When coaching people on the interviewing process, I usually start by asking them a riddle: “If I were waiting for you out on the curb, after your next interview, what one question do you think I would ask you to determine how well things went?

Over the years, people have offered many different responses to this query.  One common guess is “did they offer you the job?” Alas, the puzzle is not quite that easy to solve!  Let assume that even if the meeting went swimmingly, you didn’t receive a full-fledged offer on the spot…

Beyond the above item, people will usually throw out something like “did you feel you answered the questions well?” or “did the interviewer seem happy with your responses?” Honestly, I don’t find these to be very reliable indicators. For starters, if you were focused mostly on your own performance and trying to ace every question during the interview, there’s a pretty good chance you missed the underlying dynamics — and were too self-engrossed to build any real rapport with the hiring manager.  And as for the employer seeming pleased with your answers?  That one’s off the table, too.  I know plenty a passive-aggressive Seattle recruiter or hiring manager who can maintain a very affable demeanor, even if they ruled out your candidacy thirty seconds into the game.

So what’s the correct answer? Or at least the answer I feel most convincingly suggests a given interview went well? It’s whether you, as a candidate, walked out of the interview having a much deeper understanding of the hiring manager’s needs, challenges, and pain points.

If so, it suggests you were fully prepared for the meeting – and therefore able to channel your energy and attention not on remembering your past accomplishments, but on understanding the true needs of your “customer” and what they’re hoping the successful hire will accomplish. It tends to mean you listened carefully, asked good questions, and got the manager to open up to you and discuss the real needs of the job.

So historically, this has been my favorite answer to the riddle.  But recently, two other responses have come up that I also think have tons of merit – and underline some of the important currents at play beneath the interview questions themselves.

One such response is “did the interview end with more energy than when it started?”  Unlike body language, energy is a pretty tough thing to fake. Whether you’re on a sales call, an interview, or out on a first date, we all know how it feels when things aren’t going well and time starts to drag – versus those encounters when you and the other person really click and the time just seems to fly by. So if you feel that way at the end of a hiring conversation, and that things are ending on an upbeat and high-energy note, that’s a pretty strong signal things went in a positive direction.

Another killer and revealing answer?  In a recent meeting, when I ambushed a client with the “how tell if the interview went well” question, she pondered things for a moment and answered, “I’ve got it — it’s did you make the interviewer THINK???

I loved this response so much, I nearly fell off my chair.  In just a few words, I think this statement captures the spirit of a what a really good interview in today’s world is all about, at least for most professional-level positions.  Companies today, for the most part, aren’t looking for pushovers, zombies, or drones.  They want people who can engage, push back, think on their feet, and demonstrate that they’re really darn smart regarding the work topics at hand.  And as a result, when you look back on the hiring conversations you’ve been engaged in, there should be moments when you clearly got the interviewer’s attention – and got their brains engaged– by virtue of the questions you’ve asked, the insightful points you’ve made, and/or the compelling research you conducted into the company and its business model.

If these moments aren’t happening, and you’ve felt yourself and the interviewer waltzing in bored fashion through the usual scripted motions, chances are you’ll be written off as somebody either lacking confidence or who may possibly not be able to keep up in today’s fast-paced, autonomous work environments.  So make ’em think, I say.  Ask them to explain how certain aspects of their company work.  Question them on how their product stacks up to the competition.  Seize opportunities to validate what’s important regarding the job at hand.  Get up to the whiteboard and dazzle them with an idea or two.  Invite them to respond to a negative Glassdoor review.  Share an unconventional point of view they won’t hear from any other candidate.

Do something with a little pop to it, in other words, that gets their gray matter firing and shows them they can’t take your answers — or interest in the job — for granted.  You won’t win them all, but in most cases, differentiation is an important element towards career victory!