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What To Do When You Can’t Answer a Question

It’s every job applicant’s worse nightmare. You’re in your job interview and things are going smoothly. You’ve fielded each question so far with no problem and your confidence is steadily increasing.

Then it happens.

Bam! The next question asked throws you for a loop and you are completely stumped. Now, what do you do?

Don’t Panic

Take a few deep breaths and try to calm down. Tell yourself, “Okay, I’m stumped by this one but I’ve done my research and I know what to do next.”

And if you’ve read this article, you will know what to do next.

Don’t Immediately Say “I Don’t Know”

If you’re unable to keep yourself from panicking, your first reaction will be to either (a) sit there with a blank look on your face, or (b) blurt out “I don’t know.” Both actions are a mistake.

What you don’t want to do is give the impression that you are clueless (even if you are!). Your first response should be a thoughtful one that shows you’re still calm and in control.

Buy Yourself Some Time

The first thing you should do is buy yourself a bit of time. Sometimes your memory just needs to be jogged and you’re then able to answer the question. There are a couple of ways to do this without looking bad.

  • If you’ve been given some water (which is often the case), nod your head, reach for the bottle and take a drink. This is perfectly acceptable and can be just the interruption you need to better focus on the question.
  • Say that you’d like to write down the important points of the question first so you can be sure to consider them all.
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You can even combine these two to get more time, though you do run the risk of looking like you’re stalling.

Still Stumped?

If you’re still stumped after the short delay, there are some additional things you can do to better position yourself to respond.

  • Start thinking out loud about what you’ve been asked. You may possess at least some knowledge about the question. Thinking out loud about what you do know can substitute for the exact answer if it’s relatable to the question.
  • Ask for some clarification. “I want to be sure I understand the question correctly. Could you please elaborate a bit?” If you can get some additional details, you may find you actually do know the answer.
  • Try to redirect the question. What you want to do is find some aspects of it that are similar to areas of knowledge or skills you do have. You can then focus on those areas and tie them back to the question.
  • If you can’t answer the question because it’s something you haven’t encountered, talk about how you would find the answer. “I haven’t dealt with that exact situation, but this is how I would go about handling it…”.

When Nothing Works and You Have to Admit You Don’t Know

Okay, you’ve stalled for time, asked clarifying questions, and tried redirection. Nothing worked. Or, the question may have been so alien to you that you immediately knew you had no chance at coming up with a good answer.

Now, what do you do?

Once again, do not use the words “I don’t know”. It sounds too much like you’ve given up and won’t even try.

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Next, do not under any circumstances try to fake an answer, especially if it involves expertise you don’t have. The odds are high that the Hiring Manager, or someone else on the interview panel, does have that expertise and they won’t be fooled.

Don’t Say You’ll Send an Answer After the Interview.

This is classic advice for which I strongly disagree.

In almost every article you’ll read, you’ll see this piece of advice about what to do when you can’t answer a question. It goes something like this.

When you don’t know an answer, tell them you don’t know but would like to think about it and get back to them after you’ve had a chance to do some research. Then, develop an answer and sent it along with your thank you letter.

The idea here is that it shows the Hiring Manager that you have good follow-through and attention to detail.

Sorry folks, but after 30 years of Hiring Manager experience, I’m here to tell you this is a waste of time, and here’s why.

Almost always, the decision as to if you go on to the next round of interviews is made as soon as your interview is over. If the question you couldn’t answer was a minor one, the damage done is small. Don’t try to correct it.

If it was a major question with a high degree of importance to the job, the damage is already done.

Sending an answer later won’t change things and it makes you look desperate. Don’t expect a response.

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A hard fact to hear, but it’s the way the hiring process works most of the time.

Do This Instead

But there is an alternative that sometimes does work. Instead of saying you’ll get back to them after the interview with an answer, try this. “That’s a really good question. If it’s okay, I’d like to give it some thought and loop back to it after the other questions have been asked.” The chances are good that you’ll get the okay.

I’ve seen this done a few times over the years and about half the time the question is forgotten about by the end of the interview. No harm, no foul.

If you do get reminded and still are unable to come up with an answer, simply say “I’m sorry. Even after reflection, it’s a question I’m not equipped to answer.”

You won’t be any worse off than if you said “I don’t know” right upfront, and you may even be given some points for being honest about it.

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