Assume that you've done all the prior preparation you can possibly do. You've studied the Interviewing Series, you've practiced, you've tried to guess all possible questions that might be asked of you.

And, yet, when the interviewer asks Question X, you're caught off guard for whatever reason. Maybe you were thinking about your previous answer. Maybe you were unusually tired. Maybe it's just nerves and you forgot even a well-rehearsed answer. In other words? You're blanking.

What phrases can be kept in one's back pocket to gracefully mitigate this occurrence? If it's a technical question that you objectively don't know the answer to, I understand that it's easy to flatly say, "You know, I'm not 100% sure about that - but I bet I could find out quickly...etc". But what about a conceptual / qualitative question?

In other words, what's better than "I don't know.", "I can't remember at the moment, actually." or "Can I get back to you on that? For whatever reason, I'm drawing a blank."

afmoffa's picture

First, I'm sorry that happened. It does happen. You can be legitimately stumped. There are interview questions you can't reasonably anticipate, and in my opinion, those questions aren't particularly effective for interviews. The interviewer might ask you one of those "why are manhole covers round?" head games. The interviewer might ask you about sales when you applied for a job on the factory floor. If you are legitimately stumped by an interview question, you have five seconds, and you have the truth.

1. You have time to think. You really do. I'd say you have up to five seconds after the interviewer stops uttering words before you need to say anything. Five seconds seems sounds like an instant here as you read your computer screen, but five seconds is actually a lot of thinking time in a conversation. You needn't say "hmm..." or "uhm..." to "hold the floor," as it were. In those five seconds, wisdom may find you.

1a. You don't get to question the question, eg: "Why are you asking me about Spanish? The job description didn't list that as a requirement."

2. If you really don't know, you don't know. Say "I don't know." Be as brief as possible. Why belabor the point of your ignorance? Say "I don't know," and do your best not to avert your eyes or blanche visibly. Be comfortable (or appear comfortable) with not knowing. It's all you can do. The interviewer might help you out by reframing the question. The interviewer might move on to other questions where your preparation and poise might redeem you. Who knows? As the interview progresses, you might stumble upon wisdom, and it wouldn't be out of line for you to return, briefly, to the issue that eluded you earlier in the conversation.

mkirk's picture
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Hi Steve,

I think Afmoffa's quite right - these things do happen, for whatever reason.

I would simply add that you can practice responding confidently, comfortably and professionally to something like this. I don't think it matters what the question is - if you're following the guidelines of practicing on video regularly, then ask the person questioning you to throw in something completely wierd and get used to responding with an 'I don't know' type answer and not freezing or getting flustered. Chances are that if it happens in an interview, the impression you create when you answer is going to be more important than the content of your answer and whilst you can't control the questions, you can control your response. 

Work on what you can control and don't sweat the stuff you can't. 

Best Regards