What to do when a job interview question confuses you
Even if you’ve been preparing for hours, a question can pop up out of nowhere and leave you confused.
But you don’t want to let a fumble derail your entire interview. Here’s how to handle difficult questions and recover from those that upset you:
When preparing for an interview, you should have a handful of stories from your previous jobs that highlight different parts of your career, your value, and your experiences.
Interviewers will want to know how you handled difficult situations or problems in your previous roles. But if you don’t have that specific experience they ask for, it can throw you off balance.
That’s where the stories you’ve prepared come in. Think of the one that somehow relates to the question and the pivot, said “Unstuck” author Lia Garvin.
She suggested saying something like, “I didn’t have this exact situation, but in a similar experience where I had this XYZ issue, here’s what I did.” Or “This reminds me of a related situation where we didn’t have a resource constraint, but we had a budget constraint and here’s what I did.”
Another way to handle a question when you have no directly related experience is to explain how you would have manage it.
“Always be sure to build your skills and transferable 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 like, “I haven’t had any experience in this situation; however, with my three years as a people manager, I can tell you that if I were to go through this, it’s is how I would do it.”
You have no idea how many balloons can fit in the room:
Sometimes interviewers ask questions that are a bit off the beaten path. But often the interviewer pays more attention to your approach to solving the problem.
“It shows your problem-solving skills,” Skirboll said. It’s about detailing the questions and information you would need, how you would go about collecting that information, and working out your approach to getting the answer.
If you are asked a mathematical puzzle like how many balloons would fill a room, the interviewer is probably not looking to see if you find the correct number.
“Consulting firms like to ask these kinds of questions to test your logic and how you would approach something entirely new and outside of your expertise. There’s nowhere to hide,” said Marianne Ruggiero, Founder and President of Optima Careers.
She said to work your approach out loud. “Estimate the dimensions of the room, the space to be filled, the average size of the balloons — would you put other people in the room with you and talk about it with them?” she says. “There is no right answer. Have fun and figure it out, they probably have no idea what the answer is.”
You just draw a blank:
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 second,’ look around and collect your thoughts,” Ruggiero said.
You can also save time by repeating the question.
“Repeat the question to the hiring manager, ‘Now let me clear this up: are you asking XXXX?'” Skirboll said. “You make sure you have understood correctly and you can think about your answer.”
But if you say a lot of words without really answering the question, you can call yourself.
“It’s perfectly acceptable to call it in real time, to name the elephant in the room,” says Ruggiero. “It gives the hiring manager the impression that if you make a mistake, you’re self-aware enough to make up for it and big enough to admit you made a mistake and you’re going to fix it. you want to hire someone who will handle errors this way? »
If you really can’t find anything, Garvin suggested offering to go back at the end of the interview. “If you can’t answer the question, try, ‘Nothing comes to mind for this, I’d like to come back to it.'”
You are being asked to share something negative about yourself:
Sometimes interviewers try to throw you a curve ball by asking you about something you’ve struggled with: Your your biggest weakness, a challenge you struggled to overcome, or how you handled a colleague you had trouble getting along with.
“I like to treat this question as an opportunity to share a turnaround story,” Garvin said.
When sharing a story, be sure to highlight what you learned from the situation. For example, Garvin said an example might be a project delayed because you didn’t notify the necessary stakeholders. You can say, “I have since developed the XYZ process to prevent this from happening again next time.”
You find a better answer on your way home:
You’ll always find better answers after you leave the interview, but if you made a mistake or weren’t able to 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-ups to a question you might want to provide or flesh out further.
Ruggiero suggested you could mention that after some thought you want to add more to your application and mention another story.
“You can mention something specific about your background that is directly related to this comment that you didn’t get a chance to present during the interview.”