Even if you’ve prepared for hours, a question can come out of the blue and leave you stumped.
But you don’t want to let one fumble derail your entire interview. Here’s how to handle tough questions, and recover from the ones that throw 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 experiences.
Interviewers are going to want to hear about how you’ve handled tough situations or problems in your previous roles. But if you don’t have that specific experience they’re asking about, it can throw you off your game.
Here’s where those stories you’ve prepared come into play. Think of one that sort of relates to the question and pivot, said Lia Garvin, author of “Unstuck.”
She suggested saying something like: “I haven’t had that exact situation, but in a similar experience where I had this XYZ issue, here is 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 don’t have any directly related experience is explain how you would handle it.
“Always make sure to reinforce your skills and your transferable skills based on what you have done and what you’re wanting to do with this new job,” said Sara Skirboll, vice president of communications at CareerBuilder.
She suggested saying something along the lines of: “I haven’t had experience in that situation; however, with my three years of being a people manager I can tell you that if I were to experience that, this is how I would handle it.”
You have no idea how many balloons can fit in the room:
Sometimes interviewers ask questions that are a little outside of the box. But often, the interviewer is paying more attention to your approach to solving the problem.
“It is showing your problem-solving skills,” said Skirboll. It’s about detailing what questions and information you would need, how you would go about collecting that information and working through your approach to getting to the answer.
If you’re asked a mathematical brainteaser like how many balloons would fill up a room, the interviewer likely isn’t looking to see if you come up with the exact right number.
“Consulting firms like to ask these kinds of questions to test for how logically you think and how you would approach something entirely new and outside your expertise. There’s nowhere to hide,” said Marianne Ruggiero, founder and president of Optima Careers.
She said to work through your approach out loud. “Guesstimate the dimensions of the room, the space to be filled, the average balloon size — would you put some other people in the room with you and talk about it with them?” she said. “There’s no right answer. Have fun with it and work it out, most likely they have no idea what the answer is.”
You’re just drawing 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 that for a second,’ look up and around and gather your thoughts,” said Ruggiero.
You can also buy yourself some time by repeating the question.
“Repeat the question back to the hiring manager: ‘Now let me get this straight: Are you asking XXXX?'” said Skirboll. “You are making sure you got it right and you can think through your answer.”
But if you are saying a lot of words without actually answering the question, you can call yourself out.
“It is perfectly acceptable to call it out in real time, name the elephant in the room,” says Ruggiero. “It makes the hiring manager feel that if you make a mistake you are self-aware enough to catch yourself and big enough to admit that you’ve made a mistake and will fix it. Wouldn’t you want to hire a person who will handle mistakes that way?”
If you really can’t come up with anything, Garvin suggested proposing to circle back at the end of the interview. “If you cannot answer the question, try: ‘Nothing’s coming to mind for that, I’d love to come back to it.'”
You’re asked to share something negative about yourself:
Sometimes interviewers try to throw you a curveball by asking you about something you struggled with: Your biggest weakness, a challenge you found difficult to overcome, or how you handled a colleague you found hard to get along with.
“I like to treat this question as an opportunity to share a turnaround story,” said Garvin.
When sharing a story, be sure to emphasize what you’ve learned from the situation. For instance, Garvin said an example could be a project getting delayed because you didn’t notify the necessary stakeholders. You can say: “I have since developed XYZ process to prevent that from happening next time.”
You come up with a better answer on your way home:
You are always going to come up with better answers after you’ve left the interview, but if you did make a mistake or weren’t able to answer a question, let your thank you email pull double duty.
An after-the-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 more.
Ruggiero suggested you can mention that upon further reflection you want to add more to your candidacy and mention another story.
“You can mention something specific about your background that directly relates to that comment that you didn’t have a chance in the interview to lay it out.”