Responding To Questions Effectively When You Don’t Know The Answer

Have you ever found yourself in an interview that seems to be going great until the interviewer asks a complex question to which you don’t know the answer? If you froze in that situation and lost any hopes of getting hired as a result, you are not alone. Tough questions prevent millions of great candidates from securing the jobs that they deserve. However, responding to questions effectively while maintaining your composure can dramatically improve your chances of getting a job.

Here’s all you need to know about answering the question in a confident and considered style time and time again.

Preparing For Tough Questions

The average job advert attracts 118 applicants, so gaining an interview shows you’ve made a good impression. Tough questions are a natural part of the interviewing process, but you can confidently enter the interview room by preparing yourself for them. Understanding why interviewers ask awkward questions can help you answer them.

Employers may ask a challenging question because they want to;

  • Learn more about your personality traits.
  • See how you analyse situations to find logical solutions.
  • See how you perform under pressure.
  • Understand your experience levels and comfort with situations.
  • See your body language when not using rehearsed answers.

Working on your general communication skills and body language will certainly help. Likewise, using a professional email address and responsibly using social media can help you avoid tough questions unrelated to the job role itself. On a side note, researching the business and key personnel may provide information that you can recall to salvage an uncomfortable situation.

Before answering the question, taking a deep breath can help you collect your thoughts. Likewise, answering a part of the question that you feel comfortable with will also buy you extra time to process the rest of it. Rephrasing the question and seeking clarification without directly repeating it can buy some valuable time too.

Explaining the processes aloud can help move the interview along with more smoothly when answering conceptual issues or problem-solving questions.

Responding to questions effectively will avoid uncomfortable feelings like this woman is having
Biting your nails, eyes desperately darting around the room, sweating… All signs you can’t answer unexpected questions effectively. Don’t let lack of preparation give you away.

How Not To Answer A Difficult Question

It’s almost impossible to anticipate every question interviewers might ask and prepare answers accordingly. Although, you can expect at least one awkward question during a 45–60 minute meeting. If you get caught out and don’t know the answer, you may find yourself panicking. However, reminding yourself of what NOT to do in this situation can be beneficial.

The following checklist will serve you well;

  • Do not umm and err your way to an incoherent answer.
  • Avoid the temptation to answer a completely unrelated question.
  • Do not just ignore the question.
  • Avoid trying to shoehorn intellectual words into an incomprehensible answer.
  • Do not shrug or start looking around the room.

Crucially, you must try to avoid long silences. Even if you don’t know the answer, finding a way to offer an acceptable response before moving on will display your communication skills and help you remain calm for the rest of the interview.

Tough Questions And Their Answers

Being asked a question that you don’t know the answer to is almost guaranteed in any interview situation. Nonetheless, preparing a response to the most common interview questions will put you in a far stronger position to respond to a curveball.

Here are some of the best examples:

What Are Your Greatest Weaknesses?

Nobody wants to admit that they lack a particular skill that may count against them. On the other hand, a lack of self-awareness or the suggestion that you don’t have any weaknesses is unlikely to go down well either.

Questions of this nature present an opportunity to demonstrate your commercial awareness while highlighting your ability to improve yourself autonomously. For example, you could state that you sometimes fail to give feedback to colleagues but have overcome this by writing down what you want to say in advance.

Why Are You Leaving Your Current Job?

Employers know that around one in four people wants to change jobs. It’s no big surprise that salary expectations and toxic relationships are the main reasons. Still, you will want to give a more diplomatic answer.

Don’t convey unhappiness in your current position. Doing so may lead a hiring manager to think that you may fall into the same trap in their employment. Instead, you might say that the current role no longer aligns with your career goals. If you’re confident in your background research, you may explain why you think this company does. However, this can backfire if your information is incorrect or out of date.

Abstract Questions

It doesn’t matter whether it’s “what animal are you?” or “how many X would it take to do Y?”. the key here is to give a coherent response and explain your answers. Don’t let your lack of preparation catch you out.

Explaining your answer slowly and clearly will get you through this question. The content of your answer is probably irrelevant. By asking quirky questions, hiring managers are likely testing your ability to keep your cool under pressure. Therefore, confident and relaxed body language is vital.

Woman shrugging her hands at a seemingly ridiculous interview question
Many interviewers like to throw curveball questions into their interviews to test a potential employee's ability to keep their cool in stressful situations.

Why Do You Want To Work Here?

Again, a simple answer like “you pay above the national average salary” or “I want more annual leave” won’t quite cut it. Even if it’s true, you should use this question as a chance to show that you’ve done your research and given careful consideration to the role.

If the company is passionate about an issue that you also care about (UX, embracing modern technology, corporate responsibility, etc.), you can mention these. Likewise, discussing your admiration of the products, services, and company culture can serve you well.

Why Should We Hire You?

Your CV, cover letter, and application impressed the prospective employer. However, this question could leave you stumped. While it’s OK to repeat some of the items you’ve already explained, you’ll want to expand on them too.

You can mention your passion for the industry and inspire you to achieve excellent results in your current job. A real example of how you improved sales by 10%, boosted response times by 5 minutes, or cut operational costs by 15% are all great examples.

Woman standing out among her work colleagues
Get specific. A potential employer wants to know what you did, not what the rest of your team did. Always answer these questions in terms of ‘I’ rather than ‘we’.

A Few Final Thoughts on How to Respond Effectively When You Don’t Know the Answer to a Question

Complex questions can feel unsettling and ruin your interview if you answer them awkwardly. However, the good news is that they do not have to define your career future. Retaining your composure while responding to questions effectively should see you through.

Of course, no matter how prepared you are for an interview, there is no guarantee you will get the job. Even if you don’t receive an offer, any interview experience is a good experience and presents an opportunity to learn from. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback after the event, as this can provide valuable insight into how you might improve your chances next time.



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