What to Do If You’re Blindsided by an Interview Question
The interview was going great until it wasn’t. You practiced the customary interview questions, developed a friendly rapport, and nailed every response with poise and humor. Then the hiring manager asked you another question, and it completely blindsided you.
Such questions often center on obscure aspects of the industry, relate to situations you have no experience with, or are some bizarre query wondering how you’d fill a submarine with ping-pong balls. The problem isn’t that these questions are difficult; it’s that you have no idea where to even begin.
When we’re nervous, we tend to be garrulous. This is a common interview mistake, and the first step to regaining control is to determine why the question is being asked.
Hiring managers utilize difficult questions specifically to blindside you. They want to analyze how you react when unrehearsed and under pressure. They won’t elicit that response with the customary questions you’ve already practiced.
Consider the odd request, “Describe yourself in one word.” Impossible, right? People are too complex to be whittled into a single word. Any answer you give will be, at best, a half-truth.
But the hiring manager isn’t looking for that perfect word—in fact, most blindsiding questions don’t have one correct answer. She wants to see your creativity, your thought process, and whether you’re compatible with the company culture. You can use that understanding to generate a quality answer.
Smile, and take your time
Start your response with a genuine smile. Smiling shows you are unflappable and in control. Some studies have even suggest that smiling influences your emotional state, so putting on a grin—even if you’re forcing it a bit—may settle your nerves. A good, deep breath can help, too.
Next, be upfront about your need for time. Tell the hiring manager, “That’s a fascinating question. Let me mull it over.” Something along those lines. This shows you aren’t going to give a rote response, but are truly consider your best answer.
Forming your response
Unless the question is out of bounds, you should respond. Since good answers are often more about how you respond than what you say, good answers will share certain key elements:
- They demonstrate your emotional intelligence.
- They aren’t acts of misdirection.
- They show you can think critically and solve problems.
- They relate back to your skills and qualifications.
- They connect with the company’s culture or mission.
Nor does your answer have to be one-sided. Engaging in a dialogue with the hiring manager shows interest and active listening. Her responses may also give you insights in how to answer this and future questions.
Answering the impossible
But what if you can’t answer the question? For example, the hiring manager asks you about a skill you don’t have or a process you aren’t familiar with. This is an interview fear for many, but there is a graceful way out.
First, don’t lie. You’ll be found out, either during the interview or after you are hired. Neither is great for your reputation or prospects with this employer. Instead, be honest. Say you’re still developing that skill or haven’t heard of that process.
Then redirect toward the skills and qualifications you have. Note how you worked with a similar process at your last job and are always researching new concepts and finding mentors to help you improve your craft.
No hiring manager expects you to know everything, and every company does things differently. Displaying a willingness to learn will impress more than a feint to hide your ignorance.
Finding opportunities on the blindside
When you’re blindsided by an interview question, your flight-or-fight response will naturally kick in. Some of us will want to run out of the room in panic, others will want to display a recalcitrant attitude. Neither will do you much good.
By taking a breath, smiling, and meeting the challenge with enthusiasm, you can ace this interview and show why you are exactly the person they want for the position.