One of the most valuable traits employers are looking for right now can’t be found on a résumé, at least not explicitly. It’s not something you can fake in an interview, or convince your prospective boss that you have without demonstrating it through your behavior and stories.
But emotional intelligence—the savviness to be in tune with your emotions and others’—can help land you that dream job. EQ was one of the most in-demand skills of 2020, according to a LinkedIn analysis. And as workplaces ramp up their focus on employee mental health and positive company culture, they’re looking to hire new additions who can enhance, rather than detract from, this mission.
What is emotional intelligence, and why are interviewers asking about it?
While emotional intelligence may not be something that’s always on your mind in the workplace, it’s working constantly below the surface, impacting how you and colleagues interact on a daily basis and how effectively you complete your projects and meet your goals.
Also known as EQ, it encompasses both internal and external elements, and you can build it up like a muscle. “I think of it as having two components,” says Patricia Thompson, PhD, a corporate psychologist and creator of the “21-Day Crash Course in Emotional Intelligence,” which more than 18,000 students have completed. The first component is “your ability to understand yourself and [your] emotions, and based on that being able to regulate yourself appropriately,” Thompson says.
The second, she says, is “to understand others’ emotions to relate to them…and to have a high level of social awareness to use those insights.” In other words, can you recognize and process your own emotions and keep them under control? And are you in tune enough with others to perceive, interpret, and empathize with their emotions?
It’s not just about getting a feel-good vibe from your workplace. Instead, EQ deeply impacts your relationships with bosses, coworkers, and clients as well as your productivity and your ability to come up with and implement successful strategies. Plus, the increased focus on preventing workplace burnout—labeled an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization—necessitates hiring employees with high EQ, as they can help create a healthier workplace for themselves and others, and eventually will become leaders who do the same.
For all those reasons, you can expect recruiters and hiring managers to be looking for individuals with high EQ. In an interview, questions about your EQ might come at you in the form of behavioral questions (which ask you to share examples of how you’ve acted in certain situations) and other questions that prompt you to share how you process, manage, and perceive emotions. It can even look like the simple “What weaknesses are you working to overcome?” question, for example, which can suss out how self-aware you are, how you take feedback, and how you deal with frustration.
So it’s important to know which common interview questions and other queries you’re most likely to encounter from a recruiter or hiring manager looking to assess EQ—as well as why they’re asking and how to answer.
1. Tell me about a time you experienced a conflict at work
This question is really about your thought process in addressing an issue, says Thompson, who looks to gauge the applicant’s perception of their role and others’ roles in solving the problem.
When you get a “Tell me about a time…” question, or others assessing EQ, answer using the STAR method, advises Joanna Lovering, an executive presence coach, and workplace psychologist at Copper+Rise. Describe the situation (S), explain your task (T), lay out the specific actions you took (A), and end with the results of your efforts (R). “This shows a proven record of emotional intelligence instead of simply being able to talk about it,” Lovering says.
To employ the STAR method for this particular interview question, consider a project or event that actually did have a conflict with a coworker, client, or boss. Explain the situation you encountered— including what conflict occurred and why—but keep it brief and neutral and, whatever you do, avoid blaming or bad-talking anyone else. You can simply state the facts as they happened, without opinionated words, or you can take responsibility for some of the conflict tactfully, showing self-awareness and leadership on your part. Then explain the task, or what you were responsible for doing in this situation. Next, list specific steps and processes you tried in order to solve the conflict, such as meeting with colleagues for open dialogue and using your empathetic listening skills to clear up a misunderstanding. Finally, give the results of your efforts, even if they didn’t work as you’d hoped, and the lessons you took with you. Remember, you are showing your process and reflection afterward, not trying to prove that you’re perfect.
2. Tell me about a time you experienced a setback and how you dealt with it
This question is an indicator of resilience, Thompson says. Someone with high EQ tends to use setbacks to learn and ultimately gain the advantage of new knowledge about themselves, others, and workplace processes that will help them avoid similar issues and set them up to succeed the next time around. Those with low EQ might wallow for an extended time, blame others, try to change the circumstances, or fail to see the lesson or the bigger picture.
Future employers looking for high EQ are trying to see how you reacted to the setback in the moment: Did you get agitated and snap at your coworker? Did you let the problem fester and grow because you didn’t want to deal with it? Or did you handle it gracefully and see it as a learning opportunity for you and your team? If you can choose a time when a setback actually resulted in a better outcome, or led to an improved process in the future, all the better. Once again, you can use the STAR method to structure your answer—just avoid speaking negatively about your colleagues and don’t forget to emphasize the results and learnings.
3. How do you respond when a coworker challenges you in a meeting?
A key element to EQ is identifying when you feel yourself getting upset and strategically choosing what to do about it, when, and how, instead of going with your first knee-jerk reaction. This question is the perfect opportunity for future employers to understand how you assess and address a situation, says Kimberly Prescott, president of Prescott HR, a consulting firm for small to midsize businesses. How you answer this interview question reveals your ability to regulate your emotions when the stakes are high and the situation is charged, Prescott says. “If they say, ‘If I know I’m right I’m going to make sure people understand it,'” that communicates one type of employee, she says, versus someone else who says, for example, “I make sure I let people know the points I have and that I understand they will make their decisions based on all the information they have, and I’m always available for questions.” Prescott watches out for someone who is “easily frustrated who may try to shove their opinion down peoples’ throats.”
To succeed at communicating EQ in your answer, ideally pick a real example (you can turn to the STAR method yet again) and don’t shy away from explaining the emotions you did feel at the time. Remember, EQ isn’t a lack of emotions but rather the ability to regulate and handle them in a productive way. To that end, if you were stressed or angry that you were being publicly questioned, you can say so, but then take the interviewer through your personal process of managing those emotions. Maybe you practice deep breaths. Maybe you take a walk and reengage later. Or perhaps in this particular situation, you asked a question to clarify if the tone you were sensing was actually what the person intended, which shows you’re able to pause and ensure you fully understand before reacting, a key trait for future employees at any company.
4. When you start a new job, how do you adapt to your work environment?
People with high EQ invest in relationships with their bosses and coworkers from day one. If your answer focuses broadly on relationship building rather than narrowly on getting up to speed on your own tasks, that demonstrates you value teamwork and realize your projects won’t happen in a vacuum. In addition, your answer will give your interviewer a sense of your self-awareness and ability to read social cues in a new setting, which can be a nerve-racking experience.
You can reference other times when you’ve been in a new environment, and discuss ways you integrated seamlessly into the team and its mission. For example, you might discuss how you listen and observe to understand the company’s values as well as individual personalities and team dynamics before inserting your opinion or trying to change direction. And perhaps you’d say that you like to schedule one-on-one time with folks on your direct team as well as anyone else you’ll be working closely with to get to know them and what they do.
Your interviewer might also be thinking about what your answer says about your work style—and how well you’d mesh with the existing team. Ultimately, the best answer for this type of question is one that reflects your authentic self to ensure it’s a match with the company environment.
5. Describe your strengths and weaknesses
You can almost guarantee most interviews will have some form of this question, whether it’s about your “greatest weakness” or both strengths and weaknesses. Regardless, it’s less about the chosen strength or weakness itself, and more about your honesty, self-awareness, ability to take feedback, and motivation to pursue growth.
Here, too, you can bring your answer to life by telling a story about a strength or a weakness in action, such as when the former helped you meet a big goal or land a major client deal or when the latter prevented you from doing so. Just don’t forget to get to the “so what?” part of your answer. That might mean explaining why the strength you mentioned makes you such a great fit for this particular role or talking through what steps you’re taking to further your development in an area that needs improvement.
6. What are your strategies for keeping work-life balance?
At a time when employees report experiencing burnout at high rates, this question is essential to show you value your own mental health and will be taking care of yourself. From the interviewer’s perspective, not only do they care about their employees’ well-being in and of itself, but your success also means you’ll be more productive in the long run, help foster a healthy and positive environment, and be less of a flight risk.
So take this question seriously rather than joking about how you love to work more than anything. You can demonstrate your high EQ through self-awareness: Do you know what you need in order to do your job well for the long haul? Maybe you’ve been working on a brief meditation process that helps you succeed when you incorporate it into your daily routine as well as in stressful work moments. Or go ahead and share a hobby you enjoy outside of work—maybe trail running helps you destress or scrapbooking serves as the perfect outlet for your creativity—which will have the added benefit of making you seem like a real person and possibly more memorable as well.
7. What inspires you?
Interviews don’t have to be all conflict and setbacks and weaknesses. They can also be the perfect place to show just how passionate you are about your work, including past and future projects. Being able to answer this type of question demonstrates you are thinking about your own future intentionally, rather than floating through your career half-heartedly, which gets to the heart of an applicant’s EQ, says Janine Nicole Dennis, founder and chief innovation officer of Talent Think Innovations, a business strategy and management consulting firm dedicated to helping businesses and individuals realize their potential.
Instead of presenting yourself as a “caricature” of what you think the interviewer is looking for to get a job, Dennis says, you should focus on authenticity, which is much more sustainable than being fake anyway. Plus, giving an honest and emotionally intelligent answer can show your interviewer what you really care about and why this role would be so fulfilling.
Try zeroing in on a project or type of work you’ve done that you found really exciting and satisfying, preferably the type of work you’d be doing for the company or something adjacent to it. For example, if you’re interviewing for your first nursing position in the pediatrics department of a hospital, you could talk about the volunteer work you did with an organization for kids with rare diseases that inspired you to go to nursing school in the first place. How you talk about the project is more important than what it is, so go ahead and give specific anecdotes of memorable moments that mattered to you and let your voice and body language reflect how you feel—part of EQ after all is being in touch with your emotions and being able to convey them to others.
8. What’s something you’ve done in the past year to grow professionally?
If you hesitate in answering this, it’s possible that you need to work on furthering your emotional intelligence. This question might not look like EQ on the surface, Thompson says, but it “shows the person has a learning orientation and looks at themselves and can be self-reflective.” People who are introspective and in tune with their own emotions and strengths and weaknesses are able to openly identify and convey what they’re doing to improve themselves, both personally and professionally.
Don’t answer this question by discussing mandatory training, Thompson says. Instead, discuss something you initiated on your own, such as a conference you attended of your own volition, a book you read on a trending topic in the field, networking you did that turned into a helpful professional relationship, or intentional steps you took at work to hone a specific skill (sharpening your data skills, for instance, by putting together weekly social media campaign reports and presenting them to your team in a regular meeting). And whatever you decide to talk about, give it context by telling the interviewer how it fits in your larger plan toward professional growth. For example, maybe you’re reading books by a variety of leaders in your field to get an idea of what type of leader you want to become as you grow into more senior roles.
9. What would you do if you noticed a coworker was struggling with their work?
The second aspect of EQ is to extend your understanding of the power of emotions to others and to use that awareness to rally your team or workplace toward success. Prescott explains that it’s particularly essential in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic—and as some of us return to in-person workplaces—that we have an awareness of our own emotions as well as the ability to read and respond to others’ emotions. “People are dealing with so many things…you never know what level of trauma,” she says. You should “be able to read other people and identify, ‘Oh, I’m going down the wrong path with this person…maybe I shouldn’t say or do that.'”
When you’re answering this question, it’s important to illustrate concrete steps you would take to help a coworker who’s struggling, Thompson says, and to also emphasize that it may not be an indication of their abilities. For example, you might talk about how you’d ask the coworker how things have been going for them in a judgment-free conversation, outside of the stressors of a work meeting or even the workday. People with a higher EQ are also able to identify when others need solutions versus just a listening ear, so discussing your ability to distinguish between the two is also helpful. Don’t forget to tell a specific story, if you can, and to employ the STAR method to ensure you cover all the important elements.
10. How are you most likely to be misunderstood by others?
This question is about showing your awareness of the vibes you put off in a workplace environment and your understanding of your impact on others. For instance, “If you are really passionate, they may perceive that as overwhelming,” Thompson says. “If you are quiet, people may think you are unassertive.”
Instead of being concerned about what observations people have made about you in the past (and what your prospective employer may think of them), discuss them openly as well as what you are doing to mitigate potential misunderstandings. For example, if you’re pretty quiet, and in the past others have asked you what’s wrong, you could discuss how your careful and thoughtful approach can come off as disinterested, but that you’ve actively worked on asking questions early on to ensure your colleagues know you’re listening and invested from the start, even if you need time to process before giving meaningful insight.
Quick Tips for Demonstrating EQ in an Interview (and a Few Mistakes to Avoid)
You can show off your emotional intelligence throughout your interview by:
- Integrating examples of EQ in most of your answers: You don’t have to be directly asked about emotional intelligence to show your reflective nature, concern for others, and the way you use these qualities to enhance a company’s atmosphere and success. In fact, you’ve probably gleaned by now that the words “emotional intelligence” or “EQ” are unlikely to show up explicitly, even in questions that help interviewers assess these skills. So make sure you weave them in whenever you can—any time you’re telling a story about teamwork or collaboration, for example.
- Asking questions: This shows initiative, drive, and confidence, and gives the impression that you’re aware of the kind of environment you can thrive in and contribute to and are interviewing them to ensure it’s a great fit.
- Balancing confidence and humility: It’s a hard line to walk, but people with strong EQ know their worth and communicate it clearly without coming off as cocky. Try to give teammates and former managers credit wherever possible, a sign of high EQ.
- Not striving for perfection—it’s not a thing: Your future employers know you aren’t perfect, so instead go for real. By striving to interview like a human, not a robot, your future boss will see you as someone whose introspection, desire to further yourself, and attunement to others will not only help you thrive, but also help your team and company succeed.
- Bringing specific, solutions-oriented examples: More than anything else, leaders love when employees show up with not just a problem, but a solution. Prove this is the type of employee you’ll be based on your EQ abilities to read the room, understand social cues, and improve the team.
And make sure you avoid these common pitfalls that can convey lower EQ:
- Bad-talking former bosses and coworkers: The last thing you want to do in an interview is throw someone under the bus. It can give interviewers the sense that you’re not self-aware enough to realize the role you may have played in a situation, are insensitive to others’ points of view, or otherwise struggle to work well with your colleagues. It also can put you in an awkward position if your future employee knows that past boss you’re bad-mouthing, as leaders often run in the same circles within an industry.
- Ignoring social cues: Pay attention to your interviewer’s body language that indicates, for example, that you’ve been talking too long on one topic. You don’t want your behavior in an interview to suggest that you may not be attuned to others’ emotions.
- Being cagey about weaknesses: People with high EQ know their weaknesses well, in addition to what they are doing to improve them.
You don’t have to be an expert in EQ to get a job, but you do need a sense of self-awareness and the ability to read others. You can demonstrate simply that you have a learner’s mindset—you don’t know everything and always want to learn more. And when in doubt, seek to be your most authentic and positive self to ensure a true match with the company.