If you are preparing for a job interview and you’ve already performed research on yourself, the company, and perhaps the interviewer, you essentially have what I refer to as static intelligence. It is the information you use to create your game plan. You start to think about which questions might come and which questions you should ask. I love planning, but I think the most effective plans not only have backup plans, they also leave enough room to take forks in the road and go with the flow. As former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.” I gather some interviews may have felt like that, but I think the smartest, most effective and creative candidates do not get rattled because they know how to adapt whenever they encounter something unique or “off book.” Gaining a better feel for how to handle these situations starts with understanding the two types of job interview questions. Once you’re familiar with those, you’ll be on your way to success.

I want to know what you did or what you will do.

The good news for you is that I genuinely believe there are only two types of questions an interviewer can ask. They are “What did you do …?” and “What would you do …?” That is it. Every question, however disguised, can be classified into one of those two categories. Once you recognize the question type, you can formulate your response accordingly to ensure the interviewer develops an accurate picture of your viewpoints and capabilities. Why is it important to understand the type of question? So you can overcome one of the most common communication gaps in any interview. I’ll share more on this later. 

Please tell me what I need to know, not what I ask for.

When an interviewer asks a “What did you do?” type of question, she wants you to relive what you said or did in the past so she can determine whether you possess what she considers the requisite skills, personality, or traits to succeed within her organization. If the majority of her questions are of this variety, it is a good indication she thinks your past experiences will be a strong indicator of whether you will be successful.

When an interviewer asks a “What would you do?” type of question, she wants you to simulate how you would approach and execute the scenario or problem she posed. Oftentimes, she will identify a real-life business issue the company has faced. (Sometimes, you will get the oddball fictitious situation. In that case, the interviewer is more interested in evaluating your overall thought process.) If the majority of her questions are of this variety, it is an indication she trusts your work history and is more interested in evaluating your potential capabilities.

The interviewer’s ultimate goal, irrespective of approach, is to determine how you will perform within her organization. Some employers favor the historical approach (“What did you do?”), believing that past behaviors and experiences are great predictors of future behaviors. Many employ the Critical Behavioral Interviewing (CBI) concepts, which have been around for decades. (You can do a Google search for information related to CBI and easily find the most commonly asked questions and suggested responses.) Others favor a more simulated approach (“What would you do?”), arguing that addressing real-life scenarios you are likely to encounter are a better indicator. Some companies approach the process from both angles, which is the technique I favor.

The list below shows ways interviewers can disguise a question, even though ultimately every one will fall into either category. This should help you identify the question type during the interview.

“What did you do?”

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Why did you leave your most recent company?
  • What do you know about our company?
  • Why should we hire you as opposed to someone else?
  • Can you tell me about a time when
    [insert any Critical Behavioral Question here]?
  • Can you tell me about your Rolodex?
  • What is your management style?

“What would you do?”

  • Why would you leave your current organization?
  • Why would you want to work here?
  • What would be your next ideal position?
  • How long will it take you to get up to speed or make a contribution?
  • Describe your ideal boss. What would your ideal boss look like?
  • What would you improve about your current company or job?
  • What’s the first thing you would do if we hired you?

Why is it important to be able to determine the question type? It will help put you in a position to overcome the most common communication gap in any interview. Before we address that, let’s review some of the issues you will need to overcome in the interview and why the communication gap occurs in the first place. Keep in mind, the vast majority of interviewers are untrained in either technique and, even worse, are ill equipped to accurately predict your success based on your responses (even if they are correct). Remember, you are often sitting across the table from someone who has a full-time noninterviewing job, just like you. Typically, the company threw that person in front you, perhaps with a list of questions, but more likely she is simply winging it. And the interviewer is likely to spend merely an hour with you.

Where does that leave you as the candidate? Well, at least it is helpful simply to understand the situation. This will put you in the right frame of mind to actually help her overcome her individual lack of experience and training as an interviewer or limitations with the overall process. Ultimately, you want to leave her with an accurate, favorable impression of you.

The communication gap typically results from an interviewer’s imbalance of the two techniques, which leaves her with insufficient information to determine whether you can actually perform well in the job. Typically, the interviewer’s line of questioning falls short of gathering enough evidence because she becomes overly reliant on the simulation questions (“What would you do?”) and never follows through with “What did you actually do?”

My years as a recruiter have been filled with many feedback sessions from clients who explain, “Your candidate provided all the right answers when I asked her how she would do it, but I’m still not sure she can do the job effectively.” This is usually followed by my question, “What makes you think that?” The client typically responds, “Because she didn’t indicate any times during her career in which she actually did it.” My response, of course, is, “Did you ask her?”

You get the picture. The interviewer drew a conclusion based on a lack of information that resulted from a lack of effective questioning. (Your inability to read her mind didn’t help.) So what should you do to avoid this situation? Make sure to provide the interviewer with an opportunity to gather information from your historical experience. You can eliminate the gap simply by following your remarks to a “What would you do?” question with a question such as, “Mr. Interviewer, I hope that provides you with a good idea of how I would handle that situation. Would you be interested in discussing a scenario in my past where I actually encountered that situation (or a similar one)?”