As a job candidate, your goal is to show your best and most knowledgeable side throughout the hiring process, but occasionally a question or task will stump you. In addition to preparing for all possible questions about your career, your goals and the company, spend some time preparing your response to a question you cannot answer. There are several ways to maintain your image and composure when you get a question that stumps you.
Take some time to think.
It’s perfectly acceptable to take a moment to breathe and think before launching into an answer. Often politicians will say something like, “That’s a great question,” or repeat the question back to the interviewer. This is a popular technique that allows the candidate or interviewee to gather their thoughts and think through a strong answer. This brief moment can give you clarity and help you think of an appropriate response. Keep in mind, the 30 seconds you take a breathe and think will feel longer to you than the interviewer, so don’t feel self-conscious. Plus, the interviewer wants you to take the time to respond carefully and accurately, so they should be willing to wait as you gather your thoughts.
Ask clarifying questions.
If you’re unsure of the question being asked or need more information to formulate your answer, ask follow-up questions. It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t think I understand the question. Can you explain…” If appropriate, ask about how others in the company have dealt with the issue or what their policy might dictate. That will give you a better sense of what they’re looking for and you can respond more broadly to that topic if you’re unable to answer the question outright.
Know when to say “I don’t know.”
There are so many ways to say you don’t have the answer without admitting defeat. You can say something along the lines of, “I haven’t dealt with a situation like that before, but I would start by asking these questions…” You could also try something like, “That concept or situation is new to me. I’ll have to look into it a bit more.”
Never brush off the question or start rambling. It’s much better to express you don’t know then to go off on a tangent or make something up.
Take the opportunity to follow up.
Use the unanswered question as a chance to follow up with the interviewer after the initial meeting. Offer to think about it and get back to them after you’ve had a chance to do some research. This way, you’re showing your true interest in the role, your ability to stick to what you say you’ll do and you have a real reason to stay in touch and follow up on the interview. After you’ve thought about the question and done your research, send a brief thank you email along with your answer. Say something similar to, “I thought about your question a bit more and I think this would be a good solution…”
Remember, your interviewer and those involved in the hiring process aren’t ‘out to get you’ or trip you up. They simply want to find out if you have the skills and interest in the open position. Don’t go into it on the defense, preparing to shield yourself against tough questions. Look at it as a two-way conversation, where you can ask questions, take time to think, and admit when you don’t have all the answers.