How to Handle Sticky Interview Situations

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Caitlin UptonThink back to the 2007 Miss Teen USA pageant when Caitlin Upton, representing South Carolina, was asked why so many Americans were unable to locate the United States on a map. Her response was muddled, to put it kindly. Her incoherent response not only left the judges scratching their heads but also proved that answering a question on the spot can cause anyone to stumble.

Although that video clip went viral and millions of viewers have fun laughing at Upton's botched answer, you can probably assume everyone identified with her to a degree. Who hasn't been called on in class or been asked a question in a meeting and just blathered on like a toddler?





Imagine feeling this helpless during a job interview. You're already tense enough during a job interview without worrying that you won't even be able to piece together a proper sentence. Yet, many job seekers have found themselves caught in a situation where the right answer just isn't coming to them. Even if they're not tongue tied, they don't know how to answer an interviewers peculiar or possibly illegal question.

Caught off guard anyone can freeze during a job interview. How should you avoid being the next Miss South Carolina in your job hunt?


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1. Be creative and still professional

Sometimes hiring managers ask questions they know will catch you off guard. The purpose of the question isn't so much about what you answer as it is how you handle the pressure. For example, if you're asked how many gallons of paint are necessary for you to paint the moon, don't worry about getting the math right. The hiring manager probably doesn't know the answer either. Fun or quirky questions are supposed to knock you out of your comfort zone so that the employer can observe you.

Career expert and author J.P. Hansen stresses individuality balanced with professionalism.

"When asked a fun question, such as 'What color would you be?' your answer should be fun, creative, entertaining and showcase your personality," Hansen says. "With that in mind, never forget to remain professional and polished. Just because you are in a fun moment in an interview, does not mean this is your time to become best friends with the interviewer or slack in professionalism. Remember, you are still in an interview."


2. Don't panic

When you're in an interview, dozens of thoughts run through your mind. You say to yourself: "Maintain good posture and make eye contact;" "Don't say 'uhm' too much;" "Don't yawn;" "Speak slowly;" "How did the handshake go -- too forceful or too weak?" You're so busy analyzing the situation and trying to appear calm that you don't pay enough attention to the question at hand. Suddenly the hiring manager is waiting for you to talk and you're not sure what to say to a question you know you could answer any other day of the week.

"It's common to blank out during an interview but fatal to answer, 'I don't know,'" Hansen explains. "If you draw a blank or don't understand the question, simply ask a qualifier. For example, 'I'm not sure I understand the question.' It buys you time and puts the ball back in the interviewer's court."

Even if the interviewer doesn't clarify the question as much as you'd like, you still get a few extra moments to piece together a coherent response. And remember, coherence means a lot in an interview.

"[The] interviewer's pet peeve?" Hansen asks. "A rambling response that doesn't answer the question."


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3. Decide how personal you're willing to go

Sometimes hiring managers cross a line with their questions and you're not sure how to respond. Although on occasion you'll run into an unpleasant employer for whom you'd never want to work, most interviewers are good people trying to find good workers. And like any human they make mistakes, such as asking questions that are illegal or at the very least make you uncomfortable. Granted, if this person is being paid to interview people, he or she should know better, but everyone make mistakes. Also, their mistake doesn't mean you should feel forced to answer any question they ask if you're not comfortable. Hansen recommends jobs seekers find their own limits if, for example, the interviewer asks about your health.<

"If you want the job, answer in an upbeat, confident manner. Try, 'I exercise, eat right, and according to the results of my last check-up, my health is excellent,'" he suggests. "You always have a choice not to answer a question, but know that you'll likely disqualify your candidacy. The best advice: Answer all questions, get the offer and then decide."

When confronted with one of these questions, step back and think about what it means to you. Is the interviewer prying into your life or trying to get at a deeper issue, or did the question come out wrong even though no ill intent is obviously meant? Trust your instincts and keep the answers in your comfort zone. As with any sticky interview situation, you want to remain calm and in control at all times.

Next: Real-World Job Search Tips >>


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