Even if you’ve spent hours preparing, a question can come out of the blue and leave you stumped.
But you don’t want to let a fumble derail your entire interview. Here’s how to deal with tough questions and bounce back from the ones you raise:
As you prepare for an interview, have a handful of stories from your previous jobs that highlight different parts of your career, your worth, and your experiences.
The interviewers will want to know how you dealt with difficult situations or problems in your previous roles. But if you don’t have the specific experience they’re asking about, it can put you out of the game.
This is where the stories you have prepared come into play. Think of one that relates to the question and the fulcrum, said Lia Garvin, author of “Unstuck.”
She suggested saying something like, “I didn’t have that exact situation, but in a similar experience where I had this XYZ problem, here’s what I did.” Or “This reminds me of a similar situation where we didn’t have a resource constraint but we did have a budget constraint, and here’s what I did.”
Another way to answer a question, if you don’t have a directly related experience, is to explain how you want deal with it.
“Always look to strengthen your skills and your transferrable skills based on what you’ve done and what you want to do with this new job,” said Sara Skirboll, vice president of communications at CareerBuilder.
She suggested saying something along the lines of, “I don’t have any experience in this situation, but with my three years as a human resource manager I can tell you that this is how I would handle it if I experienced it.”
You have no idea how many balloons fit in the room:
Sometimes interviewers ask questions that go a little outside the box. But often the interlocutor pays more attention to your solution.
“It shows your problem-solving skills,” Skirboll said. It’s about defining exactly what questions and information you need, how you would gather that information, and working through your approach to get to the answer.
If you are given a math brain teaser, e.g. For example, how many balloons would fill a room, the interviewer probably isn’t trying to make sure you get the exact number right.
“Consulting firms like to ask these kinds of questions to test how logically you think and how you would approach something completely new that is outside of your area of expertise. You have nowhere to hide,” he said Marianne Ruggiero, Founder and President of Optima Careers.
She said to work through your approach out loud. “Estimate the dimensions of the room, the space to be filled, the average balloon size – would you take some other people in the room and talk to them about it?” She said. “There is no right answer. Have fun with it and find out, most likely they have no idea what the answer is.”
You just draw a space:
It’s okay to take a minute and think before answering a question.
“You can say, ‘That’s a great question, let me think about it for a moment,’ look up and around and collect your thoughts,” Ruggiero said.
You can also buy yourself some time by repeating the question.
“Repeat the question to the hiring manager: ‘Now let me get this straight: Are you asking XXXX?'” Skirboll said. “They make sure you got it right and you can reconsider your answer.”
But if you say a lot of words without actually answering the question, you can call yourself out.
“It’s perfectly acceptable to call it out in real time and name the elephant in the room,” says Ruggiero. “It makes the hiring manager feel like you’re confident enough to catch yourself when you make a mistake and big enough to admit you made a mistake and will fix it. Would not You want to hire someone who deals with mistakes like this?”
If you really can’t think of anything, Garvin suggested circling again at the end of the interview. “If you can’t answer the question, try, ‘I can’t think of anything, I’ll get back to you.'”
You will be asked to say something negative about yourself:
Sometimes interviewers try to throw you a curveball by asking you about something you’ve been struggling with: yours greatest weakness, a challenge you found difficult to overcome, or how you dealt with a colleague you didn’t get along with.
“I like to take this question as an opportunity to tell a turning point story,” Garvin said.
When sharing a story, be sure to emphasize what you learned from the situation. For example, Garvin said an example might be a project that’s delayed because you didn’t notify the necessary stakeholders. You can say, “I’ve since developed the XYZ process to prevent that from happening next time.”
A better answer comes to you on the way home:
You’ll always come up with better answers after you leave the interview, but if you made a mistake or couldn’t answer a question, let your thank-you email do double duty.
A post-interview thank you email should express gratitude for the person’s time, but it can also include follow-up questions about a question you want to ask or be specific about.
Ruggiero suggested that you can mention that after further consideration of your candidacy you would like to add more and mention a different story.
“You can mention something specific about your background that relates directly to this comment that you didn’t get a chance to explain in the interview.”