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13 Questions to Reveal Motivational Levers

We rarely use questions that work to reveal deep layers about a person’s character, decisions, and values. Instead, interviewers waste time asking about erroneous topics which do little to reveal the “true” person across the table. 

The key is to ask simple, open-ended questions that elicit the most valuable information about an individual. In this article, we discuss the power of thoughtful and intentional questions that can be used with anyone in any setting.

Exploratory Questions

Exploratory questions reveal details about a person’s life and several layers of their character, including their values, how they make decisions, and their level of self-awareness. And since these questions seem playful, candidates do not feel invasively assessed when being asked.

If someone wrote a book about your life, what would be the title? Who would write it? What would be the first four lines of the forward?

The answers to these questions provide insight into a person’s level of self-awareness, sense of impact, and how they like to be seen within the world. You’ll get to see what they see as their biggest accomplishment or major theme of their life. Who they say will write the book will reveal a lot about their personal relationships, who knows them best, and how they hope to be perceived by others.

You’ll also get a glimpse of their imagination. If they come up with a funny or lighthearted title, it often shows they have a good sense of humor and they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Most importantly, this question often reveals how quickly they can become engaged in a verbally creative task that is somewhat difficult and personal in nature. You will quickly uncover who is playful compared to those who feel vulnerable by this challenging question. It’s harder than you think.

What is something about yourself that you wish people knew, but you are hesitant to reveal?

This question allows the person to open up about their vulnerabilities and insecurities. It also gives insight into their level of self-awareness, trust in the person they are speaking to and authenticity. It’s a way to understand what they consider as their weaknesses and something they may not want to reveal to others. But, bear in mind, this question indexes toward what the candidate wishes they could share with others, but is too fearful to share. This question is intriguing because it exposes a candidate’s internal struggle between their “actual self” and their “ideal self” that they present to the outside world.

What is a strong belief you once held that you’ve recently changed your mind about?

The way a person answers this question shines light on their ability to learn, grow, and critically evaluate new information. It indicates if they have the ability to adapt and change their perspective, if they are open to learning and self-improvement, and if they are able to evaluate evidence and ideas objectively. It also can indicate if they are comfortable being honest about their thought process and how willing they are to admit when they are wrong. It’s a simple question to develop an impression of someone’s willingness to change their mind and reveal another dimension of their self-awareness.

Frustration Tolerance

Employees with high frustration tolerance are able to control their emotions and prevent contagion in those around them. Individuals with low frustration tolerance, however, are a detriment to an organization because they cannot modulate their emotions and then negatively infect those around them during their tantrums. 

During an interview, pay attention to what stresses each candidate. Those who fixate on the stressor, instead of an action to manage it, likely have a low frustration tolerance. What does it take to agitate them, and how often does it occur? If they mention regular, daily tasks, or types of people, then it could be a red flag.

Describe a time when you almost gave up but didn’t. Why did you want to give up? Why didn’t you?

This uncovers the depths of an individual’s frustration tolerance and resilience, revealing the threshold at which they contemplate giving up. By delving into their experiences of overcoming obstacles as they tell their story, you can confidently assess their level of determination and problem-solving prowess.

When was the last time stress resulted in making errors at work?

The candidate’s ability to recall an example and explain how they handled the situation can indicate that they have a good understanding of their own stress triggers and effective coping strategies. If they can recall an example and explain what they learned from the experience, it’s a strong indicator they have the capacity to learn and grow from their mistakes.

Internal Locus of Control versus External Locus of Control

Individuals with an internal locus of control believe their actions – from within themselves – drive outcomes. They have an attitude of personal responsibility and take ownership for their actions. They are goal-oriented and persistent in problem-solving. Those with an external locus of control, however, believe results derive from external factors, such as situational factors, other people, and fate. A professional with an external locus of control and responsibility tends to blame others and excuse their own behaviors. 

You can assess whether candidates are more internally or externally focused by listening to patterns in their responses during interviews. Internal: optimism, persistence, ownership, recognition of obstacles but focus on how they are overcome. External: excuses, blaming, rationalization, focus on obstacles.

When have you been most satisfied in your life?

A person’s most satisfying moments are likely to be those which align with their core values and priorities. For example, if a person’s most satisfying moment is when they achieved a professional goal, it could indicate that they place a high value on career success. If a person has a clear and specific answer, it indicates they have a strong level of goal directedness. This question also provides insight into what they consider as an achievement in their life. You’ll also develop a preliminary understanding of what they believe brings them happiness, and what type of activities or circumstances they find fulfilling.

What’s the biggest failure of your career? How did you recover? How are you different today because of this experience?

A person’s ability to identify and articulate their biggest failure can be an indication of their level of self-awareness. If they provide a precise and detailed response, it may indicate that they have well developed introspection skills. If they are able to describe the steps they took to recover from the failure and the measures they took to prevent it from happening again, it can indicate that they have strong critical thinking and a growth mindset. Providing details on how they’ve grown and changed as a result of the failure will shed light on their openness to learning and self-improvement. The level in which they share these failures and how they recovered illustrates their level of honesty and the commitment to change. It may be a red flag if they are unwilling to share their failure or provide a specific answer, as it can indicate discomfort in admitting their mistakes or a lack of self-awareness.

What’s the most significant change you have driven within an organization?

A candidate’s response to this question will provide insight into their influence capabilities and ability to think strategically. They have the opportunity to showcase their experience leading change initiatives and their ability to inspire and motivate others. This question can also reveal how the individual evaluates situations objectively and how they solicit the support and cooperation of others to bring about change. If they provide a detailed answer, you will get a sense for their skills for identifying motivational levers in others and their ability to see an opportunity for change then develop a plan to take advantage of it.

Openness to Experience

Openness is crucial for building strong connections with your teams. The more connected your team is, the more engaged and committed they will be to achieving goals. Being open as a leader creates an approachable atmosphere, making people feel like they’re working with you, not for you.

Assessing a candidate’s openness to experience is crucial because it indicates their adaptability, creativity, and potential to contribute to company culture. It provides insight into their ability to handle new situations, generate new ideas, embrace feedback, work with diverse teams, and learn and grow in their role.

Describe a time when you challenged the status quo or went against the norm in your work or personal life. What motivated you to take this approach, and what were the results?

This question helps assess a candidate’s willingness to take risks, ability to think critically, and their capacity to engage obstacles. Understanding their motivations and the results of their actions will provide insight into their values and desired impact. Look for examples of calculated risk-taking, creativity, and teamwork to assess a candidate’s potential. Red flags to lookout for include a lack of impact, unexplained motivation, impulsivity or difficulty working in a team.

What’s the most difficult thing you’ve had to teach yourself?

This question can reveal important traits such as learning agility, problem-solving skills, resilience, self-motivation, curiosity, and perseverance. A thoughtful answer would include a clear and concise description of the specific skill the candidate found the most challenging, context on why they desired to learn it, the resources they used, and how they overcame obstacles. 

When was the last time you did something exciting or interesting for the first time?

Here’s a question that can reveal everything from their bold, adventurous spirit to their insatiable curiosity for the unknown. Are they open-minded and willing to challenge their own assumptions, or are they stuck in the same old routine? In an interview, this question will reveal lots about a candidate’s personality, what stimulates them, and potential fit for a novel, challenging role. On the other hand, if the candidate struggles to come up with an answer or seems resistant to new experiences, it may suggest a lack of curiosity or diverse interests.


Assessing candidates for self-awareness in job interviews is critical. It reveals their ability to reflect on their actions, recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and adjust their behavior accordingly. Self-aware individuals take responsibility for their actions, learn from mistakes, and seek personal and professional growth. They are better at managing emotions, communicating effectively, and building positive relationships in the workplace. In contrast, candidates lacking self-awareness may struggle to adapt, receive feedback, or collaborate. By assessing self-awareness, interviewers can identify potential contributors and avoid issues with performance, turnover, and team dynamics.

What’s something people don’t like about you at first but later come to appreciate?

This question provides insight into a candidate’s self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and ability to reflect on feedback. A thoughtful answer will showcase a candidate’s ability to recognize and respond to interpersonal challenges, to adapt to different situations, and to build strong relationships with others. This question may also reveal a candidate’s communication style, problem-solving abilities, and attitude towards personal and professional growth. A potential red flag would be if the candidate struggles to think of an answer or if their answer is overly defensive or dismissive of feedback.

What type of person do you generally have disputes with at work?

An introspective candidate will be able to identify a specific type of person with whom they tend to have disputes, and they will be able to explain the reasons behind them. For example, they may say that they tend to have disagreements with people who have a different communication style, such as those who are very indirect or who use a lot of jargon. By identifying this, the candidate demonstrates they’ve reflected on their own communication style and are aware of how it may clash with others. The candidate can demonstrate emotional intelligence by explaining how they handle disputes with this type of person. It’s a red flag if they claim they get along with everyone.

The approach to constructing deep questions

The power of intentional questioning cannot be overstated. These simple yet potent questions offer invaluable insights into an individual’s character and values, all while appearing harmless. Craft your own set of questions to enhance any professional or personal interaction. Reveal true motivations and hidden tendencies for better decisions and stronger relationships.

Using intentional questioning can help a company executive establish stronger relationships with their clients or customers. By posing thoughtful questions that genuinely seek to understand the client or customer’s needs and perspectives, the executive can foster trust and rapport, ultimately leading to more fruitful business relationships.

Similarly, a head of recruiting could also utilize intentional questioning by incorporating these types of questions into their interview process and training their team on the techniques involved. Doing so can lead to improved quality of hiring decisions, higher chances of finding candidates who align with the company culture, and more effective interviewers within the team.

The key to effective questioning is to be creative and think about what qualities are important for the situation at hand. With this approach, you’ll be able to tap into a wealth of information that would otherwise go unnoticed. So, whether you’re an HR professional, a manager, or simply looking to improve your interviewing skills, take the time to master the art of intentional questioning.


Jason Halbert