Monday, July 18, 2022

In Job Interviews, Look for the Question Behind the Question

 Job interview questions. They can cause a whole host of feelings, including anxiety, stress, consternation, and a big old boatload of worry. What questions can I expect? What scenarios might they ask me to describe? How can I address what they're truly looking for? How will I know what to say?

Whenever an interviewer asks a question, you can be certain they're asking that question for a reason. Questions aren't asked willy nilly — each one has a purpose, and the main purpose is to learn more about you and ascertain if you're going to be a solid return on their investment. Let's face it: the cost of RN employee turnover is somewhere in the vicinity of $50,000, and some sources put the cost of hiring a full-time nurse at close to $100,000.

One way to mitigate interview anxiety is to learn how to look for the question behind the question.

What are They Really Asking?

When prepping for job interviews, I always tell my career coaching clients that, when asked a question, the first thing they should think to themselves is, "Why are they asking this question? What do they really want to know?" This gives the interviewee a constant internal reminder how they should consider each question, bearing in mind what they think the interviewer is really after.

For example, when an interviewer asks you to describe a time when you had a conflict with a colleague, what do you think they want to know? At first, my clients can get caught up in the details of the story itself, trying to remember every last thing that happened. I always say that, while the story has some importance, what they really want to know is what kind of communicator you are, the nature of your collaborative spirit, and how you resolve conflict.

  • Do you escalate conflicts to management right away, or do you try to resolve them on your own?

  • Are you humble or does pride get in your way? (The oh-so-human battle of humility vs. hubris.)

  • Are you oriented towards the good of the whole, or are you more individualistic?

  • Another example of looking for the question behind the question might have to do with a question about how you've handled difficult patients or belligerent family members.

The potential trap in this case is demonstrating any sort of negative criticism of the people you're describing. Using words like "difficult" or "thorny" can belie a judgmental attitude on your part. Rather, you can describe the people in your narrative in a way that communicates compassion and your understanding of human nature. Let's unpack this further:

You want to tell the story of the wife of a patient who you remember as being obstructionist, difficult, and a general contrarian. She questioned everything the team wanted to do and even refused some forms of care for her critically ill husband.

In order to paint an accurate picture of your role in the situation, it's best to focus on your compassion, listening skills, and successful interventions.

While most of the team had lost its patience with the wife and given up, you went into the room and calmly and compassionately asked some probing questions. Initially defensive, once she saw your earnest desire to understand where she was coming from, she broke down and made herself quite vulnerable.

She told you the story of her mother dying a terrible death from the same disease as her husband (ALS), and how helpless she felt because her father was the medical power of attorney and basically agreed to everything the doctors wanted to do without question. Some mistakes were made, and her mother suffered unnecessarily in her final days of life.

After reflecting her feelings and making sure she understood that the team truly wished to take her concerns into account and do their best for her husband, the tenor of the relationships improved a great deal and things were much smoother for the rest of the stay.

The Question Behind the Question

The art of interviewing well has many important aspects, and being able to respond to the question behind the question is one of them. In the examples above, the imperative is answering the question in a way that clearly demonstrates your expertise in compassionate communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution while keeping the good of the whole in mind.

When preparing for your next job interview, practice these types of behavioral questions and telling stories that show the best of your personality, nursing assessment skills, and compassionate style of humanistic intervention. Answering the question behind the question will succeed every time.

(This article was originally published on LinkedIn.) 


Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is a Board Certified Nurse Coach offering holistic career development for nurses and healthcare professionals. All things Nurse Keith can be found at

Keith is the host of The Nurse Keith Show, his solo podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses. From 2012 until its sunset in 2017, Keith co-hosted RNFMRadio, a groundbreaking nursing podcast.

A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century and Aspire to be Inspired: Creating a Nursing Career That Matters. He has contributed chapters to a number of books related to the  nursing profession. written for,, MultiBriefs News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, AusMed, American Sentinel University,, Diabetes Lifestyle, the ANA blog,, American Nurse Today, Working Nurse Magazine, and other online and print publications.

Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, keynote speaker, online nurse personality, social media influencer, podcaster, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known nurse entrepreneur. 

Living in beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico, Keith shares a magical life with his partner, Shada McKenzie, a gifted, empathic, and highly skilled traditional astrologer and reader of the tarot. 

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