How to Answer Impossible Interview Questions, Part 1

What do you do when you’re asked an “impossible” interview question – one that stops you in your tracks?

That was the issue raised by a job seeker I was coaching today – let’s call him Peter. “I get asked a question and I just can’t answer it. I’m stuck.”

He had discussed the issue with his colleague, Paula, who had said “I’m never asked a question I can’t answer.” Did Paula mean that she knows everything – is that why she’s never at a loss? Nope. Paula just knows that there’s always a way to answer the question.

Here are several ways to deal with a moment when you feel stuck in an interview.

Look behind the question. Ask yourself “What is their concern behind this question?” For example, if they’re asking about your weaknesses, their concern is about whether you have an open and constructive attitude about your weaknesses, and whether you’re self-aware and able to take steps to improve your own performance.

Look for the positive. Almost any answer can sell you for the job. For example, if you have to tell about a mistake you made, you can talk about how you corrected it, how you minimized the damage, what you learned from it and how that learning improved your performance afterwards.

Get clear. If you don’t fully understand the question, ask for clarification.

Get centered. If you feel panicky or blank, take a breath before doing anything else.

If it’s a puzzle question, think out loud. Questions like “Are there two non-bald people in New York with the same number of hairs on their heads?” are about your thought processes, problem-solving skills and ability to handle a curve ball without getting flustered. How you address the question may be more important than your answer.

If you’ve forgotten the question, ask them to repeat it. This doesn’t look great but it’s better than guessing what the question was and therefore giving an answer that’s way off target. Next time, make a point of listening carefully and perhaps mentally repeating each question they ask, to get it firmly in mind before starting to answer.

Buy yourself time to think. If you just need a bit more time to think, restate the question or the last few words of it. “So you’d like me to talk about time when…”

As a last resort, table it. Ask if you can come back to the question later. With any luck, either you’ll think of an answer later in the interview, or they’ll forget to ask again. Maybe you’ll think of a great answer after you’ve left and you can include it in your thank you note.

Prepare ahead of time for any “danger zones.” There’s one category of “impossible interview questions” that deserves a whole article: questions that probe  significant negatives, such as your lack of a certain important qualification, whether/why you were fired, a job that didn’t work out or a long period of unemployment. Read next week’s post to learn how to handle problem questions like these so your interview stays on track toward getting the offer.

Why did you leave that job? The Most Common Interview Questions, #3

How do you answer the interview question, “Why did you leave that job?”

This post is the third in a series of excerpts from my upcoming eBook, Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview, to be published January 1, 2017. You can pre-order it as an eBook now or get the softcover in January.

Does your departure indicate a problem that could derail your interview?

If you left and immediately started a new job, it’s no problem: you left for a better opportunity (or what you thought was a better opportunity, even if it didn’t work out).

On the other hand, leaving without a new job lined up is generally a red flag, so this question is tricky.

The key is this: although one reason may dominate in your mind – probably the most emotional one, such as a personality conflict or issue with the boss – usually there are more reasons. List them all on a piece of paper. Then see which of these reasons makes the best impression.

Here’s an example.

Joe quit his job for the following reasons: (1) his boss was a micromanager, (2) the company, a hospital, had toxic office politics, (3) the circumstances made it difficult or impossible to move up into a better department, (4) he couldn’t stay until he found a new job because the job left him no time or energy for job search, and (5) he also had an itch to move into the pharmaceutical industry.

Reasons 1 and 2 are a minefield that would be hard to discuss without presenting himself as a complainer who badmouths his former employer. But he doesn’t need to go there; he can build a truthful answer out of reasons 3-5:

“While Bayworth Hospital is a great institution in terms of patient care, and I had three excellent years there, with strong accomplishments like the ones we’ve discussed, there really wasn’t a path upward for me there any more (reason #3). It was time to leave and pursue my longtime interest in pharmaceutical companies (#5) like this one. The job was intensely demanding and it didn’t leave me the energy to conduct a search. (#4) So I gave notice, helped the department make a smooth transition, and then left to devote myself to a full-time process of transitioning into doing what I’m most passionate about.”

Why does this answer work? Because it’s true, tactful, brief (30 seconds) and focused on the positive. It’s also a great example of the “sandwich technique”: surrounding a negative (the fact that he left) with positives (his respect for the hospital in certain ways, his accomplishments and his passion for the current opportunity).

What if Joe had been fired? In a past chapter I said “Never volunteer a negative.” Joe doesn’t need to say he was fired, unless specifically asked. His answer could be the same as above, with a slightly different ending:

“…It was time to leave and pursue my longtime interest in pharmaceutical companies like this one. Since then I’ve devoted myself to a full-time process of transitioning into doing what I’m most passionate about.”

Because this subject is emotionally charged for Joe, he would be wise to rehearse this answer with great care. He also needs to be prepared for the likelihood the interviewer will ask additional questions that will reveal that he was fired. Then what? I’ve discussed this in an earlier blog post.

What other interview questions are you wondering about?

Stay tuned as I explore more of the most common interview questions. The next post is about the question “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?”

What’s Your 5-Year Goal? The Most Common Interview Questions, #2

What's Your 5-Year Goal? The Most Common Interview Questions, #2“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

How do you answer this common interview question?

This post is the second in a series of excerpts from my upcoming book, Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Job Interview, to be published January 1, 2017. You can pre-order it as an eBook now, or get the softcover in January.

What’s behind this interview question?

Why do interviewers ask you this? For one thing, they want to know whether the job aligns with your goals, and thus whether you’ll stick around. They may also be hoping you have some ambition. Ambitious people often make better employees. They’re more motivated, and they may work harder and smarter. They make a point of growing their abilities.

On the other hand, those who come in with their eye on a higher position and view the current role only as a stepping stone may be impatient and lack commitment to the tasks at hand.

So give an answer that combines a desire to grow, on the one hand, with realism, patience and commitment on the other.

Before the interview, see if you can find information about paths to advancement from within the position. If the only position you can advance to is that of the person you’re interviewing with, proceed with care! He probably won’t like the idea that you have your eye on his job, so just talk about growing and taking on more responsibility.

In most cases you won’t have much information, in which case it’s safest to start with a general answer followed by a question, like this:

“Over the next few years I see myself building my skills, taking on more responsibility and moving up, if it’s appropriate. Can you tell me about how others have advanced from this role?”

Although the question often includes the phrase “five years,” you don’t have to be that precise in your answer. More open-ended terms like “over the next several years” may be best.

What other interview questions are you wondering about?

Keep reading this blog as we examine some of the most common interview questions, what they’re about, and how to answer them in a way that’s authentic, strategic and gets you the offer. Next up: “Why Did You Leave That Job?” And remember there’s a lot more help in my book!

What Are Your Weaknesses? The Most Common Interview Questions, #1

This post is the first in a series of excerpts from my book, Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Job Interview, about giving effective answers to the most common interview questions.

How do you answer the interview question “What’s your biggest weakness?”

In most cases, the interviewer isn’t just asking this to find out if there’s a weakness that would disqualify you. They’re even more interested in finding out whether you’re self-aware and willing to openly discuss your shortcomings, which would indicate that you probably take feedback well. And they want to hear that you are committed to continually improving your skills.

With that in mind, try talking about…

…a weakness that’s closely connected to one of your greatest strengths. For example, if you’re great at relationship-building and that’s crucial to the job you’re applying for, you might mention that you sometimes spend more time listening to a client or co-worker than you intended to. (But if it really isn’t a weakness at all, it will sound evasive and insincere, so pick something else.)

…an “elephant in the room” weakness that’s already very noticeable to the employer – such as having less experience than they would prefer – so you have nothing to lose by bringing it up.

…a weakness you have largely overcome or that you compensate for very successfully.

No matter what weakness you bring up, keep it brief and spend more time talking about how you’re overcoming it than about what a problem it is. And avoid words like “weakness” and “problem” in your answer. Use more positive words like “challenge,” “growing edge” and “area where I’m growing.”

Of course, don’t bring up a weakness that would cause them to seriously doubt you can do the job.

Realize that certain answers – especially “I’m a perfectionist” and “I work too hard” – have been used so often they’ve become clichés and should be avoided, unless you can put a fresh spin on them.

The next installment of “The Most Common Interview Questions” will help you with the question “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

“Why do you want to leave your job?” (Interview Question)

Why do you want to leave your job? (Interview Question)Why you want to leave – this interview question is a minefield if your mind immediately goes to places like: My boss is a micromanager. The politics are toxic. The company is broken.

How can you answer this question in a job interview without sounding like a whining bad-mouther?

Some reasons for leaving are easier to talk about:

  • You like your current job, and are only interviewing because you saw another opportunity too exciting to resist.
  • You are successful in your current job but wish to make a career change that your current company can’t offer you – e.g., a shift into a different industry.
  • There is no path for advancement from your current role.
  • You need to relocate to a different city or state, and your current company can’t transfer you.

It’s more difficult if you’re leaving because of a problem – that the company is poorly managed, your boss is difficult, or such. It’s ironic that while the number one reason most people quit jobs is because of their bosses, that’s the last reason you can safely talk about in an interview. And it’s poor practice to criticize your current company, especially if you would be revealing issues that are not publicly know

Here’s an approach that will help.

When you really think about it, there are probably several reasons you’re leaving, not just one. Look at the four examples in the bulleted list above – do some of those apply? And what else? Make a list of all the reasons – “Why will I leave thee? Let me count the ways!” – and then craft an answer focused on the reasons that present you in a good light.

Now, you’re still basically talking about a negative – that you want to leave your job – so surround it with positives: the successes you have had there, what you have learned, and the reasons why you’re excited about the new opportunity.

“This job was my first foray into tech, and that was a great step for me. I’ve learned a lot about what customers want in an app. And I’ve learned that while I’m good at project management, I’m even better at understanding the customer. I want to move into a customer success role like this one. This opening is ideal for me because…”

(And they never need to know about your boss’s lousy management style!)

Watch for future posts focusing on other tricky job interview questions such as “Were you ever fired? Why?”

Interview Question: What Are Your Weaknesses?

Interview Question: What's Your Weakness?Some of the trickiest job interview questions are the ones about your weaknesses. Questions like these can make you feel a little paranoid!

  • “What is your biggest weakness in your work?”
  • “What are three areas in which your supervisor wants/wanted you to improve?”
  • “What’s your growing edge – what do you wish you could do better?”
  • “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

Why are they asking this?

While it is always possible a candidate will reveal a deal-breaking issue, thus saving the employer thousands of dollars by avoiding a bad hire, I don’t believe this is most interviewers’ primary motivation.

Employers know you’re not perfect. What they don’t know is whether you are coachable, whether you take feedback well, whether you’re self-aware enough and motivated enough to see what you can improve – and actually improve it. Can you turn your weaknesses into strengths, or at least effectively work around them to get the job done superbly?

Tips for planning a good answer to interview questions about weaknesses:

  • Talk about a weakness you’re handling really well, or a skill you’re currently improving. If you can be specific about how you’re improving it – e.g., “I’m taking a class at UC Berkeley Extension” or “My manager wrote great things about this in my recent performance evaluation” – all the better.
  • Sandwich a weakness between strengths. Notice that the answer above starts and ends with positive results.
  • Mention a weakness you’ve largely overcome already. If you take this approach, be careful not to sound like you’re dodging the question. Be authentic.
  • Address a weakness the employer is already well aware of, for example lack of a certain qualification, while making the case for your ability to obtain that qualification and/or excel without it.
  • Name a skill you lack that is so cutting edge that the very fact that you’re concerned about it shows that you set high standards for yourself.
  • Don’t disqualify yourself by bringing up a weakness that casts serious doubt on your ability to do the job. For example, if you’re interviewing for a job as a project manager, don’t say you lack assertiveness.

Try out your answer on a friend or an interview coach, and ask for feedback. Does your answer to “What’s your weakness?” show that you’re a mature professional who knows he/she is not perfect but is constantly growing and gets great results?

Interview Questions: Remember to Read Between the Lines!

interview questionsInterviewers know better than to directly ask “Are you easy to manage?” or “Do you get along well with others?”

Instead, they’ll say something like this:

“How would you describe your ideal supervisor?”

Then they’ll read between the lines.

So beat them to it: read between the lines of what they say, and make sure you address that subtext, as well as the question on the surface.

Ask yourself two questions about each question:

  • What is she trying to find out by asking that?
  • How can I sell myself with my answer while still being authentically “me”?

With the “ideal supervisor” question, for example, the interviewer is not trying to find out how the company can choose the right supervisor for you. They’re probably not looking for input on how the existing supervisor can best work with you, either. They want to “read” your answer for insights on how you work with a boss.

Most candidates, if they don’t think much about it, will say something like this:

“My ideal supervisor would be someone who is very fair, always available for questions, and gives clear guidance but doesn’t micromanage.”

This answer is clear and true – both important qualities – but it doesn’t address what the interviewer is really interested in, and it does nothing to sell you. In fact, it may make you sound hard to please. A better answer would show that you perform well with various types of supervisors, ideal or not.

Here’s another common question:

“Tell me about a time you had to  work with a difficult person.”

What are they trying to find out? They want to know about your willingness and ability to deal with difficult behaviors and achieve great results nonetheless. They want to know specifically how you have done this. They also may be testing you to see whether you are fair and discreet in what you say about others.

How are you going to remember, right there in the interview, to identify what the interviewer is looking for? By preparing and practicing. Look up lists of common interview questions in advance, analyze them and practice your answers.

Even if the interviewer asks totally different questions than you prepared for – as they will – you’ll “wing it” more effectively because you will have internalized the skill and the habit of approaching interview questions strategically.