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When to Answer an Interview Question with a Question

by THEA kelley | January 7, 2021

If you’re well prepared, most interview questions can and should be answered directly. But sometimes you may be asked for information you’re better off not providing. One good way to deflect such inquiries is to answer an interview question with a question of your own.

This is better than simply declining to answer the question, might damage your rapport with the interviewer. Answering with a closely related question is gentler. The interviewer most often will answer you and then move on, without returning to the original question. Of course you need to use a friendly tone of voice, and preferably a smile.

Prepare your deflecting questions in advance. Here are a few examples to get you started. Let’s say the interviewer asks this:

“Do you have other offers?”

There are a couple of very different reasons they might be asking this. On the one hand, they may be wondering whether it’s worth going through a lengthy interview process with you, since you could be on the verge of taking an offer elsewhere. In this scenario, saying you have other offers might count against you.

On the other hand, if they’re planning to make you an offer, they may be trying to assess how competitive their offer needs to be. In this scenario, saying you have other offers could be helpful.

That’s why a direct answer to this question is risky. Instead, a good counter-question might be “Are you planning to make me an offer?” or “Can you tell me what your concern is?” If their answer tips you off that a full disclosure isn’t in your interests, you could make a vague statement like, “Well, I’ve been having some discussions but nothing is firm.”

“This is a one-year contract role. Would you leave before the end if you were offered a permanent position elsewhere?”

Of course, if you’re planning to honor the full contract, say so. Any other answer is likely to count against you.

However, if you’re not comfortable making that promise yet, you could say, “It sounds like I’d gain some excellent experience by staying in this role for the full year. Can you tell me about opportunities that might open up here at the end of the contract?”

“How much are/were you making in your current/last role?”

This question cannot legally be asked in some states, but that doesn’t mean they won’t ask it. Either way, a good answer might be, “Can you tell me a little bit about how that information would be used?” or “Can you help understand why that’s important here?”

Be prepared to handle their response to your question, as well. Let’s say the recruiter answers your deflecting question about your past salary be saying, “It helps us gain an understanding of where you stand in the market and what your expectations might be.” You could then shift to answering the implied question about your salary expectations.

What are your salary expectations?

Ask, “Can you tell me the range you have budgeted for this position?” (I’ve actually created a nifty infographic about answering this salary question.)

“Do you have children, or do you plan on having children?”

It’s illegal for an employer to ask this question in an interview. A tactful response might be, “Can you help me understand what your concerns are, and how this relates to my ability to do an outstanding job in his position?” Then address their concerns rather than directly answering the question. Or if you already have a pretty good idea what their concern is–perhaps they’re afraid you’ll quit the job because of a pregnancy–you could just address that: “I’d like to assure you that I’m very committed to my career and excited about this role. I can see myself growing within this company for a long time.”

Deflecting an interview question should be the exception, not the rule. Even for very tough interview questions, an informative, effective answer can usually be prepared. Check out my post on answering loaded questions.

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