When You Have To Think On Your Feet
You’re a smart, capable person, right? Of course you are. However, we all occasionally face situations in which we are called upon to answer seriously tricky questions. What on earth should you do when you’re asked a question that leaves you stumped? First – try not to panic. Remember that everyone has been in your situation, and you certainly won’t be the last person to feel as though their brain cells have shriveled up and died at a crucial moment. Follow the tips below to help yourself navigate difficult questions.
1. If the question is vague, ask for clarification
Sometimes the fault lies not with you, but with the person asking the question. If you have no idea where to begin answering a question, there is a chance that the person asking it did not choose their words carefully. Politely request that they re-word their statement. For instance if you are asked a question like ‘Where do you see this role heading in the next three years?’ you could quite reasonably identify that as a vague question and ask that the interviewer narrow their focus. You could respond with something like ‘That’s a great question, but I’m not sure where to start! Is there any way you could narrow that question down a little?’ They may then well respond with a new question like ‘How do you think the primary responsibilities will change in response to competitor activity?’ which may seem less daunting!
2. Define a word or phrase on your own terms
If you are asked a question which includes a term with which you are unfamiliar, it is better to ask for clarification than to risk making an absolute fool of yourself. However, occasionally you may be presented with a question featuring an ‘elastic’ term, and you can use this to your advantage. For instance, suppose you have a job interview in which you are asked to describe the last time you ‘failed’ or ‘made a mistake’ at work, and what you did about it. This can seem like a tricky question. However, you can take it upon yourself to define ‘failed.’ Rather than talk about the time you failed to meet an important deadline, you can elect to describe the time you ‘failed to implement a good work-life balance’ and overworked yourself for the good of the company instead.
3. Remember that your attitude is sometimes just as important as the actual words you use
This is especially useful to remember when it comes to job interviews. Yes, many job interview questions are designed to test how much you actually know about your area of expertise, or how well you will fit into the role. However, reasonable interviewers will not expect you to know the answer to every question imaginable. In fact, sometimes the way you approach the question and your general attitude can count for plenty. If you don’t know the answer, a spirited attempt and frank admission that you don’t have a ready answer will go much further in impressing an interviewer than a nervous, half-hearted response. For example, suppose you are asked how you would envisage working with the Advertising Department if you were given the role of salesperson with a new company. You may not have a clue about what you would do in reality, but talking with enthusiasm about how much you would welcome the challenge to gain new experience in cross-department working will win you some points!
4. Respond to provocative questions like a pro
Occasionally you may be unlucky enough to be asked inappropriate questions such as, ‘Are you thinking of taking time out the workplace to have children in the near-future?’ It can be hard to know how to respond to such queries. However, assuming you still really want the job, a sensible approach in such a situation is to react in a short, assertive manner (‘No, I am not’) and re-direct their attention towards another topic. For instance, to continue with the above example, your answer could go as follows – ‘No, I am not, as I am determined to use my extensive experience in this field to further my skills in areas X, Y and Z.’
5. Get into the habit of speaking in a measured tone and leaving slight pauses
Sometimes, just a few extra seconds can make all the difference between an acceptable and unacceptable answer. When someone asks you a hard question, look them in the eyes, and allow yourself a brief pause to collect your thoughts. If nothing else, this will make you appear more confident and makes the other party more likely to formulate an image of you as being in control and knowledgeable.
6. Answer a question with a question
Turning the tables on your questioner can help open up the discussion and sometimes even prevent them pursuing an answer to the original question in the first place. For instance, suppose your child asks you whether you and your spouse are getting divorced. This could be awkward or uncertain territory. By answering a question with a question, you can divert their attention long enough to either buy yourself some time or distract them completely. Asking them questions such as, ‘Why do you ask that?’ can work well in this case.
7. Sharpen your questioner’s focus
If you feel as though your answer to someone’s question isn’t quite all they were hoping for, a good strategy can be to end your answer with a statement or fact that encourages them to ask you follow-up questions that you can answer more readily. For instance, suppose you are asked in a job interview why you are leaving your previous role with another company. Ending your response with ‘…and I have heard many good things about the upcoming sales figures of your company this quarter, and wanted to move to a more prestigious organization’ provides a positive note upon which to move to the next question.
Whatever the question, remember to always end with a positive statement if possible, preferably one that underlines your great attitude towards the topic at hand, or your expertise. Keep your breathing steady, try and remain smiling, and remember not to beat yourself up if you don’t get it right first time, every time. Like everything else in life, answering difficult questions is a skill that must be practiced.