Simple Steps to a Successful Discussion

By Alan Darling

– originally published in Your Company Magazine (now entitled Fortune Small Business).

The purpose of a job interview is eliciting information. The employer wants to know about the qualifications of the candidate. And the prospective employee needs to find out as much as possible about the position and the people with whom he or she may be working.

Yet many interviews become uncomfortable face-offs between an interviewer behind a desk and a terrified applicant. The key to successful discussions, in which both sides open up an talk candidly, is helping candidates relax and then drawing them out.

Wilson Kile, a marketing consultant and former business owner in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, remembers interviewing someone for a sales job. The man showed potential but seemed uncomfortable. To break the ice, Kile asked him about his hobbies, one of which was military history. Recalls Kile, “He launched into a description of the Battle of Midway that was so enthralling, I told him, ‘Since you can come across like that, I’m going to give you a shot.’ He went on to be a star salesman.”


To make the meeting informal from the start, step out from behind the desk. The seating arrangement should make you and the candidate equals. Then offer something to drink. “Ask interviewees if they want some coffee, and then pour it yourself,” says Patrick Rykens, president of Vesutor, a manufacturer of garden products in Concord, North Carolina. “This gesture will make it clear that you’re not an ogre.” Lead in with idle conversation and tell the applicants about the company.


The way you phrase a question can make a person either tense up or relax. Instead of asking, “What are your major strengths and weaknesses?” ask, “What do you like to do most?” Or say, “Tell me about the best days on your current job and then about the worst days.”

Pay attention to the questions candidates ask. “When they ask, ‘How quickly will I be trained?’ or ‘How much responsibility will I have?’, that’s an indication that the candidate will be aggressive and not need a lot of supervision,” says Rykens. “If they spend a lot of time talking about stress, they probably can’t handle it.”

For a more detailed list of questions, see Questions For Interviews at the conclusion of this article.=


Kimball Shaw, of Kimball Shaw Associates, an executive search firm in Hingham, Massachusetts, suggests that instead of using a job description to guide the interview, compile a list of performance criteria for the position. For example: The employee will develop an inventory-control system, boost sales 10 percent in a certain region, or make a pleasant impression on every customer who enters the store. Decide what standards you’ll use to judge this person at the end of the first and second year on the job. Share the criteria with the candidate and build the interview around them.


Legally, you must limit your questions to work-related qualifications. You cannot ask interviewees about their health, disabilities, spouses, kids and child-care arrangements, parents’ backgrounds, religion or anything that could be considered discriminatory.


More important than anything else is making the discussion fun and your firm sound impressive. The best candidates have other options, and you must be certain they leave wanting to work for you.


  1. Get the applicant to relax. Step out from behind your desk to make you and the candidate equals. Ask about his or her hobbies or make idle conversation. Then talk about your firm for a while.
  2. Avoid intimidating questions. “What do you like to do most?” is better than, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” You want the interviewee to open up. Beware of any discriminatory questions, such as those concerning religion or child-care arrangements.
  3. Share performance criteria. Before the interview, compile a list of the job’s performance requirements. Share this list with the candidate and build the interview around it.
  4. Listen to the interviewee. Candidates questions will tell you a lot about them. Those who ask, “How much responsibility will I have?”, will probably show initiative and won’t need much supervision.
  5. Impress applicants. The best candidates have other options. Be sure they leave wanting to work for you.

Questions For Interviews

Tell me about your most challenging job.

Tell me about your least challenging job.

Tell me about a time that you had to overcome major obstacles to meet a challenge.

Tell me about a time that you tried to help someone else change. What strategy did you use?

How did it turn out?

Tell me about your most and least admired persons.

Tell me about a time that you tried to do something, but failed.

Tell me about a time when something bad happened to you.

Tell me about a mistake you had in dealing with people.

Tell me about the last time you made a major change. Why did you do it, and how did it work out?

Tell me about a bad day at work (or the worst day).

Tell me about the best day you’ve ever had at work.

What do you like to do the best?

What do you like to do the least?

What do you think about your boss?

What do you do in your spare time?

If you won the lottery, what would you do? Or, If you had so much money that you would have as much money as you wanted for life, what would you do?

– Be keenly aware to the answer to this question. Will the person who would drop everything and write poetry make a good applications engineer? It makes more sense for an engineer to want to start a lab where people would work on all of those projects that no one would fund, but would be fun to work on.

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