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 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:

“Of all the difficult situations you have experienced when interacting with people in foreign countries, what is one situation you wish you handled differently?”

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 (“difficult situations”);
4) emotional resilience (owning up to one’s mistakes enough to speak about them comfortably)
5) 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 hadn’t gotten food poisoning” or “I wish the weather had been better.” By putting the focus on the candidate’s action (“you handled), you also avoid self-justifying answers like “I wish they had better prepared me” or other-blaming answers like “I tried everything, but they refused to take me seriously.”  This question forces the candidate to zero in on their own adaptation in a foreign environment, 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 a bad sign. This indicates that the candidate is insecure in describing a truthful event, lacking self-awareness, or too inexperienced. (The job for which I originally wrote this question required substantial foreign experience, and it would have been shocking if a candidate could not produce a response).

In domestic settings, this question can also work as well. You could adapt it to: “Of all the difficult situations you have experienced when interacting with people from different backgrounds, what is one situation you wish you handled differently?”

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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