Being invited to a job interview can be exciting because it means that you’re one step closer to landing the role that you want. But, whether you’re taking part in an interview over the phone, via video call, or in person, it can also be somewhat nerve-wracking.

The prospect of answering questions in real-time can feel a bit intimidating. Also, while you can prepare as much as you like, when it comes to interviews, there’s no playbook – your potential employer could ask you pretty much anything to do with the role and your professional life. So naturally, the concern of many interviewees is what to do if you’re asked a question that you don’t know how to answer.

To help give you some peace of mind, here are some suggestions for what to do if you can’t answer a question in an interview.

Remember to stay calm

When you’re in a job interview, often how you respond to questions is just as important as the answers themselves – so it’s important to try to remain calm when you’re faced with a question that you don’t think you can answer.

It’s natural to feel nervous during a job interview, especially if it’s for a role that you really want. However, the first impression you make on the hiring manager or your potential employer can be the difference between you securing the job or not.

Unfortunately, employers won’t look favourably upon candidates who are unable to stay calm under pressure (especially if being calm under pressure is one of the qualities you’ve outlined about yourself on your CV or previously in the interview). So even if you’re nervous, try not to panic.

However, simply telling someone ‘not to panic’ (like telling someone not to feel any emotion) is rarely very helpful. Instead, it’s worth considering which steps you can take to help you stay calm in the face of tricky interview questions – we’ll outline these later.

There are also things you can do to reduce your overall nervousness going into and taking part in an interview. Forbes has a great article on this subject with some really helpful tips, some of which are changes in perspective like thinking of your interviewer as a friend, not a foe, and thinking of the interview as a conversation, as opposed to an interrogation.

Forbes also recommends simple actionable steps, like getting to your interview early and leaving plenty of time to relax, as well as working on your posture (to help you feel more confident).

Take your time

It’s important to remember that in an interview, you aren’t being assessed on how quickly you can answer questions. Instead, your interviewer is looking at how you answer them and what you say. Therefore, it’s vital that you take your time, especially when it comes to questions that leave you lost for words.

It’s worth keeping in mind that rushing is not a desirable quality in any employee. Often, hiring managers and potential employers are looking for candidates that are careful, thoughtful, and take their time, as this demonstrates that they’re anxious to deliver the best quality answer possible – and therefore indicates that they will apply the same consideration to their work.

So, if you’re faced with a question that you’re not sure how to answer, remember that you aren’t being judged on how speedy you are. If you need some time to gather your thoughts, consider saying something like, “That’s a great question. Let me think about that for a second.”

With all that being said, it’s best not to take too long to formulate an answer. If there’s an especially long pause at any time during an interview, it can disrupt the flow of the conversation.

So, if you feel yourself taking too long, it’s best to implement a step to give yourself some breathing room, which leads us onto our next point…

Buy yourself some time

If you come across an interview question that you’re struggling to provide an answer to, and you’ve remained calm and taken your time but you still don’t have an answer, then the next best thing to do is to buy yourself some more time to collect your thoughts. The best way to do this is to politely ask to defer answering the question until the end of the interview. For instance, you could say:

“That’s a great question and I’d love to give it some more thought. Would it be ok if we moved on and returned to it at the end of the interview?”

You want to frame your response so that it doesn’t simply express that you don’t know the answer, but that you believe it’s a good question and deserves some careful deliberation and thought in order to answer it in the best way possible. Again, this will signal to your interviewer that you strive to take care in answering interview questions to the best of your ability; a consideration that will translate into your work.

However, it’s important to note that you shouldn’t let the deference of this question affect any of your answers to subsequent questions. Give each question your full attention as it comes and worry about the one you didn’t answer at the end of the interview. You’ll likely find that your other answers will give you some inspiration for answering your final one.

Ask the interviewer to repeat or rephrase the question

Some people will tell you that if you want to buy yourself some time, you should ask the interviewer to repeat or rephrase the question. But, while this might work occasionally, there are a few problems with this approach.

Firstly, if you’re implementing this tactic frequently or asking an interviewer to rephrase a simple question, then you might come across as if you aren’t listening or aren’t giving the interview your full attention. Secondly, this tactic will only buy you the time it takes for the interviewer to repeat or rephrase the question, which, often, will only be a few seconds.

It’s important to remember that interviewers aren’t perfect and sometimes the phrasing of their questions can be unclear. Also, you might be hard of hearing or, if you’re interviewing via video call, the connection might not be ideal. There are many reasons why you genuinely might not be able to hear or may be unsure about what the question is.

In this instance, it’s always best to ask the interviewer to repeat or rephrase the question for clarification. If you attempt to answer a question that you didn’t fully hear or you don’t completely understand, this can result in you delivering a poor answer and therefore coming across as a bad listener or a bit of a blagger.

Reverse-engineer and re-frame the question

Job interviews are partly designed to confirm that you understand what skills, qualities, and values are needed to undertake a certain role and to make sure that you possess them. In order to assess this, interviewers often ask you what are commonly referred to as competency-based or ‘behavioural questions’.

Competency-based questions ask candidates to provide examples of how they’ve handled situations in the past and what skills they’ve needed/used to deal with these situations. Examples of these questions that you could come across in a job interview include:

  • Tell me about a time when you’ve worked well as part of a team.
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve had to deal with a challenging customer.
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve received constructive criticism and acted upon it.

Some competency-based questions can be difficult because you may not have been in the exact situation that your interviewer is describing – and this can be particularly true for career changers.

For example, if you’re interviewing for a job in retail and you’ve never worked in a customer-facing role, you might struggle to answer the question, “Tell me about a time when you’ve had to deal with a challenging customer.” The best thing to do in this instance is to follow these steps:

  1. State that you have never encountered this situation before.
  2. Identify which skills would be useful in such a situation.
  3. Give an example of when you’ve implemented these skills in a similar, but different scenario (reverse-engineering).

So, you could say:

“To be perfectly candid. I have never dealt with a difficult customer before as I have never held a customer-facing role. However, I believe the key to dealing with difficult people, or people that you disagree with, is to stay calm, listen, and be understanding.

“Being a father of two, I imagine dealing with a difficult customer is a lot like dealing with an unhappy child, as you want the best for your children just as you want the best for your customers.

“If I was faced with a difficult customer, I would be sure to be kind, calm, understanding, and listen. In my experience, this has usually led to a resolution.”

Alternatively, for something like customer service, you could speak about a time when you’ve been on the receiving end. For instance, you could explain a time when you’ve received excellent customer service and why you thought the person or people delivering it did such a good job.

If you really can’t answer a question, be honest and say that you don’t know

If you really can’t answer a question, the worst thing to do is to try and bluff your way through it or, even worse, lie. This is because if you come up with an answer that doesn’t really make sense, or you get caught in a lie, you might come across as dishonest, unorganised, and unprepared – which are all undesirable traits in a potential employee.

However, (and this is a big however) you should never simply say that you don’t know an answer to a question and leave it at that. This might suggest that you aren’t proactive, willing to learn, or eager to improve.

Instead, if you find yourself in this scenario, the best thing to do is to say you don’t know the answer to the question but that, after the interview has concluded, you’ll undertake some research and send a follow-up email with your answer.

For example:

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I can answer that question at this moment in time. However, I am very keen to learn more about this industry so, immediately following this interview, I will conduct some research and send my answer in a follow-up email.”

This tactic is effective for a number of reasons. Not only does it show honesty, which is – as the saying goes – always the best policy (and a desirable quality in any potential employee) – it can also help you to cast yourself as an eager candidate who is willing to learn.

Plus, you’ll also be giving yourself an opportunity to demonstrate both your research and your writing skills in your follow-up email. Just make sure you come up with a good answer after your interview!

Final thoughts...

We hope that you’ve found our tips on what to do if you can’t answer a question in a job interview helpful. However, it’s worth remembering that the best way to avoid being unable to answer a question in a job interview is to limit the possibility of such a question ever arising in the first place – and the best way to do this, as it is with most things, is through practice and preparation.

We have a wide selection of resources on the jobs and careers section of our website that’ll help you be as prepared as you can for any job interview. For instance, you can check out articles like 6 tips to help you research a company before your interview and 6 tips on how to prepare for a job interview in your 50s, 60s or beyond on the interview tips section of our site.

Alternatively, you might be interested in a career coach who can help you with job interview preparation, CV and cover letter writing, and much more. If you’re interested in career coaching, then why not check out the coaches we have available on our site here?

Have you had any problems answering interview questions in the past? If so, what advice do you have? Join the conversation over on the Rest Less community forum or leave a comment below.

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