Assessing someone’s intercultural competence is one of the most difficult things to do in an interview process, so let’s drill down into one question you can start using right away.

Some years ago, an organization hiring a staff position that required 25% international travel asked me to come up with one question to assess a candidate’s intercultural competence.

One question.

I could think of a dozen questions at least. A whole day’s worth of interviewing questions. But this organization already had a full day of interview questions and other assessment tools for their candidates, and insisted they only had time for one question on this topic.

Despite the obvious limitations, I was excited to tackle the challenge of coming up with only one question. After reading the book The One Thing, by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan, I’d realized the importance of prioritizing and distilling everything to one essential point.

So, how did I capture the nuances of assessing intercultural competence into one question? How did I simplify all that is essential for working effectively with people from different cultural groups —and test someone’s knowledge of that? I pored over my draft of this question with several colleagues in intercultural training, and after many iterations, here is what I/we came up with:

“Consider all the challenges you have experienced when interacting with people who are different from you. What is one situation you wish you  had handled differently – and why?”

In this question I tried to get at:

1) a level of self-awareness in the form of reflection;
2) action-orientation (“you…handled”);
3) how the candidate deals with stress/anxiety (“challenges”);
4) awareness of human difference (cultural, interpersonal, etc.);
5) emotional resilience (owning up to one’s mistakes enough to speak about them comfortably)
6) empathy (in reflection, could the candidate see the situation from the other party’s perspective?)

The question is people-centric (“interacting with people”) and action-oriented (“you wish you had handled differently”), so you avoid answers involving environmental circumstances with inaction like “I wish I had been better prepared.” By putting the focus on the candidate’s action (“you…handled), you also avoid self-justifying answers like “I wish the other person would have listened to me” or other-blaming answers like “It would have worked out if they had just taken my advice.”  This question forces the candidate to focus on their own adaptation, not on the perceived shortcomings of others.

It is important that – after asking this question – the interviewer says, “Take a minute to think about it.” You don’t want the candidate to feel pressured to blurt out the first thing that pops into their head. U.S. Americans are so uncomfortable with silence at job interviews that this is exactly what will happen. By giving the candidate permission to think in silence, you are also gauging their own comfort with silence (very important) and improving the chances that you will get a quality response over a quick response.

If the candidate has no stories to share or only very superficial ones, that’s not a good sign. This indicates that the candidate could be insecure in describing a truthful event, lacking self-awareness, or too inexperienced. (The job for which I originally wrote this question required over a decade of professional experience across multiple countries, and it would have been shocking if a candidate could not produce a response).

In my experience, this question has produced very revealing and informative answers over the years.

Try it at your next interview!

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