Interview Insider: top tips for answering difficult questions

It goes without saying that interviews are an integral part of the recruitment process.

Whilst CVs and application forms allow an employer to form a rough judgement of the capability and suitability of a potential candidate, interviews provide the opportunity to assess important aspects that cannot be established on paper; presentability, demeanour and ability to cope under pressure to name but a few.

However, as a recent article in Forbes stresses, scientific evidence tends to suggest that interview performance and future job performance are not as correlated as one may think. This is largely due to the fact that potential candidates undertake rigorous preparation before interviews, often reciting pre-prepared questions in order to present themselves as a perfect match for the role. Whilst being well prepared in by no means a negative, it is hardly surprising that interviewers often ask questions designed to catch candidates off-guard, to see what lies behind the mask of practice and preparation. As highlighted by Forbes, a firm favourite of interviewers and recruiters is asking candidates about their greatest weakness. Somewhat ironically, the article outlines different ways in which questions designed to catch candidates unaware can be answered in order to maximise the probability of landing the position.

‘Planned unplanning’

Even if a candidate arrives with a pre-prepared answer, acting surprised is key. The more rigid and rehearsed the answer, the less honest it will come across – as well as making the interviewer feel less competent. The subtle skill of appearing to be on the spot whilst really knowing exactly what to say places candidates in good stead for success.

A balancing act

Cliché attempts to put a positive spin on difficult questions fool no one. For example, responding to ‘What is your greatest weakness?’ with ‘Being too much of a perfectionist’ is an obvious and unoriginal attempt to come across well that lacks sincerity and integrity. Therefore, the key to answering such a question is to be self critical and original in order to stand out against competitors. Having said this, it is also crucial not to go too far the other way. Demonstrating self awareness is undoubtedly important for success, yet candidates should avoid revealing the details of all their deepest and damndest flaws in the interview room. Whilst honesty is appreciated, the interviewer’s alarm bells will start ringing on the mention of a lack of ability to work well with others or difficulties taking direction from authority.

Repeat their words

According to Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, the psychologist behind Forbes’ article, the best way to answer challenging interview questions is using the interviewers own words to form a response. If the interviewer has expressed concern or doubt over any element of a candidate’s CV, application or previous answers, then this can be used to their advantage. Using the interviewers’ own words not only validates them, but also avoids drawing attention to any other flaws that had previously gone unmentioned. Shying away from addressing negative points raised by the interviewer may be perceived as an attempt to cover up or deny them, ultimately resulting in the candidate appearing untrustworthy and unreliable.

Whilst the response to many interview questions may seem obvious, it is vital that candidates always pay careful attention to what they are saying and how they are saying it. Recognising the subtle balance between self-awareness and honesty or modesty and insincerity is by no means easy, but once mastered will set candidates head and feet above their competitors.

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Source: Forbes, 2018