Grace Under Fire: How to Respond to Tough Job Interview Questions

man sitting in suit with arms folded in front of him looking confused

It’s one of the biggest sources of anxiety when you’re on the job market: being faced with tough interview questions that you aren’t quite sure how to answer. It can feel like being in a pressure cooker, where every gesture, every word, every idea you convey is under the most intense scrutiny. And, if you’re applying to a job that you’re really excited about and truly think is the best fit for you, the stakes can seem even higher.

Before your next job interview, take some time to prepare for the “what if” situation of being faced with difficult, tricky, or intimidating questions, and arm yourself with a few fail-safe strategies for staying calm and poised when you feel your candidacy hanging in the balance:

Watch your body language

Pay attention to the non-verbal cues you’re giving off… throughout the entire interview but especially when you’re put on the spot with a tough question. How you present yourself in a difficult situation when you’re not entirely comfortable can reveal a great deal about your character and your ability to perform under pressure, all things that potential employers would be interested in.

So, oftentimes, it’s not about knowing the right answer to every question, but showing that you can keep it together even when you’re a little unsure of yourself. Keep your arms open, maintain good eye contact, refrain from fidgeting of any sort, and try to appear as calm and “un-rattled” as possible, even if you’re quaking on the inside.

Want more tips on body language for the job interview? Check out our article dedicated to the subject here.

Don’t panic

This also has a lot to do with appearances and the way you come across in a tough situation. Do you cave and crumble under pressure, or can you remain calm, thoughtful, and pleasant when faced with an uncomfortable line of questioning? One of the best ways to keep from panicking is to prepare a few standard responses before the interview, so that you know exactly what strategy to employ when you’re asked something you don’t know the answer to.

For example, you may respond by asking your interviewer questions, such as, “Just so I fully understand what you’re referring to, can you unpack that question a little more?” or “Can you explain a little more what you’re looking for?”

Another way to calm your nerves is to take a brief pause. Don’t rush to answer a question just to fill the silence. Take a moment to gather your thoughts -- you’ll actually come across as a more thoughtful, precise thinker if you take your time. Plus, the pause will actually give you the time you need to calm down, gather your thoughts, and craft a good answer.

Learn how to say “I don’t know” the right way

Rather than answering a tough interview question with a simple “I don’t know” (because where can you go from there?), it’s always a good idea to -- when you can -- tie the question back to something positive and that highlights the knowledge, skills, or experience that you do have. So, rather than no response, say something instead like, “While I’m less familiar with that particular concept, I do have extensive experience in …” and then pivot to a topic that you’re more comfortable with and that highlights equally relevant or impressive skills.

Tell the truth

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to lie or try to make up an answer on the spot just to have something to say. If you’re being asked, for example, if you’ve ever used a particular tool or technology that you, in fact, have zero experience with, then admit to that… flat out. You can always follow that up with a question about any on-the-job training that’s offered or professional development programs the organization offers and express your plans or desire to learn more in this area. That’s a great way to put a positive spin on a tough question without telling a lie.

K.I.S.S.: Remember the apt acronym here (Keep It Simple Stupid)

K.I.S.S. is a bit of a worn-out cliche, but in this circumstance, it’s right on. Some people, when they’re nervous or put on the spot, cope with the tension by talking too much, which can seem like they’re digging themselves into an even deeper hole every second. Instead, don’t be afraid of short, concise answers. Talking a lot when you’re not sure of your answer doesn’t make you look like you know what you’re talking about, it just makes you look nervous.

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