What To Do When You Don't Know The Answer

You've been invited to an interview... Congratulations!

You've prepared thoroughly, begun your interview and have answered the first several questions with relative ease. You get more self confident and are ready to finish your interview successfully.

Then it happens! Suddenly the interviewer smiles and asks a question to which you just don't have an answer. You have no clue what to say. You blink, freeze and start sweating. You lose your confidence and... fail the interview.

Here's some advice on how to salvage the interview should you find yourself in this situation. These scenarios are examples of common situations in which interviewees find themselves without the appropriate response to an interview question.

  Scenario 1

You been asked a professional question, and you're not familiar with the topic or don't have experience with the specific task.

First of all, you should realize that it's okay that if you're not an expert on every aspect of your profession. Honestly admitting you lack expertise in some areas can leave the interviewer with a positive impression, provided you stage your answer correctly.

Don't apologize or make excuses for your lack of knowledge or experience in the area in question. This will only make you sound incompetent or appear unprofessional. Ensure you don't stare blankly, ramble, become embarrassed or show you're surprised when asked a question to which you don't have a good answer or about an area in which you lack experience.

Don't change the tone or rhythm of your speech. Wait until you're ready to respond before speaking. Don't allow any nervousness or anxiousness to bleed through in your voice. Keep your composure and maintain the same level of self confidence and body language. Your lack of experience in this one area in no way negates your other qualifications, so just remember that and you'll keep your cool much more easily.

Often, you can impress an interviewer more by remaining calm and confident when asked a tough question than by providing the "right" answer. Keep in mind that there is often no single right answer and that the manner in which you present yourself is often more important than what you say.

An employer wants to know that you're capable of handling difficult or challenging situations with clients and coworkers. They want to know that you'll remain calm, composed, professional and confident under such circumstances.

Turn your lack of knowledge into an opportunity to show you possess these essential qualities and that you're able to perform well in stressful and ambiguous situations. Show the interviewer that you can be trusted and are open to feedback and input which will help you improve your knowledge and skills.

Answer quickly and with confidence, stating matter-of-factly that unfortunately you've not had the chance to gain the expertise in this specific area, but that the subject is very interesting to you. Reassure the interviewer that you'll be willing and able to learn additional skills quickly and efficiently. You can even provide an example of an area of expertise you recently acquired at your current job, some details of the learning process employed, and the outcome of attaining new skills.

The bottom line is that you must keep your composure and handle the situation with poise and confidence. Impress the interviewer with your personality, character and demeanor even if you cannot impress her with the "right" answer.

  Scenario 2

You've been asked about a situation or circumstance with which you have no direct experience. You are expected to share a specific example of how you handled this sort of situation, including the behaviors you employed in dealing with the event. For instance, the interviewer may ask you to describe a time when your team failed, but you can't think of an appropriate example.

Don't panic. It's ok to take a bit of time now and then to organize your thoughts. If you feel it's necessary, ask the interviewer for just a moment to formulate your response. It is expected that you will occasionally need to think a little before providing a situational example, and you'll be demonstrating maturity and level-headedness by asking for a pause in the interview.

Consider the real question which is behind the question. (See detailed explanations of this concept in the "Most Challenging Interviewing Questions" attached to all ZoomInterviews Video Products.)

For example, in the question referenced in this scenario, the interviewer hopes to understand if you can handle conflict well, if you're a strong member of a team, and if you can learn from your failures.

During your interview preparation, you should have prepared several stories which you could share in response to various interview questions. Be flexible and adjust one of these stories to address the interviewer's concerns.

For example, if you'd have an example of team failure to share, describe a situation in which your team could not agree on a decision, when one of the team members did not pull his weight, or when a challenging task prevented your team from completing a project by the established deadline. If you are able to address the question behind the question then you've provided an appropriate response.

Or, simply think of a relevant situation to discuss instead, even if that particular situation happens to be personal in nature. Not every one of your responses must be work related. While in general, it's best to keep personal information in an interview to a minimum, there are times when it can serve you well. For instance, discussing a time when a volunteer group you work with failed to meet its fund-raising goals would be a strong response for the question posed in this scenario.

Be calm and confident in your reply. Employers highly value the ability to address unexpected situations or concerns in calm, creative and diplomatic manner. Once again, make a strong impression through your personality, character and competence even if you can't nail the question perfectly.

  Scenario 3

What happens if you simply don't understand the question posed by the interviewer?

Don't be shy about asking for the clarification. It's better to ask for more detail than it is to give the wrong answer. Ensure you answer the right question. Come across as a confident individual with good communication skills and the ability to ask for clarifications where needed.

Keep it in Perspective

Every interview is representative of how an applicant may behave in work situations. Though your interview answers are important, they are not the entire picture. How you communicate, your demonstrated behavior, and your personality and charm usually make the strongest impression. These characteristics are often more important than the answer you provide to any specific interview question.

An applicant's ability to appear confident even in high stress situations, and to appropriately handle tough questions from clients or upper management are skills highly regarded by employers. Always keep this in mind when faced with challenging questions during an interview.