Coping with Difficult Interviews and Questions

Early in my career, I interviewed with a woman I knew outside of the professional arena. She told me I could come in to discuss working with her. Because we knew each other, I figured she had a good grasp on the fact that I was qualified to do the job. I naively thought that we would be talking about a start date, salary, and the like.

The first question she asked me was, "Why do you want this job?" Embarrassing as it is to admit, I did not have an answer. After stumbling around for a few minutes, I finally said, "I don't know." As you can imagine, I did not get the job. (I also avoided her for a while after that out of sheer embarrassment.)

"Why do you want to work here?" is one of the easy questions. Obviously, you need to be prepared to answer this, as well as much more difficult questions, when going into the interview. Here are tips on some types of interview situations you may encounter, as well as how to deal with those tough (and not-so-tough) questions.

Your Tools

Take extra copies of your résumé: one for each of your interviewers, if needed, and one for yourself. By having your résumé in front of you, will you have an instant reminder of your most impressive accomplishments, as well as a general reference when it comes to dates or other specifics you may draw a blank on when feeling under pressure. Many interviewers will also refer to your résumé as they proceed through the interview. When you have it right in front of you, you can follow along and not miss a step.

Perhaps the most important tool you will take with you is a notepad and pen. Use this to take notes throughout the interview, both for reference during the process and afterwards as you compose your follow-up correspondence. As the interview progresses, you can makes notes of points you want to return to or cover at some point in the interview, and also make a list of questions for the interviewer. At some point, during or toward the end of the interview, you will be asked if you have questions about the position, company, or anything that was (or was not) covered during the interview. It is possible that questions you had prepared in advance were answered during the interview, but new questions are likely to arise. Jotting them down will ensure you do not forget.  

But perhaps one of the most useful functions for the notepad is that you can use it as both your cheat sheet and point of focus when answering questions. When faced with a difficult question, take a moment to pause, look at your pad (and steal a glimpse of your notes), and then answer the question. This will help you in that not only can you review your notes, but it will also give you a focal point, rather than looking around nervously or staring blankly at the interviewer while you collect your thoughts. Take that moment to reflect (a sign that you are taking time to think rather than simply blurting out an answer), take a breath, and proceed with your response.

Another good technique is to answer the question with another question. If you would like clarification, ask. If the question is really vague, such as "tell me about yourself," you can ask if the interviewer would like to know about your academic background, employment background, or both. By returning a question you can buy yourself a few moments to prepare your answer.

What They Are Really Asking

When faced with difficult questions, consider what the real motivation is behind the question. If you get an oddball request, such as, “What kind of animal are you?” the reason behind the question likely has nothing to do with the interviewer really wanting to know what type of animal you want to be. Instead, what they may be looking for is more along the lines of whether or not you are aggressive, which might be the impression if your answer is “a great white shark,” or lazy, if you answer “a sloth.” Granted, these are exaggerated answers, but they make the point. Some questions are designed to get at underlying, less obvious issues. Stress questions are also designed to create just that—stress. How you handle the questions can give the interviewers a sense of how you might handle—or crumble under—stress on the job.

When faced with tough questions, then, try to get a sense of what the interviewer really wants to know. If they ask how much overtime you put in at your last position, they may be curious to know if you are simply looking for a paycheck, or if you are devoted to the company and willing to put in some extra time when needed. Similarly, if you are always working overtime, they may have concerns about work/life balance and if you will burn out. If you are asked about your previous boss, the interviewer may be testing you to see if you will bad mouth your previous manager and company, or if you discuss that person by showing respect. How you discuss your previous employer provides a sense of what you might say about your new one. If you badmouth your last employer, you create a negative impression, even if the situation was genuinely negative. Rather than focusing on the negative, then, state what you learned from the position and how those experiences prepared you for the next step—which involves continual professional growth in the new position.

Inappropriate Questions

Employers are not allowed to ask certain questions, such as those related to marital status, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc. However, you may find that you are asked an inappropriate question. As noted, many interviewers are not trained in the process, and they may not realize some questions need to be avoided. Similarly, sometimes conversations take a direction that may lead the interviewer to ask an inappropriate question without first thinking about it. How you handle these questions can be challenging, particularly as they can throw you off guard.

First, in most instances, the question is likely in error. Therefore, try to work around the question without directly challenging the interviewer. If you are asked about marital or parenting status, for example, the real issue behind the question may be whether or not you can be fully committed to the position. In this case, rather than answering the question directly, state that your situation is such that you are fully prepared to devote the necessary time and dedication to the position. That way, you are addressing the underlying concerns while avoiding a direct answer. Another option is to simply ask, or make a note of, how the question relates to the position and requirements. Treat it as an option to clarify what the interviewer is looking for. You can also redirect, rather than providing a direct answer. Again, take a moment to review your notes and see what areas of your experience you have not yet covered. Using the example that an interviewer wants to know if you are dedicated to the position, you can state that you have the skills necessary to meet the job requirements, you are looking forward to dedicating your resources to the job, AND you also bring the following skills to the position, which you can then elaborate upon. This allows you to address possible underlying issues while also reiterating your strengths and qualifications, while avoiding an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved. The interviewer may realize, too late, that the question was inappropriate, for example, and by redirecting, you save that person some embarrassment.

However, you may still find yourself faced with a direct, inappropriate question. If this is the case, you may need to simply state that you are not comfortable answering the question. If so, aim to follow up with examples of your skills, experiences, etc. This may also be a sign that the company is not one you want to work for. If the questions do not appear to be in error, that can be a warning sign.

When You are Stumped

What do you do if you cannot answer a question or prompt? This depends in part on the situation. If you are asked a question and do not have an immediate answer, or draw a blank, do your best to take the situation lightly and ask if you can return to that question. That way, you have some time to consider the question. However, you also run the risk of not fully addressing follow-up questions if you are too distracted trying to come up with an answer. When you are stumped, aim to keep a lighthearted approach. If you are completely stressed out over the question, the interviewer may feel that you will not be able to handle stress on the job. If possible, laugh a little, and try a casual response, such as, “That is a good question. Let me think on that for a bit.” In doing so, you avoid awkward silence, and you can potentially keep the interview moving forward.

If you are able to maintain a sense of humor and remain conversational, you will make a more positive impression, even if you are unable to respond to a particularly difficult question. This shows that you handle pressure, are human, and can deal with challenges. Even if you cannot answer the questions one hundred percent, if you are likeable, interviewers will take notice. They, just like you, want to work with someone who is personable. This can be more important than knowledge or experience, as you will be working together on a daily basis. When you can build rapport and laugh at yourself, even when stumped, you show that you are someone others can relate to. Everyone has their tough moments; it is how you deal with those moments that demonstrate who you really are.  

If you are asked to complete a problem, demonstrate a skill, etc., and are unable to, while it can be awkward, do your best to complete the task. You can explain that, in normal work situations, you would then do the appropriate research or seek out the additional information needed to complete the task or problem. That way, even though you are not able to finish in the moment, you can show that you would take the initiative to gather the necessary information and resources.

Maintain Perspective

When approaching the interview, even if part of you feels desperate about needing the job, avoid showing this in the interview. Do your best to be friendly, professional, and approachable. Laugh when appropriate—such as when the interviewer makes a joke—and try to communicate similarly to how you would in any other professional situation. Avoid being overly formal or overly casual. And, if it helps, remind yourself that the interview is not a life-or-death situation. A little perspective can go a long way. Yes, you need to pay your rent or mortgage and put food on the table. However, it is just an interview. If you put too much pressure on yourself or the position, you can needlessly add more stress, which can in turn affect how well you interview. If need be, seek out the help of an interview coach to guide you through the process and help build your confidence, particularly if you feel a lot of pressure.