You’re midway through an interview for a promotion you want, and it’s all going well. But suddenly, the interviewer asks you a question that you can’t answer. Your heart sinks, and you start talking without knowing how you’re going to finish the sentence. You don’t need to see the interviewer’s face to see that you’re handling this question poorly.
The way you respond to questions in an interview can make or break your chances of getting a promotion or a new job. It’s common for interviewers to ask difficult questions—not because they want to trip you up, but because they want to see how well you perform under pressure and whether you can think on your feet. The more you prepare, the less nervous you’ll be, and the more confident you’ll feel and sound.
Follow these six steps below to ace your next interview—tricky questions included.
1. Gather information
Your first step should be to gather information about the role. This way, you can predict the questions that your interviewer may ask, including ones about your strengths and weaknesses and past failures and successes. You can then reflect on the meaningful workplace experiences you’ve had, and the accomplishments and stories that will showcase your strengths and skills.
Take time to read the job description carefully, and if possible, speak to people who work in the department or team that you’re interviewing for. Based on what you find, brainstorm questions that interviewers might ask. For example: what knowledge, skills, or experiences do you need? What abilities have you developed in your current role that will help you? How will your understanding of the organization benefit your new team? What problems will you be expected to solve? Who will report to you?
2. Research yourself
As a candidate, it’s important for you to be familiar with your reputation within the organization and the industry. Ask yourself, what would your team members and boss say about you?
Even if you have an excellent reputation at work, do you know what would come up if an interviewer searched for your name online? Are there any pictures, comments, profiles, or associations that could damage your professional image? When you research yourself, you can find out what your interviewer will see, and you’re less likely to be surprised by a question you didn’t expect. It also gives you the chance to remove or prepare thoughtful responses to any photos, tweets, blog posts, or comments that may cause an employer to think twice about hiring you.
3. Think about your strengths and weaknesses
The interviewer will likely ask you to talk about your strengths and weaknesses. Make a list of these in advance, so that you can provide a quick, honest answer that puts you in a positive light. Be honest when you talk about your weaknesses, but keep your comments short and positive. Focus on one that you’ve been working on, and provide examples of your progress. Here’s what you might say: “My biggest weakness used to be my communication skills. I’ve been improving these through self-study and practice, and I now touch base with every team member first thing in the morning to share project updates in person.”
When you talk about your strengths, concentrate on the ones that you’ll use most in this role, and frame your response to illustrate how specific strengths enable you to meet the organization’s needs. Also, spend some time thinking about your own career goals and how this position will help you achieve them. Interviewers want to know about your passion and what motivates you, so you need to be able to articulate clearly how this role will help you progress.
4. Identify key competencies
Make sure that you analyze the job description carefully, as this will help you to identify the competencies you’ll need to perform the role effectively. Look at advertisements for any other jobs in the same department, as these may also use the same competency framework. For example, will you need to demonstrate accountability, customer focus, industry awareness, good communication skills, teamwork, or vision?
Reflect on how you fulfill these in your current role, and prepare five to seven examples to demonstrate this. Next, practice answering positive and negative competency-based questions. Make sure that you can remember them, but avoid memorizing them so that you don’t come across as inauthentic.
5. Learn to think on your feet
Many interviewers will put you on the spot to see how well you perform under pressure. They usually do this by asking a tough question, such as, “Tell me about your biggest failure as a project manager.”
You need to know how to think on your feet, so you can respond appropriately to difficult questions. Start by taking a deep breath—this will flood your body with oxygen and help you relax. Then, take a few seconds to think about your response, and don’t start talking until you know what you want to say. If you need longer to think, repeat the question slowly to confirm that you’ve understood it, or ask for clarification.
Role-playing is one of the best ways to practice answering interview questions. You can discover how you might react when someone puts you on the spot by acting out scenarios with another person. It also helps you to rehearse dealing with stress and thinking on your feet, and it can boost your self-confidence. There’s no other way around it. If you want to feel comfortable, confident, and authentic during your interview, you need to practice. Just stay away from giving scripted answers, as this will likely make a weak impression. The key is to practice until you feel confident and prepared, and then stop.
Job interviews are nerve-wracking by nature, but preparation can make all the difference. Just remember—it’s a two-way conversation. Sure, it’s on you to convince the interviewer that you’re the right candidate for the job or promotion, but it’s also up to you to decide whether it’s the right role or employer for you.
Angela Civitella is a certified business leadership coach and founder of Intinde.