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This guide will help you develop methods for successfully answering unanticipated questions in the heat of the moment.
Interviewers can throw some pretty hard balls at times and even the most experienced and prepared candidates can get thrown off their game.
The intention behind the question might be to find out more about your background, skills and character.
Sometimes a particularly difficult question is asked simply to find out how you react under pressure.
The most important thing to do in the moment is to breath and stay calm. Take a sip of water and if you need a little time to think of an answer don't be afraid to say so.
If the question asks for your viewpoint, make sure you give a balanced answer.
If you answer challenging questions truthfully and positively you will make it through to the other side.
Strengths: choose examples that are directly relevant to the role you're interviewing for and don't be afraid to sell yourself. Present who you are at your best and detail your achievements. You don't get points for holding back, be proud and go for it!
"I am particularly good at ..."
"I have been very successful at..."
"I would say my top three strengths are X,Y,Z and here's why..." "I have been praised highly for my ability to ..."
"I helped my team to achieve X because I was able to..." "A key strength of mine is..."
"I have worked hard to develop A, B and C skills the result has been X, Y and Z which I'm really proud of"
Weaknesses: choose examples wisely but be honest and positive when you answer. We all have weak areas, it's important that you demonstrate awareness, self management and commitment to personal development.
"The areas where I might occasionally ask for support would be ...."
"I think my weakest areas are X, Y, Z and these are the systems I've put in place to ensure I don't make mistakes ..."
"I have a tendency to operate in this way ....but I am very aware of it and I choose this....instead"
"In the past I struggled with ... and didn't really like doing it. However, I invested in a course recently which I enjoyed. I'm now keen to use my new skills in this area"
Alternatively, you can mention something that you recognise will be a learning curve for you in this role but in a manner which is reassuring and demonstrates your awareness and pro-activity in getting up to speed.
"I recognise that I will be new to X so it might take me a little while to get up to speed. However, I have been reading about the topic and discussing it with a mentor so I feel confident"
"I don't have a lot of experience doing X but this is one of the reasons I'm keen on this role, to learn and develop in this particular area"
A popular approach is to choose something positive and frame it as a weakness but this idea is a little dated now. I'm not a fan and I don't recommend it. However, if you decide to take this approach, interviewers have heard it all before so make your answer unique. Standard responses can be off putting if it feels like a question swerve. Typical answers include things like:
"I'm a bit of a perfectionist because I set very high standards for myself" "Sometimes I'm too dedicated to my work and struggle to find a balance. However, I have recently taken up a hobby and it's no longer a problem".
Above all select sensible examples so you don't talk yourself out of the job but honesty really is the best approach.
Try to think of a work based example you can speak freely about, that isn't overly personal (you don't want to get lost in story). Set the scene, briefly outline the situation and challenges you faced. Then talk in more detail about how you responded. What was your initial reaction? How did you process things mentally? What did you do pro-actively?
What leadership skills did you demonstrate? How did you self manage? Finally, conclude with the outcome keeping your language positive irrespective of a positive or negative result. What did you learn from the experience? How has it helped you to grow?
If you faced terrible adversity outside of work and would like to use this as an example, you don't need to provide lots of personal details. The bulk of your answer should be focussed on how you respond when face with adversity.
This is a particularly challenging humdinger of a question when you're so busy trying to sell yourself and avoid talking about anything you don't like or are not good at. Then suddenly BAM you're asked to talk specifically about those things. It's a curve ball alright! It's likely your mind will immediately pick out that irritating colleague who used to sit too close and was a big fan of garlic. It's best however, to think about professional examples related to day to day activities. It's also a good idea to follow negative with positive as in the previous challenging questions.
"It fazes me when stationary supplies run out ...so in my last role I created a top up rota which stopped that from happening"
"I'm not a big fan of...but if I'm given a little warning so I can prepare for it then it's OK"
"In my last role, system X was in place which I found a little distracting because...if I had a choice I would prefer to operate like X because...but I understand that it's not always possible and I am able to adapt"
A great way to answer this question is to describe the impression you hope you have made.
"I would hope that your impression is a positive one and that you can see that I..."
"I would like to think that your impression is..."
"Perhaps your initial impression was ...but I hope by the time I leave you have ... impression"
To answer this question think about the sort of characteristics that might clash with your preferred way of working and style. Word your answer in such a way that you are respectful towards the hypothetical or real life boss you're taking about. There's no need to make anyone right or wrong.
"I would find it difficult to work with someone who micro-manages because I find I am more effective in my role when I'm given space and can use my own creativity to meet my objectives"
"My preferred way of working is X so if I had a manager who wanted Y there might need to be a little compromise on each side"
"In the past I've worked really well with managers who have had the following traits... these managers really stood out for me and have enabled me to ..."
Be careful with a question like this one. It's clear you're looking to move on from your role and naturally there will be a number of reasons why. You have probably already explained your key reason for leaving. This question opens up the possibility for you to rant and rave about all those niggly frustrations that have accumulated over time. Don't do that! This is not the time or the place to release all that tension. Instead, re-iterate why you are moving on and what you would like to experience in a new role / organisation that will develop your career further. If you haven't got anything nice to say on top of that, don't say anything at all.
I've covered 6 common challenging questions but there are many more I could have listed. It's impossible to prepare for every eventuality and that's kind of the point with these humdingers. The best advice I can give you is to think about the method and approach you will use when faced with a challenging question. This will help you immensely if you find yourself in the hot seat.
If it all goes horribly wrong despite your best efforts, try to take a light hearted approach. We can't get it right all of the time, learn from the experience, dust yourself off and get back in the game.