The general purposes of questioning are to collect information, to evaluate how someone thinks or feels, and to confirm facts and attitudes uncovered by other questions or sources.
Both you and the interviewer use questions to build rapport, understand the situation and move the interview along. Questions come in two major forms, open-ended and closed. Open-ended questions allow answerers to give free responses and to direct responses into areas of concern to them. They often begin with who, what, when, where, which, how or why. Either you or the interviewer can direct open-ended questions to a wide variety of uses:
- to open conversations and provide background
- to ask for information
- to follow up, to ask for elaboration
- to probe for causes, additional or related information
- to check understanding, determine awareness of pros and cons
- to ask for reasons why (Why do you suppose...?)
- to ask for suggestions
- to determine sources
- to check knowledge or memory
Closed questions usually begin with some form of the verbs be, do or have: is, are, were, isn't, aren't, weren't; do, does, don't, doesn't; have, has, haven't and hasn't. Closed questions can also begin with should, would, will, won't and so on.
The examples given below illustrate the difference between open-ended and closed questions:
What hobbies do you have that might help you perform well in this position? What can you tell me about yourself that makes you think you are a good salesperson? Based on what I've told you about this organization, why do you think you'd like to work for us?
Do you understand what this job entails? (This is a question calling for a "yes" or "no" response. If you are asked this one, after you say, "yes" or "no," continue either with a summary of what you understand or with a question of your own to clarify what they mean.)
Did you have enough opportunity for advancement in your last job?
How do you feel about the hours? Do you think you could work for a younger person?
In addition, you may ask or be asked semi-open questions which have only one answer, such as, "When can you begin work?" or "Which do you prefer, a straight salary or a lesser salary plus a bonus tied to your performance?"
You'll both answer and ask general and specific questions. Interviewers use general questions early in the interview to open topics, to begin exploring areas of common interest and to define areas of concern. They use specific questions later to focus on details, gather specific information and verify their understanding of what you've told them. You will ask the same kinds of questions of your interviewers, although to begin with, you're more likely to be the responder than the asker.
Two kinds of questions are particularly important to you. The first are strategic questions. Strategic questions are primarily offensive weapons. You use them to uncover information about the employer's needs and attitudes. For instance, if the interviewer says something like, "I'm afraid you're overqualified for this position," a strategic question for you to ask might be, "The word 'over-qualified' puzzles me. Why do you say that, Mr. Ellis?" You ask a question on the offense, rather than becoming defensive-but without reacting emotionally or negatively. A strategic question, then, keeps you in charge. At the same time, you gain enough information about the needs and attitudes of the employer to deal productively with the situation.
The other kinds of questions you'll use are tactical questions. Tactical questions are primarily defensive weapons used to sidestep or parry difficult or nuisance questions and to shift the psychological initiative from the interviewer to yourself. For example, the interviewer asks one of those really tough questions such as, "Why did you leave your last job? In the past 10 years, you've worked for several companies." Rather than answering the question outright, turn the conversation back on the interviewer by asking something like, "You mean you're concerned about the fact that I've held several jobs recently?" After the interviewer responds, you could go into the reasons why you took and left the various jobs, particularly if you took them to learn something new, you lost them through mergers or because you'd finished your assignment. (This last is particularly true for engineers and technical people.)
Both strategic questions and tactical questions can be used at any point in the interview where they seem appropriate. Either type can be open-ended or closed, depending upon how you word the question.
Interviewer: This job requires a real specialist. The right person for the job must have the right kind of training and experience.
Applicant: What kind of training and experience would that be, Mr. Murray? (open-ended, strategic question)
Interviewer: We won't make our final decision until after we've interviewed the two other candidates who fit our initial specifications. It should take us a little while longer.
Applicant: Do you plan to make your final decision by the end of next month? (closed strategic question).