All interview questions are trying to figure out one of these three things

Decoding the motivation behind an interview question will help you figure out how you should answer it.


Going on a job interview is really about answering a series of questions. While many of the questions revolve around what you’ve done and what you can do, some questions are designed to operate on another level, says James Pyle, coauthor of Control the Conversation: How to Charm, Deflect, and Defend Your Position Through Any Line of Questioning.

“Your resume is a ticket to ride; it gets you in the door,” he says. “That information qualifies you to find out more. Other questions are designed to find out how you do what you do, and how you’ve done in the past. It’s more than just the experience you have in the field.”

Most questions will have one of three main types of motivation, and each one requires a different response, says Pyle, a former U.S. Army human intelligence training instructor who taught Department of Defense interrogators and debriefers how to ask questions.

The first motivation is to form a connection; the interviewer wants to see if you’re compatible. Pyle says this usually is done with four types of questions.

The first is a non-pertinent question not related to the task at hand. It’s often considered an icebreaker, and it includes chatting over a common interest, such as the weather or travel. When possible, Pyle suggests using this type of question to segue to a work-related topic. For example, if you’re asked, “Is it still raining outside?” You might answer, “No, and that gave me a chance to spend time walking around your campus. How long have you been at this location?”

The second type is one that involves quid pro quo. The asker lets you in on a “secret,” hoping you’ll open up and share something sensitive, too. “This is the type of technique that spies and interrogators use,” says Pyle. “Do not respond in kind if the information is sensitive or personal. Control slips away from you quickly if you reveal something private or confidential.”

Another way an interviewer checks for belonging is by asking for your opinion rather than fact. Pyle cautions against offering an extreme opinion, which can make you vulnerable.

And the fourth type of belonging question is about the choices you’ve made. This question starts with “why,” and is used to get you to explain your decision-making process. For example, “Why did you go to the University of Colorado?” You can reveal important information about your logic, agenda, or concerns, but Pyle says be careful not to divulge details that aren’t related to the goal of the meeting, which could derail the conversation.

The second type of motivation is finding out how your presence and contributions could build the interviewer’s self-esteem. This is often done by asking you about your accomplishment and shortcomings—the, “What are your strengths?” or “What are your weaknesses?” question. Your answer helps the interviewer determine if hiring you will make them look good, says Pyle.

Esteem questions are a way to determine trust, but don’t embellish too much in an attempt to sell yourself. “Exaggerating accomplishments, bypassing shortcomings, overpromising results—these are traps people create for themselves,” says Pyle. “They raise suspicions and have the opposite effect of what was intended.”

The final motivation behind questions is when someone is looking for legacy or affiliation. If you’re asked, “Who inspires you?” or “Who has been your greatest teacher?” the interviewer wants to know that you’re headed in the same direction with the same goals.

Answering this question can involve research or asking questions in response to get more information. “Get clarity on how the person defines legacy,” says Pyle. “And what kind of people he wants to be associated with.”

Self-actualization isn’t as common a motivation as the other two. While you don’t want to pretend to be someone you’re not, sharing similar goals and responding in a way that demonstrates your connection can be valuable.

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