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When interviewing engineers, we often focus too much on hard technical skills and neglect the soft interpersonal skills.

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Soft skills like communication and the ability to work as a team are essential to engineering success. And while technical skills gaps are easily filled on the job, it’s a lot more difficult (or impossible) to change challenging personalities.

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The behavioral part of the interview is about more than weeding out toxic candidates. It’s an opportunity to learn about how somebody communicates, interacts, and relates to others, and whether they would be a good fit for your team.

But identifying and evaluating soft skills can be difficult, as they’re less tangible and measurable than technical skills. Here are my top tips for running a great behavioral interview, from scrubbing up on your own communication knowledge to creating an environment where your candidates’ soft skills can shine.

1. Build your communication knowledge

It might seem obvious, but before you can assess somebody else’s soft skills, you need to build your own knowledge around what excellent communication looks like. Look around in your organization. Watch for examples of people interacting effectively and happily in meetings. Talk to peers, senior managers, and HR folks. Ask for book recommendations on communication styles. Practice the art of conversation through these conversations.

You might feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and experience ‘analysis paralysis’. But you don’t need to follow all these rules to the book. Communication is an art, not a science, so feel free to experiment and develop your own style too.

Also, remember that different cultures have their own styles of communication, so take time to learn and be open to contrasting ideas about what a good conversation looks like.

2. Hold real conversations instead of scripted Q&As

Too often, companies structure the soft skills part of the interview as a list of scripted questions. But this dry approach doesn’t leave room for a real, human conversation – one of the most important soft skills there is!

Instead of pulling questions from the list, just start a conversation as you might at a tech conference during a lunch break. You can open with something simple like asking about what brought them here. Once the conversation has taken off, let it flow at its natural pace, and steer it into areas that will allow your candidate to demonstrate some of their core values, principles, and potential.

This conversational approach puts people at ease and makes it way easier for them to open up. It leads to more candid discussion because the answers can’t be prepared in advance, which lowers the rate of both false-positive and false-negative outcomes.

A word of warning: it’s easy to get lost in the discussion so don’t forget that this is first and foremost a skills assessment! Don’t forget about the big picture. Always keep it in the back of your mind – or write it down in your notebook as a reminder.

3. Act like a researcher not an investigator

As the interviewer, you’re coming from a position of power. If you get too comfortable with this sense of control, you might start acting like an investigator, focusing entirely on the results instead of the person. Don’t do this – even if it feels comfortable to you, it’s stressful and even dehumanizing for the candidate.

Instead, try to imagine yourself as a researcher. This way of thinking immediately sets the tone for discovery, respect, and mutual curiosity. Instead of looking straight to the results, invite the candidate on an interesting intellectual journey that will ideally reveal some of their personal characteristics. The goal is to look for the truth about whether their behaviors align with your organizational and team values, not to look for ‘correct’ answers.

Remember, evidence is everything to researchers so if you have a chance, try to validate some of your previous discoveries (or assumptions) about your candidate from a different angle. It’s better to have more than one example to back up your results.

4. Put candidates at ease through role-playing

Once in a while, you’ll interview someone who finds it difficult to open up. Maybe they don’t enjoy talking much or they avoid sharing difficult experiences. In this scenario, don’t be afraid to improvise with role-play. Describe a work situation to your candidate that provides an opportunity for the candidate to show off some of the values you are looking for. You can use a real-life example or draw on one of the stories they’ve already told you. You could even try a little bit of acting, but keep it low-key and easy-going. Remember, it’s not an investigation!

5. Focus on active listening

As an extrovert, active listening was one of the first things I had to improve as a leader. I had to restrain myself from talking too much. But becoming a passive listener was also a danger. The interview is a discussion and you must be a part of it. Let your candidate speak up but don’t hold back either and express your way of thinking. Usually the assessment goes both ways. If there’s no mutual connection, it’s better to go no further.

6. Be aware of your biases

Biases are a consequence of the human brain. They are very unhelpful when it comes to assessing people. The first step to dealing with your biases is becoming aware that they exist. That’s why investing in self-awareness is critical if you want to make effective, fair decisions during the recruitment process. Consider picking up a mentor who has experience in this area or a peer with a similar goal. Work together to uncover your blind spots. If possible, invite this person to participate in your soft skill assessment sessions.

7. Follow up with feedback

Last but not least, let’s talk about feedback. This part is very often neglected by hiring managers and left to recruiters but I consider feedback the essential closure to the whole process.

Preparing your feedback is a great opportunity to think back on what you discovered and how your approach and style worked. Always try to book some time for yourself after the interview so you can reflect with the conversation still fresh in your mind.

Generally, there are more candidates than open positions, so the feedback is likely to be mostly about the rejections. Avoid being judgemental and always mention some parts that you liked. Explain to the person what traits they missed that were important for the position. Put yourself in the candidate’s shoes – it’s not easy to face rejections. Convey your feedback in a way that will give hope for the future and empower the person to grow.

Reflections

The behavioral part of the interview can be so much more than a ‘necessary evil’ or a simple filter for toxic people. With just a little bit of effort from you as the interviewer, you can make soft skills assessments more interesting, valuable, and productive for both parties. Your team will definitely thank you in the long run when your new hires are aligned with their values.

 

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Hiring the right engineer for your org
Episode 01 Hiring the right engineer for your org
Six inclusive hiring tips to attract the right engineers for your org
Episode 03 Six inclusive hiring tips to attract the right engineers for your org