Interview graphicOne of the most useful methods to help you hire emotionally intelligent people is ‘Behavioural Event Interviewing’. Here’s how to use this method, with some tips to get the best from it.

What Is Behavioural Event Interviewing?

In Behavioural Event Interviewing you ask the candidate to describe an experience or situation they encountered in a previous job, and how they responded. You can tailor the questions you ask to draw out specific types of experiences that are relevant to the emotional intelligence competences you are looking for.

Because Behavioral Event Interviewing involves open questions, it’s an opportunity to get all kinds of information about:

  • How the candidate views challenging situations and the people they work with
  • How self-aware they are
  • What their motivations are
  • What they feel in those situations
  • How they manage those feelings
  • How well they understood the feelings of others (including their impact on other people)
  • How they manage, inspire or influence others
  • How they actually behave in those situations

Of course, you will probably also get a sense of their technical competences and understanding of their field at the same time.

How It Works

You want the candidate to be as relaxed and comfortable as possible, so that they open up and you get to see the real person rather than their interview façade. When people are asked about challenging situations, about mistakes, failures, or weaknesses, or about stressful times at work, their natural impulse is to either close up, giving as little away as possible so as not to incriminate themselves. Even if they are trying to answer as honestly as they can, reconnecting even slightly with the emotions connected with stressful memories will tend to shut down their thinking, so you won’t see the candidate at their best.

The first experience you ask about should consequently be about a pleasant, fulfilling experience at work, a time when they felt proud of what they achieved or when they could demonstrate one of their strengths. This will help them to loosen up and show more of the real person behind the defensive barrier.

You could preface any of these questions with something like:
“Everyone finds some aspects of work more comfortable or enjoyable than others…” This will help to put the candidate more at their ease, because it demonstrates that you are not looking for some impossibly perfect ‘robot’ who enjoys equally all aspects of their work, but rather for a human being.

Example questions would be:

“Tell me about one of the best experiences of your professional life – a time when you felt most alive.”
“Tell me about is one of the achievements you are most proud of?”
“Tell me about a project you’ve worked on in the last couple of years that you really felt engaged with.”

You will want to focus on experiences from the last couple of years or so, in order that the details are still reasonably fresh in the candidate’s mind. Recent experiences are also more likely to be relevant to the current position.

Having said that, the stronger the emotional impact of an experience, the more vividly it is stored in a person’s memory. So, especially with this ‘positive’ event, you could go back a little further.

You will know when you are doing a good interview, particularly with this question, if you see the candidate begin to relive the experience and access some of the same feelings they had at the time. The sign of a really good interview is if you yourself begin to feel some of the same emotions. This means that the candidate

The candidate may give you a brief description of what happened, or they might supply a detailed start-to-finish narrative. This in itself will give you an idea of whether they focus more on the big picture or on details.

To fill in the detail, you can ask them to explain the facts of the situation: the context, who else was involved and their roles, who did what, and what the result was. You can also ask about their subjective experience: what they felt, what they were saying to themselves, and what they did and why.

The main purpose of this question is to help the candidate feel relaxed enough to let their guard down, but you are already getting useful information even before you explore more challenging experiences. On the Emotional Intelligence front you will be forming an impression of how aware of their own feelings the candidate is and how good they are at describing their feelings, and whether they feel happiest working independently, as part of a team, or leading a team.

As with any Behavioral Event description, you will also be starting to form an impression of the depth of the candidate’s experience and their technical skills, which will deepen with each event you ask about later.

You can ask follow-up questions to help you elicit more information:

“What’s important to you about this experience?” will help you identify some of the values that motivate the candidate and form their criteria for deciding if something is right or wrong. You can add “And what else is important to you about this experience?” to uncover more values.

By this point the candidate should feel at their ease, and be answering freely without trying to second-guess what answers you are looking for. Your second Behavioral Event question can be more challenging:

“Tell me about a time at work that you found difficult or stressful.” Or:
“Tell me about a time at work that felt like a failure, where you weren’t successful.”

Again, you can explore the situation with detailed questions about both the objective sequence of events and their subjective thoughts and feelings. You will gain valuable insights into how the candidate managed their feelings, whether they take responsibility for what happened or blame others, and their ability to learn from experience. If everything in the story is someone else’s fault, it suggests they are unwilling to take responsibility. If they present themselves as having behaved perfectly throughout, it suggests a lack of self-awareness that could show up in future as an inability to recognize learning opportunities, or an unwillingness to take feedback.

As a follow-up question you could ask “Looking back, what could you have done differently?”

The candidate’s non-verbal responses to questions about stressful situations will also give you useful information. If they are upset by the emotions that talking about the event brings up to the point where their ability to communicate is impaired, that suggests that their coping mechanisms and resilience to stress are not working as well as most jobs need.

If, on the other hand, they stay completely emotionally detached while describing a stressful situation, this suggests that they may have difficulty relating to or admitting emotions. For some roles – debt collector, surgeon, sniper – this may be acceptable or even necessary, but for any job involving managing people, they will most likely be perceived by direct reports and colleagues as cold, distant and uncaring.

The ideal response for management roles would be that the candidate noticeably feels some of the emotion attached to the incident while they are describing it, and then is able to quickly recover and move on. This indicates that they have choice about how they feel.

Must-dos and success tips

  • To ensure fairness in the interview process, it’s important that every candidate is asked the same set of top-line Behavioral Event questions. Follow-up questions may be adapted or omitted, depending on how much of the information you need is given by the candidate in their initial responses.
  • Where you have multiple interviewers, assign questions and specific areas of focus to each.
  • Look for what the candidate personally did and achieved, versus what the team they were part of accomplished. You are looking for “I” statements rather than “we” statements.
  • How much time you have available for each candidate interview will probably be influenced by the level of the vacancy you are interviewing for. For lower-level posts you could spend as little as five minutes on each Behavioural Event. For senior management and key professional roles, you could spend longer. Encourage the candidate to tell the story briefly at first, and then go over the story again, asking for a lot of detail on how they felt, what they did, what the responses of other people were and how the candidate managed those, what they learned from the experience, what they would do differently now, and so on.
  • Whatever the event the candidate is describing, watch out for these warning signs in their answers. Do they seem flustered or uncomfortable talking about the event? Can you follow their description so that it’s clear what happened? Do they seem to be leaving something out?

Any of these could be a sign that the candidate is omitting some aspects of what really happened, or making something up, or just that the kind of situation that you have asked them to describe takes them out of their comfort zone.

Why not use the comments field below to tell us about your experiences with behavioural event interviewing, either as an interviewer or as a candidate?

Previous articles in this series:
How To Hire For Emotional Intelligence 1: What is Emotional Intelligence and why do you need to hire for it?
How To Hire For Emotional Intelligence 2: How you need to be as an interviewer

Coming next: Questions To Select Self-Aware Candidates

How To Hire For Emotional Intelligence (3): Behavioural Event Interviewing

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