3. “Sponsors” will send you gifts in order to make your experience better. 
 Even though they didn’t come in little parachutes, getting SWAG was the highlight of my day.  

Two pieces of advice for this: 
  1. Don’t read too much into getting something.  It doesn’t mean you have the job, it could just be that a university has a lot of stuff and they need to get rid of it before going home. 
  2. Don’t read too little into getting something. They didn’t have to send you anything, so if you do get something, it means they at least like you enough to take the time (they are very busy too) to think of you specifically.  
Basically, just enjoy the gifts for what they are and let them be a bright spot in your hectic day. Below are some of the gifts I was sent.  

  4. In the end, only one person “wins” the job for which you’re interviewing.
No, you will not die if you’re not the victor, however, you do need to be aware that there are less positions than there are candidates. Simple math will inform you that someone out there is not going to get a position for which they interviewed. All I can say about this is that you have to keep positive (I know easier said than done) and truly believe that a right “fit” will come along.  Hopefully the odds will be in your favor.

Ultimately, I didn’t have to kill any of the other competitors. I, like everyone else, made it through unscathed. The best part of the experience was the experience itself, I gained a lot of interviewing experience and I honestly do feel considerably more confident in my interviewing skills than before. If you want to practice your interviewing skills in a considerably less overwhelming environment, come by the Auburn University Career Center to schedule a Mock Interview. You can practice your skills and gain information that might help you during your own personal Hunger Games.

Written by Bobby Whitehead
Graduate Assistant in the Career Center