Some interview questions seem impossible to answer safely. Here’s how to answer loaded interview questions in a way that demonstrates your intelligence, a positive attitude and good communication skills.
1. Unload the negative language.
Some interview questions come pre-loaded with negative words like “weakness,” “dislike,” “worst” or “regret.” The first step is to drop these loaded words from your answer.
“What are your three biggest weaknesses?”
Instead of starting with “One of my weaknesses is … ” try “One area where I’m actively building my skills” or “one way I’m starting to do things differently …” Doesn’t that sound a lot better? I’ve also written a whole post specifically about this question.
“Tell me about a time you had to work with someone you didn’t like.”
Don’t take the bait! You might instead say “I had a team member who I was very careful with, because…”
2. If you must address a negative, surround it with positives, or even turn it into a positive.
“Why have you been unemployed so long?”
You might start by mentioning any of the following that are true for you: that you left your last job on positive terms, that you’ve had a very stable and/or progressively responsible work history up to that point and/or that you’ve been using the time off productively by taking classes or attending career-related events to keep up on new trends.
Keep this introductory part short, since you aren’t directly addressing the question yet and you don’t want to seem evasive.
Then you might explain your situation in a positive way. Maybe you weren’t available until recently because you’ve been caring for a family member, or taking time off to go see the world. Or maybe it’s more important to you to find a great job like the one you’re interviewing for, rather than hurry into a job you’re not truly excited about.
Finally, end with a forward-looking statement, like “Having done X, I’m now ready to put all my energy into doing Y as a member of your team.”
Always aim for an answer that is both authentic and strategic.
3. If you must address a negative, keep it brief.
Avoid over-explaining a negative; you’ll draw too much attention to it and sound defensive.
If you’re asked why you were laid off, skip the long explanation of why your job got axed instead of someone else’s. Instead handle it briefly, like this:
“A business decision was made to eliminate 23 positions, including mine. The bright side of that is, now I’m talking with you about this role, which I’m really excited about because it focuses on X and that’s what I do best.”
If you’ve been fired from a past role, read my post “Were You Fired?” (Interview Question).
4. Don’t get emotionally hooked.
Identify any questions you’re likely to be asked that may trigger sadness, anger or fear and prepare to answer these calmly. Especially watch out for the temptation to lapse into complaining, soul-searching or reminiscing, especially with an interviewer who is sympathetic. Don’t go there! Remain upbeat and professional.
“Do you have any regrets about your career?”
“Well, I love leading teams, so at times I wonder about my decision to go back to being an engineer three years ago. But on the other hand it’s prepared me to be a more hands-on leader. I’m confident that my next team will appreciate knowing I deeply understand their jobs.”
If you’re having trouble with emotion coming up in interviews, my post about managing your moods in job search could be very helpful, especially the book I recommend there.
5. Look for the interviewer’s underlying concern and address it.
Even positive questions can be loaded ones. Ask yourself what the interviewer is probing for.
“What is your dream job?”
The interviewer wants to find out whether you would be highly motivated in the job and not quit.
“My dream job? To be an astronaut! Of course that’s not going to happen, but what drove that ambition was that I’ve always been fascinated by technological advances. I feel lucky to have become a product development engineer. In my last role we released the first automated tool for … ”
To answer loaded questions effectively takes more than just reading these suggestions. Outline your answers, practice them in mock interviews to get feedback, and make sure you’re sending the right messages.