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Avoid these 9 mistakes when answering interview questions

Whether you’re interviewing for a new job, or participating in a live panel, here’s how to ace any Q+A session.

Avoid these 9 mistakes when answering interview questions
[Source images: Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd/Getty Images; Olya Kobruseva/Unsplash]

No matter how far along you are in your career, knowing how to answer questions effectively is crucial. That’s especially true with a potential recession on the horizon.

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Throughout the world of business, dialogue involving Q+A has replaced speeches and presentations as the format of choice for sharing ideas. Executives are frequently interviewed on stage, job candidates confront a battery of questions designed to trip them up, and most formal meetings involve back and forth discussion involving questions and answers.

If you’re looking to master the art of the Q+A, make sure you’re avoiding these nine common mistakes:

1. SPEAKING BEFORE THINKING

The most common problem is rushing to answer before your brain has checked in. It’s tempting to want to fill the silence with something … anything.

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But if you speak before collecting your thoughts, you’ll need to use more filler words like “yea, well,” or “let me think,” or “um” or “ah.”  These phrases can make you sound nervous and undercut whatever you say next. Omit them—and give yourself time to think first.

In fact, silence shows your audience that you take the question seriously, and know it deserves serious reflection. Your answer will be better if you pause to think. You’ll look and sound more confident. 

2. EVALUATING THE QUESTION

How many times do we hear speakers say “That’s a good question!” This is often a stalling tactic—an effort to buy time while thinking. Occasionally, it might be a sincere response to an especially thoughtful question.

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The problem is that if you say, “That’s a good question,” you’re elevating yourself above the questioner. If you’re an executive, you’ll sound condescending toward the employee who’s asked the question. If you’re a job seeker, you’ll sound arrogant (or fawning) in praising the hiring manager. Your job is to answer the question, not evaluate it. Instead of commenting on the quality of the question, pause, think (in silence), and then respond. 

3. RESPONDING WITH A QUESTION

It’s tempting to ask the questioner a question if that individual has not been clear or you want further insight into what’s behind the question.

But if the questioner has not been entirely clear, it’s unlikely they will be any better at bringing forward their thinking if you give them another crack at it. And probing into their motive for asking is not your role.

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So answer without further probing. Simply say, “As I understand it, you’re asking me ….” Then answer it. This approach will position you as confident and collected.

4. SPECULATING OR GUESSING

When someone asks you for an answer, don’t frame your answer as a guess or speculation, using words like “my best guess is” or “I’m thinking that it would be in the range of ….”

For example, suppose you’re in a job interview and the recruiter asks, “What are your salary expectations?” and you haven’t thought it through. Don’t blurt out an unprepared answer. Don’t say, “Well, my best guess would be a significant bump up from my current salary of $65,000.”

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Instead, say: “I’d like time to consider the answer to that question, now that you’ve given me greater insight into the job. I will get back to you with a figure.” Always say you’ll get back with the answer—and make sure you follow through.

5. REPEATING A NEGATIVE (EVEN TO DENY IT)

Sometimes speakers will frame a question with negatives about you or your company. For example, your boss might say, “Why didn’t I get your sales figures for last month?” Never respond “You didn’t get my sales figures for last month because …”

Repeating a negative gives it power. Instead, simply say: “I thought we were submitting on a bimonthly basis.” Or if an interviewer says “Can you explain the gaps in your resume?” don’t reply, “I can explain the gaps in my résumé.” Simply say: “I would be pleased to.” Reframe the conversation, by rising above the negative with a positive. 

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6. CONTRADICTING THE QUESTIONER

Still another challenge comes when fielding a question that has an error in it. While you can’t let the mistake go uncorrected, particularly if it makes you look bad, don’t go head-to-head with the questioner.

For example, suppose your boss asks, “Why did no one in your department contact Techco about their product concerns?” Don’t say, “You’re misinformed.” Rather, respond that “Abdel had an excellent discussion with them, and I’ll forward you his report on how the problem was resolved.”

Politely set your audience straight about the facts.

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7. ANSWERING OUTRAGEOUS QUESTIONS

Occasionally you’ll be asked out-of-line questions that might throw you off. In particular, in a business situation don’t feel you have to respond to questions that touch upon your personal life.

For example, if you’re in a job interview and the hiring manager asks, “Do you plan on having a family?” you can pass on that one. It’s illegal. Instead you can simply say, “that remains to be seen,” or “I’d rather stick to questions about the job.”

Don’t feel obliged to answer questions about your age, country of origin, disabilities, sexual orientation, marital status, family, race, color, ethnicity, or religion. These are off limits for any interviewer. 

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8. INTERRUPTING A QUESTIONER

Sometimes it may feel like your questioner is giving a speech rather than asking a question. The speaker may get carried away and go on too long. The worst thing you can do is interrupt. Instead, listen patiently.

Nobody wants to feel you are tired of listening to them. The best CFOs, for example, listen patiently to the analysts grilling them. That listening allows them to learn about concerns in the market and answer more thoughtfully.

Another kind of interruption to avoid is injecting yourself into the conversation when the interviewer has merely paused to think. If you break in with an answer before she is done, you’ll look and sound anxious. Make sure that person is through speaking before injecting your voice and views. 

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9. LOSING YOUR COOL

Answering questions can make you tense, especially in high-stakes situations where you or your company is being evaluated, and the questioner is probing into uncomfortable territory. But the secret to coming across well is not to squirm, fold your arms in a defensive pose, or hem and haw. And don’t say, “Wow, you got me there!” Instead, enjoy the exchange. Have fun, smile, and thank your interviewer at the end of the discussion.

For further insight into the art of Q+A see my book Impromptu: Leading in the Moment.

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