There are rules to playing the interview game. Job seekers who know and understand the rules recognize that there are ways to make themselves stand out from the rest. Knowing how to handle ambiguous questions, when to pause, and how much eye contact to maintain, will make a major difference in your interviewing success.

The Pregnant Pause

Interviewees often feel they must give instant responses to every question. While you certainly would not want long pauses after every question, a significant pause is often the best response to a difficult question. If you answer an obviously difficult question too quickly, you can leave the impression of being a person who “shoots from the hip.” A pause can demonstrate that you are a thoughtful person who wants to provide the most appropriate response. Pausing also gives you time to select the best example and therefore provide the best answer possible. When a question is asked, and you realize it is going to be difficult, look away from the interviewer and begin to consider a response. Looking away is the natural way all people ponder a question. To try to maintain eye contact while thinking is unnatural. With difficult questions, a pause of 10–15 seconds is reasonable. If you need to buy some time you might say, “That’s a good question,” “That’s a difficult question,” or “That’s a tough one.” This will give you another few seconds to think.

In Sweaty Palms, Anthony Medley tells a classic story about Jackie Robinson. Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, asked Robinson if he was willing to become the first black player in Major League Baseball. Robinson knew that if he accepted, he would face harassment from fans throughout the league. Robinson also knew that if he did not respond well to that pressure, it might prevent other black players from coming into the league for another decade or two. After pausing for several minutes, Robinson said he felt he was mature enough to handle the taunting and ridicule he would face in the coming years. Had Robinson responded immediately with, “Sure, I can handle it,” Rickey would have had serious doubts and might have sought another player.

Eye Contact

Interviewees are frequently told to maintain constant eye contact during an interview and that anything less will be interpreted as weakness. Actually, that type of eye contact is completely unnatural. Studies reveal that in normal conversation, the speaker typically looks away 30–70% of the time. As a person begins to speak, he turns away while speaking, then periodically returns his eyes for several seconds to the person being spoken to, and then looks away again. It is the extremes that should be avoided. Appearing to stare at the person being spoken to makes that person feel uncomfortable and shows the speaker lacks social graces. On the other hand, I’ve also seen people who speak for several minutes at a time and look at the person being spoken to only as they finish speaking. That also is unnatural and needs to be corrected.

Eye contact must be maintained, however, by the listener. Whenever the speaker returns his or her eyes to you, your eyes must be on that person. The interviewer should not catch you looking around the room, looking out the window, or staring at the floor. Active listening requires you to keep a soft look on the interviewer to demonstrate interest and attentiveness.

Darren had read about the importance of maintaining eye contact


A reputation for integrity and honesty is priceless. Never say anything in an interview that would cause an interviewer to question your integrity or honesty. Lying in a resume, application form, or during an interview is simply too risky, and any short-term gain you might achieve would not be worth it. Besides, being able to sleep well at night is a great asset. As John Wooden, the great basketball coach, put it, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.” Those who have lied about having college degrees often admit that they always worried about being found out. Most application forms have a stipulation at the end stating: “I understand that any false answer or statement on this application or any other required documents may result in denial of employment or discharge.” Another application states: “I certify that answers given herein are true and complete to the best of my knowledge. In the event of employment, I understand that false or misleading information given in my application or interview(s) may result in discharge.” These comments are pretty serious stuff, and they are not idle threats.

It’s not uncommon to hear of a person who’s been fired because some disgruntled employee decides to check up on a boss or colleague, only to discover that the person never actually graduated from college. It’s so easy to verify college graduation that no one should ever falsify that information. Granted, most companies do not check up on such things, but enough do that it just isn’t worth it to lie.

Mark Twain put it best when he said “If you tell the truth you don’t need such a good memory.” During the stress of an interview it is hard for the person who is stretching the truth to remember what has been said to whom. Interviewers can spot inconsistencies. If they catch you, they may not bring it to your attention—they simply won’t invite you back for another interview.

There may be other situations in which interpretation, not truth, is the issue. Opinions and interpretations of events cannot be proved or disproved. For example, during an interview you may be asked what you liked most and least about your last boss. Even though the person may have been a total jerk, don’t say that in the interview. Instead, find a major quality about him that you liked, and a fairly minor quality that you disliked. Bite your tongue if you feel the urge to say more. Are you being dishonest? I don’t think so. You’re being discreet.

Another common question asks about your reason for leaving each position. Whether you left of your own accord or were asked to leave, there were probably several reasons, not just one. My recommendation is to mention only one or two reasons. Those reasons should be described in such a way that the interviewer believes he would have left under those circumstances also.

Really touchy areas need a lot of thought. A client of mine was “semi-terminated.” That is, he was given an option of going to another department, but there was no promise of it being permanent. The position was not desirable, so he chose to resign. In one sense he was terminated, but in another sense he quit. When he was asked why he left this job, he mentioned the impact the recession had on his company and stated that his position, as well as several similar positions at other branches, had been eliminated. He also described the position within his company that was offered to him, and explained why he had declined it. All of these statements were true, and the interviewers were satisfied with the explanation.

Along with being truthful, it is important to remain consistent. Once you decide how you are going to deal with a certain issue, maintain consistency in the way you describe and talk about it.

Employers want people they can trust implicitly. Therefore, during the interview demonstrate openness and genuineness. Make positive statements about yourself but avoid exaggeration. Such demon-strations of openness and genuineness will foster the sense that you are trustworthy. Being consistent will allow the employer’s trust in you to build throughout the interview.

Skeletons And Other Touchy Subjects

Many people have a skeleton or two in the closet. It’s important, therefore, to know how you’re going to respond if they are brought up. If the very thought of having to explain a particular fact or issue gets your heart racing or causes you to break out in a cold sweat, you’ll need a lot of thought and practice, and perhaps some professional assistance, to learn how to handle the situation. Your challenge is to put the situation in the best possible light to minimize its negative effect. Depending on the situation, there may be no way to look good. Your goal may simply be to minimize and control the damage.

These skeletons include situations such as being fired from a job, having spent time in prison, having failed at a business venture, going through bankruptcy, and having been out of work for over a year. If there were five reasons for the situation, pick the two or three reasons that are easiest to discuss. It is important to provide enough information so the interviewer does not feel compelled to probe further. Practice discussing the situation until you sound confident and can explain everything without getting tense or defensive.

Safe Answers

As you read my suggestions, you may have noticed that I often recommend safe answers—answers that are not controversial. There is, in fact, a strong case to be made for safe answers, but always within the context of truthfulness. It is important to give the interviewer a sense of your openness and credibility. But this also requires discretion.

Your challenge is to get the employer to make a job offer. You want the opportunity to accept it or reject it and you do not want to give the interviewer any excuses for rejecting you. So discretion is the key. If you are asked why you want to leave your present job, you may have six reasons. Discretion tells you to mention only three of them. The interviewer may ask about your greatest weakness or the biggest job-related mistake you ever made. By all means share a genuine weakness and reveal a real mistake, but it need not be your greatest weakness or your biggest mistake. Revealing either might hurt your chances for a job offer.

This is a tricky topic to cover because I believe in the importance of honesty. With all of this in mind, however, there are times when you must choose not to reveal something. Whatever you say should be true, but there are times when you may withhold additional information. Use this as a principle to determine how you will respond to some of the really tough questions.

The honesty issue and the safe answer issue are not identical, so let’s return to safe answers. Controversy will never benefit you and should be avoided. During an interview, an issue might come up that you would just love to go after with all of your views and opinions. Don’t do it. In fact, the interviewer may even be baiting you just to see how you will react.

Base your answers on what you have already learned about the job and your prospective boss. Say you have twenty strengths that you are prepared to discuss during an interview, but you quickly realize that four of them would simply not sell you in this particular job with this particular supervisor. Naturally you would choose not to mention those four, but would sell the other sixteen at every opportunity. That is safe and prudent.

You may be a person who relishes independence on the job. Yet when asked what your job-related needs are, you might choose not to mention this because you have sensed that this supervisor likes to maintain close oversight of employees.

Some might suggest that it’s better to clear the air right away. I call this the let-it-all-hang-out syndrome. It is justified by the belief that “if they don’t like me the way I am, then I don’t want to work there anyway.” While this may be a rather noble approach, it does not yield the desired result—a job offer. Get the offer, then decide if you want to work there.

Harry decided this was the time to determine if they would accept him just the way he was

Answering Ambiguous Questions

Employers often ask questions that can be interpreted in more than one way. Examples could be, “What is the biggest mistake you ever made?” or “What was the biggest crisis you ever experienced?” In both, it is unclear whether the employer wants job-related experiences or personal experiences. Generally it is better not to ask for clarification. Take a direction that is easier for you, safer, or will show you in a better light. Take, for example, the question about your biggest mistake. It may be easiest and wisest to simply mention a personal experience. The employer can always come back and say he wants a job-related example. But at least you gave an honest answer. Usually, if you give a good answer, the person will be satisfied and will go on to the next question.

One reason to not ask for clarification on these types of questions is that it breaks the continuity of the interview and can seem awkward. You may seem too cautious and afraid to take risks.

I am not saying never ask for clarification. At times you must. If the question is important, and the ambiguity is so great that you dare not take a wrong direction, by all means ask for clarification.

When seeking clarification you could simply ask, “I’m not quite sure I understand your question. Could you rephrase it?” Or, “I want to be sure to give the answer you’re looking for. Do you mean A or do you mean B?” In this request for clarification the person is showing that he is trying to interpret the questions and just needs a little help. By seeking clarification in this way the interviewer will invariably provide more clarity and will often give you clues about what is expected.

I Don’t Know

Sometimes we just don’t know or don’t remember the answer to a question. The best response is usually candor.

I don’t remember the formula for calculating that problem, but I know where to find the formula and how to use it.

I don’t remember what our raw product wastage rate was, but I know it went down substantially as soon as we installed our new software which made more efficient use of our textiles.

I’m not sure how to solve that programming problem. I haven’t done any C programming in three years. During the last three years I’ve primarily been programming in Java Script and Visual Basic, so I don’t remember the coding for that kind of problem. I know I could come up to speed quickly, though. I always do.

I don’t remember how many inventory turns we had that year, but I do have the records on that. I could call you with the figures tomorrow.

Don’t be embarrassed when you don’t know an answer. We all forget things. Your candor and lack of defensiveness will usually more than make up for your inability to answer the question.

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