Your job interview might go perfectly, or it might not. Maybe you’ve been sailing through the first 20 minutes, feeling totally prepared for everything the hiring manager is asking you. You’re having no trouble giving tidy, satisfying, well-spoken answers, and you’re feeling great—until she asks you this next question. Uh, what?
Your mind goes blank.
No matter how hard you’ve prepared, there’s always the possibility that you’ll get tossed a question out of left field that leaves you stumped. Some companies have ditched curveball job interview questions; others haven’t. But not every question that throws you for a loop was designed to do that; occasionally, it’s just a perfectly reasonable question you simply hadn’t thought to consider.
Either way, don’t give up hope yet. Here’s what you need to know (and do) to handle the unexpected like a pro.
Ask Your Own Question
First of all, it’s important to remember that a question is just a retrieval cue for your memory. It’s meant to remind you of something that you can then talk about with the interviewer. When you get stumped, all it really means is that the question hasn’t done its job—nothing is coming to mind based on the way it was framed.
So the only way to get something useful out of your memory when it’s not coughing anything up is to try a different prompt. In other words, reframe the question. There are two ways to do that. One is to quickly try and think of something else that question might mean and see if that brings something relevant into your head.
The other is to ask a question of your own. It’s easy to feel like an interview is an exam. On a real exam, you have to answer each item as it’s written. But an interview is a two-way street, which means it’s fine to engage in actual conversation with the hiring manager. Way too many candidates leave this until the very end, when they’re asked, “So do you have any questions for me?” This is a mistake. Your best defense against a question that stumps you is to come prepared with a bunch of questions of your own, and then constantly look for opportunities to weave them into your chat.
So when you feel like you’re scratching your head, just ask some questions for clarification. Throw out a few initial ideas and ask the interviewer for thoughts. If you can get a conversation started, you’re likely to find paths that let you talk about your own problem-solving skills and arrive at a more thoughtful answer.
Remember Why You’re Here
A lot of people think of the hiring process as though it’s a series of hoops to jump through: First get your resume noticed so somebody reads it, then land an interview, then ace the interview, and then get an offer. This way of thinking makes it seem like there’s one important piece of information or performance you need to deliver that will push you on to the next stage.
But there’s growing recognition that job interviews provide only a little insight about job candidates. Resumes and references tell a lot more about what you’ve been doing before applying for this job. That long-term information is a valuable predictor of future performance—possibly more so than for which you’re giving it credit.
Not only is this interview probably not an ultimate test of your candidacy, but getting stumped once or twice likely isn’t lights out for you. The hiring manager might even be deliberately testing your soft skills by throwing a difficult question into the mix to see your reaction. They want to get a sense of how you deal with uncertainty. Do you hide the fact that you don’t know what to say? Do you admit up front that you’re having trouble? Do you create a partnership with the interviewer to negotiate the answer to the question?
The reason you’re here isn’t to verbally deliver a bunch of data about yourself. It’s to demonstrate what you’re like to interact with and how well you can solve tough problems in real time.
Learn Something About Them
There’s a good chance you aren’t completely prepared for the position you’re interviewing for—and that’s okay. (You probably shouldn’t apply to jobs that won’t challenge you to do anything new that you haven’t already done.) By the same token, it’s pretty much impossible to be completely prepared for the interview itself. So the same way you should think of any job duties in the new position as learning opportunities, approach any curveball interview questions as an invitation to learn something about the employer.
Try something like this: “Wow, you know that’s honestly not something I’ve had a chance to give a lot of thought to yet, but I’d love it if this position introduced me to more of that. What other learning opportunities will there be in this role?”
Then listen for the answer. It’s important to know whether you can be honest about what you know and don’t know in the job. It’s also important to have a sense that the company wants to help you develop your talents. You can talk about the strategies you use to learn new things, and ask what kinds of professional development the company offers.
So this strategy is simple: Just admit that you don’t know the answer and use it as a chance to discuss how you approach unfamiliar situations. The best organizations are learning organizations, where everyone has a chance to improve on their strengths and shore up their weaknesses. Gaps in your knowledge shouldn’t be a liability.
But if you admit that there’s something you don’t know, and your potential employer chooses not to hire you because of it, you may have dodged a bullet.