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.