Impossible Interview Questions, Part 2: Handling Sensitive & Negative Issues

“Impossible” interview questions – like the ones that raise sensitive or negative issues – can blow up in your face if not handled skillfully.

In last week’s post I offered tips for handling various kinds of “impossible” questions, but now let’s take a closer look at answering questions about negatives.

For example, you might be asked to explain a past job that didn’t work out, a long period of unemployment, or your lack of an important qualification.

An unskillful answer to a question like this can destroy your chances of getting an offer.

But here’s the good news: these questions can also be opportunities to demonstrate strengths such as transparency, resilience, and the wisdom you’ve gained from experience.

How can you handle these questions effectively,  defuse the danger, and come through it looking good?

Use the “sandwich” technique: surround the negatives with positives.

“Why did I leave Presto Promotions? Actually, I loved my work there, and I played a key role in many major wins, such as (ultra-brief example or two), which I can tell you more about if you like. Then I was diagnosed with Ravel Syndrome and had to take a year off to recover my health. Last month my doctor said I’m fully recovered and should be fine from now on. I feel great and I’ve been attending conferences and reading a lot to refresh my skills while looking for the right opportunity. I’m very excited about this opening.”

Keep the negative part brief.

See the example above, where the reason for leaving the job takes up only one short sentence. This is important, although of course it can be hard to be brief about something you have strong feelings about.

Questions like “Tell me about a difficult person you had to work with” or “Why do you want to leave your job?” present a strong temptation to kvetch and be commiserated with, particularly when your interviewer has the natural empathy we often see among human resources folks. Resist that urge firmly. Accept any sympathy graciously, but then quickly move on to your skills and the job you’re interviewing for.

Set your feelings aside and speak in an emotionally neutral manner.

This may require that you work through feelings of disappointment, grief or anger ahead of time. Try journaling, talking to a trusted friend, reading self-help books or getting professional help. Your state of mind is crucial to your interview success.

Don’t create negative sound bites.

As author Jeff Haden has written, “Interviewers will only remember a few sound bites, especially negative ones. Avoid statements like “No, I’ve never been in charge of training.’ Instead say, ‘I didn’t fill that specific role, but I have trained dozens of new hires and created several training guides.'” Rather than saying “I haven’t” or “I can’t,” emphasize what you have done and can do.

Plan and practice your answers.

You can practice on your own, but also do mock interviews with someone – a peer or an interview coach – to get outside perspectives and advice.

These tips are from the chapter “How to Answer Any Interview Question” in my book Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview, available as an eBook from iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo, and in paperback too from Amazon.

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.