When You Get Stumped By an Interview Question

You are at a job interview.  It is going well, but then they ask the question that stops you in your tracks.  You weren’t expecting this question, and suddenly all of your prepared answers fly out of your head.  How can you overcome this challenge?

The first step is to understand why this particular question took you off guard.  There are various reasons that a question could surprise you:

The question could be designed to challenge you.   Some questions are designed to surprise you.  The interviewer knows that you prepared for the interview.  They hope that by taking you outside of your comfort zone, they will get an honest answer instead of a packaged response.

The employer could be using language in a different way.  Each organization has its own jargon.  For example, depending on your organization, you could be working to serve customers, patrons, clients, or members.  You probably know exactly what they are talking about, but they are using a word in a way that is not familiar to you.

You may not be experienced in that particular area.  The employer may be asking about an area where your experience is limited.  However, there are always ways to apply the experience that you do have.

Now that you know why the question may be challenging for you, how can you handle it effectively?

Relax.  Stay calm.  This may be a test to see how you handle stress.  Don’t get upset, angry, or frustrated.  Take a deep breath and relax your mind so that you can work on the problem.

Ask them to clarify the question.  Don’t be afraid to ask them to rephrase or clarify the question.  You may just be having difficulty with the way that the question is worded.  Most interviewers will be happy to clarify, and it is best to make sure that you understand the question before you attempt to answer it.

Look over your resume.  Sometimes if you look over your resume, an answer may come to you.  Reviewing your resume reminds you of all of your past experience and education, and looking at your resume gives you a break from the interviewer’s piercing gaze. 

Ask to come back to the question later.  If you truly are stumped, it is acceptable for you to ask to return to the question later on in the interview.  This allows you time to relax, and it gives you the opportunity to think about your answer.

The interviewer can potentially stump you with any number of interview questions, but here are a few examples of questions that are designed to take you off guard:

What type of work do you try to avoid?  This question is trying to assess your flexibility, and your attitude.  Choose something that is totally unrelated to the position.

If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?  This question is trying to assess your values, your ability to problem solve, and possibly your sense of humour.  Smile, and choose an animal that would be the best fit for the position.

Who was your least favourite manager and why?  This is a trap.  They are trying to get you to speak negatively about one of your previous supervisors.  Don’t fall for it.  First, stress that you are able to work with all kinds of people.  If they push you on this question, give an example of a conflict that you had with a manager, and how it was resolved.  Just make sure that the example shows both you and your manager in a positive light, and that it highlights your flexibility and interpersonal skills.

A situational question where the interviewer puts you in an impossible situation and asks what you would do…  This question is assessing your ability to problem solve, and also your ability to handle the challenges of the position.  Use examples from your previous experience.  There is no perfect answer here.

When you are stumped at an interview, remember that many of the other applicants will have difficulty with the same question.  What will set you apart is how you recover from being surprised, and rise to the challenge.

(Written by: Karen Bivand)


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