Interview Questions Where We Falter

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

“Have you ever had a workplace conflict or argument?”

“What if you were the last person on earth . . . ”

Tough interview questions seem to be mandatory for any interview, regardless of position or industry.  The tougher the question, the more the interviewer places emphasis on your answer.  It’s a tactic to see how you handle stress and an insight into your thought process; exactly the situation an employer wants to see a potential candidate in. If you can’t handle yourself in this less stressful situation, how can you handle the stress of the advertised position?

There will always be nerves when interviewing, but they can be managed by how well you’ve prepared for the task.

The key to any success is preparation, and the ability to think on your feet. That mental capacity and agile thinking is the template foundation to keep cool and collected while in the hot seat.  It’s not possible to know all the questions, but it is possible to prepare a foundation that will help you answer them.

So, where do you see yourself in five years?  This can be a difficult question for multiple reasons: Do you mention that you don’t see yourself staying at the company you’re interviewing at?  Do you mention plans that may interrupt your workload, like starting a family, taking a sabbatical, or continuing your education?  How do you condense all your hopes and goals of five years into a legible goal and not a rambling journal entry?

That last question is where your focus should be; you need the brevity of a Tweet in comparison to the offered character mileage of a Facebook post.  The answer should focus on your work goals and not on your all-around life ones because those peripherals change.  Maybe you didn’t want to be at this company for five years, but your attitude changed when you achieved many of your work objectives; maybe you wanted to take time off for various reasons, but those either changed, or you’ve resolved them to flow around your career.  This select information is also personal.  The interviewer doesn’t need intimate details; they are not allowed to ask those types of questions in the first place, so there’s no reason why you should be providing them.

Questions that put a wrinkle in your presentation by asking you to reveal a weakness, or that generally put you in an unflattering light, are usually viewed with trepidation but can easily be smoothed away.  Flaws and weakness can be used in the past tense, showing you’ve overcome them, and you can highlight that in your response.  Even if the question is phrased for current weaknesses, it’s important to emphasize the steps you’re taking to turn it into a strength.  Employers aren’t looking for perfect people; they’re looking for people who are willingly to progress, even if that personal growth can be a little uncomfortable.

Sometimes, tough interview questions aren’t regulated to the ones that require a ten-page explanation in a two-sentence answer, but quirky questions you may find on the back of a cereal box or in a psychology book.  Brain teasers.  “What if” questions.  You can’t exactly prepare for these.  There are no verbatim answers to give, or a way to rework a previous answer to suit these inquiries.  The reason for the brain teaser questions is that they want to see how you think on your feet.  The “what if” questions are an information goldmine relating to your thought process and personality; these “possibility questions” are a bit easier because there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer.

Tough interview questions are also those that interviewer should not be asking.  “What’s your political party identification?”  “What’s your religious affiliation?” “What’s your family situation like?”  The majority of interviewers know to steer clear of personal topics, but there are the ones who don’t care, or they want to see your reaction.  With these questions, your aim is to not enter into a combative back and forth.  How do you respond to questions the interviewer shouldn’t be asking?  The solution is simple: Don’t answer them.  Don’t be combative and confront the interviewer about their unprofessionalism.   Replying with a variation of “those questions are a bit too personal for an interview, and I keep that information private,” is an easy and graceful way to avoid prolonging the awkward situation.  Preparing yourself for the unexpected, knowing what you will say and respond with in these situations, will greatly help you when confronted by it.  If the interviewer keeps pushing the question(s) and are themselves being aggressive, then this would be the time to make an exit and pass along their behavior to their superiors.  Allowing them to bully you now would only set up precedence for your work relationship if you received the job, and while personal answers may not seem like such a big deal to you, they can interfere with the interviewer’s judgmental process, and tip the scales into them being more subjective instead of objective.

Interviews are a balance of power.  The interviewer, of course, holds a substantial percentage of that power, but not all of it.  The interviewee holds a portion because they have the skills needed to excel in the advertised position, and the company needs those skills.  That’s why it’s important to be prepared and to use positive language for a rewarding interview.  Speak like the job is already yours – not arrogantly but confidently.  Learn to retain your portion of the power in the interview, and don’t cave to the pressure of tough questions.  Keep your confidence during the interview, through the easy and tough questions, because you’ve prepared to be successful.