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Impossible Interview Questions, Part 2: Handling Sensitive & Negative Issues

“Impossible” interview questions – like the ones that raise sensitive or negative issues – can blow up in your face if not handled skillfully.

In last week’s post I offered tips for handling various kinds of “impossible” questions, but now let’s take a closer look at answering questions about negatives.

For example, you might be asked to explain a past job that didn’t work out, a long period of unemployment, or your lack of an important qualification.

An unskillful answer to a question like this can destroy your chances of getting an offer.

But here’s the good news: these questions can also be opportunities to demonstrate strengths such as transparency, resilience, and the wisdom you’ve gained from experience.

How can you handle these questions effectively,  defuse the danger, and come through it looking good?

Use the “sandwich” technique: surround the negatives with positives.

“Why did I leave Presto Promotions? Actually, I loved my work there, and I played a key role in many major wins, such as (ultra-brief example or two), which I can tell you more about if you like. Then I was diagnosed with Ravel Syndrome and had to take a year off to recover my health. Last month my doctor said I’m fully recovered and should be fine from now on. I feel great and I’ve been attending conferences and reading a lot to refresh my skills while looking for the right opportunity. I’m very excited about this opening.”

Keep the negative part brief.

See the example above, where the reason for leaving the job takes up only one short sentence. This is important, although of course it can be hard to be brief about something you have strong feelings about.

Questions like “Tell me about a difficult person you had to work with” or “Why do you want to leave your job?” present a strong temptation to kvetch and be commiserated with, particularly when your interviewer has the natural empathy we often see among human resources folks. Resist that urge firmly. Accept any sympathy graciously, but then quickly move on to your skills and the job you’re interviewing for.

Set your feelings aside and speak in an emotionally neutral manner.

This may require that you work through feelings of disappointment, grief or anger ahead of time. Try journaling, talking to a trusted friend, reading self-help books or getting professional help. Your state of mind is crucial to your interview success.

Don’t create negative sound bites.

As author Jeff Haden has written, “Interviewers will only remember a few sound bites, especially negative ones. Avoid statements like “No, I’ve never been in charge of training.’ Instead say, ‘I didn’t fill that specific role, but I have trained dozens of new hires and created several training guides.'” Rather than saying “I haven’t” or “I can’t,” emphasize what you have done and can do.

Plan and practice your answers.

You can practice on your own, but also do mock interviews with someone – a peer or an interview coach – to get outside perspectives and advice.

These tips are from the chapter “How to Answer Any Interview Question” in my book Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview, available in eBook, paperback and audiobook formats from Amazon.

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