Saturday, 14 April 2012

Interview Preparation: What to Do When You Can't Answer a Question

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Interviews are all about questions and answers; whether it is your question to the interviewer or a question that they are posing to you. It is a simple process in those terms. However, I want to discuss what happens when you can’t answer one of the interviewer’s questions (or at least not straight away). In an interview, I was once asked ‘I want a red ladder, not just any type of red ladder, but one that is a certain red colour e.g. crimson. How would you get one?’ I wasn’t expecting a question like that and my initial thought was that I wasn’t sure how I would – under pressure I said the first answer that came into my head. Had I of done my interview preparation I would have been able to give a better answer to reveal my competence. Therefore, being nervous in an interview and having the added pressure of answering all the questions, and to answer them well, can be a daunting experience. So I’m going to provide a few tips below to help anyone who may land themselves in the same situation I was in.

Why is the question difficult to answer?

Firstly, you need to establish why can’t answer the question, do you not understand what the interviewer means. For example, I could have asked ‘What do you mean by red ladder?’ as it is important to fully understand the question in order to give a good answer. A good answer will consist of multiple answers to show off problem solving skills, ‘I would buy a ladder from B&Q and paint it red, alternatively I would check out company contacts and connections, failing that I would a colleague what they would do. Therefore, don’t worry about asking questions like ‘What do you mean?’ if it means you can you can provide a better answer.

How can I buy myself more time to answer a question?

You can understand a question and still not know the answer. It is not recommended to answer your interviewer with ‘I don’t know’, because you will look incompetent. Instead, if you buy yourself sometime you may be able to produce a good enough answer.

Simple ways of doing this would be to ask the interviewer to repeat the question. In doing so, they may as well elaborate on the question, giving you more of a chance to think. Furthermore, don’t be afraid of taking a few seconds to think about your answer before you reply. Nerves can sometimes get the better of you in situations where you may feel under pressure. So keep calm and take a few seconds to think before you respond.

What is the best way to deal with questions I initially can’t answer?

  • Quickly establish why you can’t answer the question.
  • Remain calm and don’t feel pressured to respond quickly.
  • If you believe it will help, you can ask the interviewer at the start of the interview whether you can take notes. This may help you either to understand the question or to have a reminder of the question when you’re giving your answer.

For more advice on interview answers, check out my previous blog post on how to give STAR answers -

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