What To Do — And Not Do — When A Job Interviewer Asks You A Tricky Question

Or an unexpected or uncomfortable question.

What To Do — And Not Do — When A Job Interviewer Asks You A Tricky Question

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published here on Ellen Fondiler's blog, Unlocked.)

In GRAB BAG, Ellen Fondiler shares extra stories, discoveries and gems that don’t quite “fit” anywhere else on her blog — but are too good not to share. Kind of like a piñata or a mystery box: you never know what’s going to be inside! Enjoy!

I love politics — SCANDAL is my all-time favorite TV show for a reason! — and I’ve been watching the debates with total fascination.

Politicians do a ton of preparation to get ready for these debates. The hire brilliant researchers and speechwriters, they rehearse their arguments and counter-arguments, and they try to anticipate the types of objections (and personal jabs) that might come from their competitors. After all, they’re appearing in front of the entire nation—the pressure is sky-high!

Yet despite all of that careful preparation, occasionally, someone will ask a question—or make an accusation — that completely catches a politician off guard. You can almost see the panic creeping into his or her eyes as they think, “OH SNAP. What should I say in response to THAT?”

It’s really interesting to watch different politicians “bounce back” from a tough question, a mistake, a bungled statement, or a “deer in the headlights” moment. Some politicians bounce back effortlessly and move on with confidence. Others flounder desperately, stammer, freeze, and lose their audience’s faith and respect—in an instant.

How about you?

How do you handle tricky, unexpected or uncomfortable questions during a job interview, a performance review, a chat with a potential client, and other career-shaping conversations?

Do you freeze? Make apologies? Make excuses? Stutter? Avoid the question? Gracefully redirect the conversation?

Inspired by the recent presidential debates—and my past experiences as a company director and hiring manager—here are my tips on how to maintain your composure and leave your listener feeling impressed, even if you get side-slammed with a very tricky question:

DO NOT be defensive.

If someone asks a question that rattles you (Like, “How come you never finished college?” or “How come you’ve had seven jobs in the last five years? Can we count on you to stay here, or will you leave this company too?”) your initial instinct might be to go “on the defensive.” You might feel stressed, angry, or hurt. Physically, your body might start releasing neurotransmitters that signal “panic!”

Take a deep breath. Try not to be defensive. Try to answer the question in a calm, matter of fact tone. (A helpful tip: pretend that the person asking the question is a kind, caring mentor who wants the best for you. This person isn’t out to “get” you or “hurt” you. She’s just curious about you.)

DO NOT make excuses.

If someone asks, “Why did you leave that job?” or “Why were your sales so low that quarter?” or “Why did you drop the ball on this project? What happened?” do not make excuses—even if your excuses are somewhat valid.

Don’t say, “My dog died and I was totally spaced out that week…” or “Amy never got back to me!” or “The email went into my Spam folder!”

Those kinds of responses usually just make you sound whiny, unreliable, or unmotivated—someone who passively allows problems to unfold rather than taking decisive action to fix things! (That’s not you!)

DO accept responsibility.

It’s rare—and inspiring—to interact with someone who accepts full responsibility for his or her past actions.

If you made a mistake, say, ”I made a mistake.”

If you were wrong about something, say, ”I thought ___ but I was wrong. I’ve since learned that ___.”

If you dropped the ball, say, ”I dropped the ball. I ___ and I’ve learned from that mistake. Next time I will ___.”

Be straightforward and direct. Take responsibility, then explain how things will be different going forward.

Whether it’s a presidential candidate—or a potential employee—we’re all human and we all make mistakes. No one is perfect. But when someone owns up to a mistake and doesn’t try to dance away from the truth or assign blame to someone else? That’s quite unusual—and it shows deep integrity and character.

I hope you enjoy watching the rest of the presidential media interviews, debates and speeches.

Study the people who grip your attention, who impress you, and who immediately earn your trust. What are they doing “right” that their peers are missing?

There’s a lot you can learn from watching the pros. If nothing else, you’ll see that even the “pros” can occasionally get thrown off guard, freeze, stammer, or fumble during an important conversation—but it’s how you “recover” and move on that really counts.

Find great work. Do great work. Unlock every door in your way.

Read more on Unlocked here.