Your mama probably taught you: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
Remaining positive in your interactions is an important skill to hone, especially when it comes to job interviews. Being a Negative Nancy or a Pessimistic Peter can create a bad impression on the interviewer. As much as possible, you want to steer the conversation toward upbeat, positive and optimistic topics, and away from complaints and criticisms.
But that can be difficult to do when the questions being asked are inherently negative in nature. For example, consider a question like this:
“Tell me one thing you really didn’t like about your last job.”
Tough to put a positive spin on a question like that! However, it’s possible.
Strong interviewees will recognize a question like this for what it is—a trap—and they won’t fall into it. They also won’t resist answering it, since that can come off as difficult, ill-prepared or suspicious. Instead, they’ll provide a thoughtful, well-crafted answer.
Here are some simple strategies to help you answer these kinds of tricky interview questions without falling into a negativity spiral.
Focus on Improvements
Always try to turn any negative into a positive by focusing on what you did to improve the situation. For example, a great response to the question posed above might be:
“When I first started in my last position, the role was very undefined, so expectations were vague. That made it difficult to know how I was doing. I spent the first few months working with stakeholders around the organization to get clear on what was really needed and to define some specific success measurements. I felt good when I left because the next person now has a clear job description and targets to meet.”
Focus on Things (Not People)
The worst way to answer a negative question is to get personal. Even if the interviewer wants to know something you didn’t like about a past manager, you can still avoid talking about the person by focusing on the job itself, technology, aspects of certain procedures, and so on. Again, do your best to shift the focus onto something you did to help or improve the situation.
For example, a solid response might be:
“My manager did the best she could, given the difficult circumstances we were working with. Due to the recent merger, I could tell she was overwhelmed. She had a lot to learn in a short period of time. I actually volunteered to take over some of her regular reporting duties just so she could focus on learning the technology. She was able to get up to speed much faster without having to juggle the operational tasks too.”
No matter what, do not be lured into discussing interpersonal dynamics. Interviewers always know it takes two to tango.
Avoid Firey Language
Your word choice has a big impact on how your message is received. Steer clear of emotionally-charged phrases; your goal is to show you were invested, not emotional.
For example, never talk about “hating” anyone or anything. Don’t say something drove you crazy or made you mad. These terms are red flags for the listener.
Interviewers may even try to pressure you by saying things like, “That sounds infuriating!” or “Wow, you must have been so angry.” You can always correct them and soften it up a bit. For example, “It was a frustrating situation, but I knew my manager was doing her best.”
Don’t let negative questions trick you into sharing the wrong kind of information in the interview. With a little forethought, you can still stay positive, even while answering the question truthfully.