When it comes right down to it, the typical interviewing scenario is something of a paradox.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, the focus of most interviews APPEARS to be all about you.  You walk into the hiring manager’s office and are typically invited to spend the next 60 minutes or so talking at length about your background, strengths, previous successes, and what your short- and long-term goals might be in terms of your employment future.  What’s more, many interviewers will seem to hang on every word, nod their heads vigorously, and act highly interested in all of the credentials you’ve acquired over the years and all of the fascinating war stories you’re walking them through.

Don’t be fooled!  As much as most interviews appear to be an invitation to talk all about yourself, it’s vitally important to realize that the hiring manager is translating each and every one of your answers into a framework infinitely more meaningful to them: “How does what this person is saying affect ME and the challenges I’M facing?”

While it may sound harsh, the person across the desk doesn’t really care about you.  And frankly, I don’t think they’re supposed to.  After all, interviews are sales situations, not social calls.  You’re not there to make a friend or get a date.  You’re there (hopefully) to show them beyond a reasonable doubt that you’re the person best positioned to come in, roll up your sleeves, solve their problems, and make them look like a superstar.  So why would they care about you as a person, if this is the underlying dynamic?  Did you get emotionally attached to your real estate agent when you bought your last house?  Or to the salesperson who sold you your last car?  My guess is that you didn’t spend a whole heck of a lot of time worrying about the needs of these service providers compared to making sure your own hopes, wants, and desires got met effectively.  When you picked up that new Toyota last year, for example, did you say to yourself “Gee, I bet this person really needs to make a sale today and could use some extra commission money.  Let me offer them 10% over the MSRP sticker…”

So when you go on interviews, recognize this dynamic, and realize that everything you say is going to be interpreted through a very narrow lens of self-interest on the part of the hiring manager.  The more you keep this in mind, the better you’ll be able to structure your answers to sound like music to the hiring manager’s ears.  For example, here are some common interview questions that appear fairly innocuous, but usually have a strong current of self-interest behind them.

“So tell me a little bit about yourself…”
Subtext: “I’m nervous, don’t really don’t want to go first, and figure I’ll make this candidate get the ball rolling.  Plus, I should be able to tell pretty quickly from their answer if they’re prepared for this meeting and if they’re the kind of person I’d want to spend 40-50 hours around each week.”

“What are your long-term career goals?”
Subtext: “Will you bail on me the moment a better opportunity comes along, forcing me to have to go through this whole dog-and-pony show over again with another huge batch of candidates?

“Why are you interested in working for us?”
Subtext: “If you’re lazy and haven’t researched us, the party’s over.  And if you’re just looking for a paycheck at this point, indiscriminately, we’ll move on to somebody who actually thinks we’re pretty special.”

“What is your greatest weakness?”
Subtext: “Are you going to insult my intelligence with a cheesy answer or be honest with me about some of your drawbacks and blind spots, so I know I can trust you?  And can manage you effectively?”

“Why did you leave your last job?”
Subtext: “Since I can’t rely much on reference checks any more, I’m going to pay close attention to what this person says to see if anything fishy went on with their last assignment.  Did they get let go for good cause?”

“Tell me about a time your work was criticized.”
Subtext: “I’ve got a million things on my plate and don’t have time to fight with people over how I want things done, so if this person seems like a maverick who has problems with authority, or isn’t good at taking direction, I’m going to move on to somebody more pliable.”

“How much money are you looking for?”
Subtext: “Am I wasting my time talking with you because you’re way out of our price range?  Do you have a falsely-inflated idea of what your skills are worth in today’s market?”

By now, I’m sure you get the idea.  For every question you’re asked in an interview, there’s an (appropriately) selfish motive behind it on the part of the employer.  So make sure to keep your answers short, relevant, and focused on how the particular skill/qualification/strength you’re talking about is going to conspire to make the interviewer’s life better — and help them reach their goals within the organization.

Place 100% of your focus on understanding their problems and demonstrating how you’ll be able to meet/exceed their expectations, and you’re golden.  Fall into the trap of talking all about yourself, without regard to their underlying needs, and you’re toast!