It comes out of nowhere.
The interview’s humming along. You’re connecting with the other person, smoothly fielding questions, when…BOOM!
Your interviewer hits you with the 1 QUESTION that you can’t easily answer.
The problem question.
And there’s a pause while your mind races, trying to formulate something, anything…and can’t. And the awkwardness increases as your interviewer realizes you’re stuck, and YOU know you’re stuck, and so the misstep quickly spirals into a major gaffe.
Or does it?
Step 1: Don’t Internalize the Question
In psychotherapist Russ Harris’s book The Happiness Trap, he talks about the difference between “fusing” with a thought and treating it as if it were gospel, versus “defusing” a thought by putting it into a different perspective. Interview questions can be handled in a similar way.
Let’s say an interviewer asks you about the unusually long work gaps in your work history between 2013 and 2016, and you have no real answer at the ready. DON’T make the mistake of fusing with the question and internalizing it! Instead, tell yourself, “Oh look, here’s the question about the work gap.” Just by consciously taking this step, you’re putting things into perspective. This isn’t a make-or-break moment, or some kind of summary judgment on your character. It’s just an interview question, one of many.
One jobseeker client of mine who used this technique gained the perspective necessary to jot down exactly what she was doing on 3 separate work gaps, slide it over, and briefly describe each to the interviewer. Problem solved.
Step 2: Turn it into a Collaboration
Inviting your interviewer into the problem-solving process is crucial for two reasons: it reduces the overall stakes (important) and it makes finding a satisfactory answer much more likely.
Let’s say you’re asked a complex question about the technicals behind a major initiative you led. Or let’s say you’re being pressed to defend your capabilities as leader of global development teams. Start by acknowledging the difficulty, and if there’s a level of comfort there, treat it with some humor!
After that, you can do one of the following:
-Say “Now let me see if I have this right…” and re-state the question, inviting more details from your interviewer. This is a great way to buy yourself some time.
-The other option is to ask, “Can we brainstorm on this for a second?” and slide over a piece of paper/walk over to the whiteboard and write down the particulars, inviting input from your interviewer in the process.
Step 3: Pivot to Value
There is no better way to bounce back from a difficult interview moment than to share a story, without prompting, that provides immense value. I recommend developing a few specific stories from your career that showcase key accomplishments. I would also recommend having at least one PERSONAL story in your back pocket that reveals something about your character, something no one could glean by glancing at your Resume or LinkedIn Profile. That way, you can immediately pivot after a difficult interview moment and share a story that re-affirms what an amazing candidate you are. Handling difficulty in such a way is known as poise, and it can really impress during hiring situations