Dr. Joseph Barber
It is always a good idea to think in advance about the types of questions you might be asked in a job interview, and to come up with a plan to be able to answer them effectively. Some questions you know will come up (e.g., tell me about yourself, or why do you want this position?), and it makes sense to prepare some good answers to these tailored for each job interview. However, you cannot prepare for every question that interviewers can ask, and there are always going to be some questions that leave you momentarily speechless as your brain scrambles to understand the question and tries to piece together information to make an adequate answer.
Employer: “If you were a fruit, what kind of fruit would you be?”
Candidate’s brain: A fruit? A fruit? What do you mean a fruit? Why are they interested in fruit? Just pick one, surely it doesn’t matter. Wait, but what is the most confident and skilled fruit? Perhaps they are looking for a certain kind of fruit? Is a tomato actually a fruit? I hate fruit! Apple?
And it is not just strange questions that can catch people off-guard. Many behavioural-based interview questions start off with the following phrase:
Give me a specific example of a time where you…[showed initiative, took a leadership role, thought quickly on your feet, etc.]
But what happens if you suddenly can’t think of a specific example? With a little time, chances are that you can find something from your past experiences that you can talk about, but how do you give yourself that time. There is nothing wrong with a bit of silence, and it is probably better to be silently thoughtful for a short time than to just say the first things that pops into your head in a rambling, nonsensical way. However, the longer the silence becomes without you saying anything, the more awkward the moment will become – especially if you are on a phone interview and the interviewers cannot see you thinking.
The following responses are not answers to tricky questions (I don’t know what kind of fruit you are), but they can hopefully buy you and your brain some time to come up with an appropriate answer
That’s a very interesting question – let me think about the best way to answer this for you.
Yes, everyone knows that by “interesting” you actually mean “difficult”, but this response can be helpful to give you some breathing room before you attempt an answer.
So, you are looking for an example of [leadership experiences, team work, etc.]. Well, there are a couple of good ones I can talk about, but I think the one that is the most relevant is…
For many tricky questions, you can repeat the question you have been asked back to the employer in your own words (don’t just repeat the question word for word), and use this time to begin to construct your answer. In this case, by the time you get to the phrase “but I think the one that is most relevant is…” you should have something to say!
You know, I was actually thinking about this question the other day when I was looking at your website/talking with a colleague of mine who works on….
If it is appropriate to the question, a response like this not only buys you some time, but also shows that you have been proactively seeking out information – which might be something worth highlighting.
I’m not sure that I have an exact answer to your question, but I can share a related experience that I think gets close to what you are looking for.
It is never a good idea just to say “I don’t know” to any interview question. If you really don’t have an answer, you might use the “I don’t know, but here is how I would find out” approach instead. The complete strategy is 1) here is what I do know; 2) here is what information I am currently missing; and 3) these are the approaches I would take to get an answer. Additionally, you could then provide an illustration of how you have used your skills in the past to be a quick and effective learner. Even if you can’t answer the exact question asked by an interviewer, you can probably give an answer to a similar one that could be just as relevant.
Before I answer, can I ask if you’re interested in that issue from a [technical, policy, etc.] perspective or from your [customers’, clients’, students’] point of view?
Sometimes, the hesitation in answering a question comes from an uncertainty about what the interviewer is actually asking. You want to maximize your chances in an interview by answering the questions that they are actually asking you, not the ones that you think they are asking you. This type of response helps to convey the idea that you are conscious of the variety of perspectives that might exist within an organization. Don’t sound in any way defensive, and make sure that you keep your tone light and positive.
I am wondering if you can just clarify what you mean by….
This is another approach to buying you time and ensuring that you understand the question.
I’ve never been asked that question before; I need a minute to think about it.
This is an honest response, but remember that the phrase “I need a minute” is just a generalization. A minute is a long time to sit in silence, so don’t actually take the whole minute!
Oh my goodness, is that a squirrel eating a banana?
This was a phrase uttered by my friend’s thesis advisor during a meeting where my friend was pouring out his heart about whether he should stay in graduate school or not. In his advisor’s defense, there was actually a squirrel eating a banana. So, this type of response is probably best left to situations where there are actually squirrels eating bananas or similar extreme occurrences. When I interviewed for my postdoc at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the interview room looked out at a gate where the Disney characters gathered before heading out into the park. While it was fairly shocking for me to see a giant Mickey and Pluto walk by every 15 minutes during the interview (sometimes with heads, other times quite disturbingly without), this would not have been a good thing to point out to the person who saw this occurrence every day.
Given that there are some creative approaches to buying you some time in interviews, here is a list of ones you should probably avoid:
- Faking a medical emergency
- Having a medical emergency
- Taking a drink of water (OK, a sip might give you a few seconds, but don’t keep drinking as you are thinking!)
- Grabbing a Twix
- “Accidentally” falling off your chair, spilling your water, knocking your papers off the table.
Do you have any other suggestions for approaches you can use (or definitely should not use) to buy yourself time in an interview? If so, comment away!