How to Answer Tough Interview Questions – Installment 1

As we all know, interviewing well can mean the difference between being a hiring manager’s first or second choice – unfortunately being a hiring manager’s second choice does not include a job offer. This month, I want to take time to talk about the art of interviewing and address some of the common questions that are posed to my recruitment team members, by applicants with disabilities. For people with disabilities who already have so much stacked against them when fighting stigma and discrimination, it is crucial to understand how to interview well. So often I hear people tell me that they had the skills and competencies for a job, but the manager ultimately selected another candidate. Knowing how to successfully navigate answering tough interview questions is a crucial step in being a top candidate.

When looking for interviewing tips, there is a significant amount of information available, but it can be difficult to identify which tips give sound advice and which tips to avoid. Searches online yield hundreds of questions that might be asked during an interview, so how do you prepare an answer for all of those questions? What do you do if they ask you a question you haven’t prepared for? How do you know if the answer you give is the one they are looking for?

What if I told you that applying some basic principles to how you answer interview questions will help you perform better on interviews and feel less nervous when being asked unexpected questions? Sound too simple? With over 30 years of experience in the recruitment industry, I’ve not only heard just about every type of question a hiring manager can ask, I’ve asked them. The same basic tips I provided experienced candidates during my earlier executive search career are still relevant today.

The majority of today’s interview questions fall into one of three categories, traditional, scenario-based, and behavioral interview questions. Each of these types of interview questions may have different nuances, that we will discuss later this week in the second installment of this series. Let’s talk first about basic principles you can apply when answering all three types of questions.

Engage with Confidence and Enthusiasm

One of the most common mistakes that applicants make is to permit their feelings of nervousness to allow them to appear not confident and unenthusiastic about the role they are interviewing for. Hiring managers do not want to add team members who are blasé during an interview. Applicants who are able to articulate enthusiasm and confidence will be more sought after. I have one suggestion at the beginning of the interview that will help your confidence increase and that is to tell the interviewer how happy you are to be there and how much you appreciate them taking time to arrange this interview. This one comment will evoke a more pleasant start to the interview and will assure the interviewer that you are grateful for the opportunity to be there.

You need to exude enthusiasm and one way is to practice smiling while answering interview questions. Smiling will come across in both phone and in-person interviews, will naturally increase your ability to sound more confident than nervous, and will have the added value of putting the interviewer at ease. Knowing you want to be there and want to work for the company will go a long way to setting the tone for your interview.

Actively Listen

A huge factor in the success of how a candidate responds to questions is determined by how well they are listening to the hiring manager. Most candidates would say they are listening when the hiring manager talks, but in my experience inner dialogue and nervousness can sometimes become a barrier to fully understanding the questions being asked. Many times, when I ask an applicant questions, they do not answer the question being asked. This is especially true of applicants who are very nervous during the interview. Engaging in active listening will aid you in answering the question correctly and give you something to focus on other than how nervous you feel. Additionally, the more engaged you are, the more fluid your responses will be.

What does it mean to be an active listener? This means that you are not thinking about other things while the manager is talking or analyzing prior questions and how the hiring manager reacted to your response. Focus your attention completely on what is being asked. If you don’t understand what the manager is asking, you should seek clarification before answering or paraphrase the question to ensure understanding. Do not interrupt the manager to answer the question. You may miss a vital part of the question that would redirect your answer. Don’t ask questions or share anecdotes unrelated to the current topic of discussion. I’ve had candidates interrupt discussions about their ability to perform key tasks for a position to ask anything from questions about the parking situation to sharing a story about their family. You want to ensure the interviewer learns how you can perform essential job tasks; changing the topic may relieve your anxiety, it will not convince them to hire you.

Finally, make sure you leave your mobile phone at home or turned off during the interview. Mobile phones provide distraction even when on silent. The interviewer will notice if your mobile phone vibrates or rings and will take note if you become distracted when it does. Being an active listener is about being in the moment and being focused, introducing a possible distraction will take away from your success in doing so.

Answer Completely

Providing an incomplete answer to a hiring manager’s question will make an applicant seem unqualified. I cannot stress enough the importance of responding to questions in a way that fully and completely answers the question. Providing short, one-word answers to questions will never result in a job offer. Too many times I have talked to applicants with disabilities who are uncomfortable or unsure when talking about their successes and experiences, yet it is only through what is shared by the applicant that a hiring manager can make an informed decision about who to select. If you don’t tell them what you have done, they won’t know. It is not enough to have a comprehensive resume or online portfolio, you must be able to talk about what you have done.

Add Context

One of the ways to ensure a strong answer is to provide context. For example, if you are asked if you have familiarity with a certain software product that you have not had exposure to, but studied another similar product you should share that information. Don’t just tell the person no. The similarity between the two products may increase their willingness to hire someone who has not used the tool they are currently using. On the other hand, if it is a tool that you have had experience with, describe how you have used the product in the past. It is not enough to say yes or no.

When talking about projects from work or school, it is important to provide details that explain your role in the project, any competencies or skills demonstrated throughout the work you did, and how the project is relevant to the role you are applying for. Do not assume the hiring manager will understand the relevance of your answer without providing this context. If you do have relevant volunteer experience, you may incorporate that when answering questions about experience.

Stay on Topic

It is equally as important to ensure that your interview responses are on topic and concise as it is to provide context. Applicants who have one-sided conversations with themselves, provide too much detail, or get lost from answering the question by going on a tangent are as likely to be passed over as those who do not provide enough detail. Being overly chatty during an interview often will end up with the applicant revealing something about themselves they did not mean for the hiring manager to know. Applicants who have trouble staying on topic during an interview can also give the impression to a hiring manager that they will be a disruptive presence in the team and lacking in focus on their tasks or goals.

Avoid All Negativity

Negativity during the interview process never works out to an applicant’s advantage. Whether it is talking about personal circumstances, past negative experiences with interviewing, past employers or educators, or being self-deprecating for humorous effect, negativity has no place in an interview or the workplace in general.

If an applicant is viewed as negative during the interview process, it implies they will be negative once hired. Someone who says bad things about people they have worked with in the past, will likely struggle to fit in with a team and that negativity will impact the team’s overall performance. Sarcasm is not a soft skill that hiring managers put on job postings because it is not a skill they are looking to add to their team. Negative comments and sarcasm will not result in a job offer.

Another thing that applicants do wrong during an interview is to provide too much information that reflects poorly on them as an employee. To be clear, it is important to be honest during an interview. If you do not know a skill, you should not ever say you do. However, there is a difference between being honest and being overly critical of your skills and achievements. I have interviewed candidates who have rated themselves expert-level in competencies who have very little practical experience with that skill and individuals who have had over a decade of experience working with a tool or demonstrating success through their day-to-day work activities who rate themselves as beginner or average. If your answers lead the hiring manager to the conclusion that you do not believe you can do the job, then there is no reason why they would believe you can. You must be able to talk about what you bring to the table, so the employer is able to see why you should receive an offer.

Applying these basic interview principles will go a long way in ensuring a positive experience when being screened for opportunities. Please visit later this week to learn more about common types or styles of interview questions and how to apply these principles to secure a job offer.

For more blogs on interviewing, please refer to:

How to I.N.T.E.R.V.I.E.W.

9 Steps to a Successful Interview

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