Tackling difficult questions in a job interview: 3 great strategies to stay on top

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Have you ever been stumped by a question during a job interview? It can be embarrassing. If you didn’t get the job, you might still be wondering whether this was the factor that made you lose the opportunity.

If you’re preparing for another job interview, here are a few tips to help you minimize the chances of getting stumped again:

  1. Use three steps

    Nerves can get in the way of understanding the interviewer. Another thing could be the language. The interviewer might use some idioms or Canadianisms you’re not familiar with or they might speak too fast. The best way to hurdle this is to employ these three steps:

    • Focus on certain words – Listen well and pay attention to “content words”. These are words that are stressed and are usually spoken louder and longer. Focusing on them will help you better understand what they’re saying.
    • Take a deep breath and pause for two to four seconds – Take a moment to “absorb” the question after it is given. This will show the interviewer that you are being thoughtful in crafting your answer. It will also set you in the right frame of mind before you respond.
    • Answer honestly.
  2. Be clear about what is being asked

    Repeat the question to clarify. This is a good step to add when you are asked a particularly difficult question. This does two things – ensure that you got the question right and give you time to think of an answer.

    You can either rephrase the question or ask the interviewer to explain it further. You can say: “So, to put it in another way, what you’re asking is …?” or “I’m sorry but I’m not exactly sure what you meant by your question. Would you mind giving me a bit more clarification?”

  3. Prepare a list of situations

    The toughest questions during a job interview are often situational or behavioural questions. These require providing specific work situations that illustrate your soft skills. To anticipate this, take note of the most important skills needed for the job you’re applying for (check the job ad), then make a list of past work situations where you displayed such skills. These could be situations where you solved a problem, achieved something noteworthy despite obstacles, overcame a weakness, or made a mistake (don’t forget to explain how you reacted and learned from it). Also think of instances where you displayed leadership or worked with a team.

    Format your answers using the STAR technique – Situation, Task, Action and Result. Remember to answer only what is asked and don’t provide unnecessary details. Having this list ready before the interview will boost your confidence and get you ready to provide great answers.

I’m stumped!

What do you do when you don’t have an answer or if you’ve run out of experiences to share?

Never say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have an experience in mind”. You will be throwing away a perfectly good opportunity to show that you have the skills for the job. You can choose to:

  • Get back to it – You can say something like “That’s a really tough question. I would need a few moments to think about it. Would you mind if we put a pin on it and go back to it later?” This will give you time to think without stopping the interview altogether.
  • Share a related experience – Think back on your list of significant job experiences and choose a situation that shows that you have a related skill or displayed the behavior nearest to the one that the interviewer is looking for. It may not answer the question directly but it may get you points for the related skill (or for at least trying!).
  • Make it your homework – If you really can’t come up with an answer, you can say “This question has stumped me. May I give you an answer later in the day via email?” Make sure to get the interviewer’s email address and send a well-researched and perfectly crafted answer. This will show the interviewer that you’re the kind of person who will never give up when faced with a challenge.

Sources: Situational interview questions and answers, The Balance; Answering tough questions in the moment, Pamela Ziemann, Everette Community College; 7 techniques to answer job interview questions that stump you, Interview Success Formula; and #1 secret to answering hard job interview questions, Work It Daily (YouTube video). Accessed October 16, 2020.

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Community Resources

Need more tips to come up with brilliant job interview answers? Read: The most common job interview questions you should prepare for.

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