How to Perform Well When Interviewers Ask Bad Questions

by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.
Anyone who has survived a college education has earned grades on examinations that did not always reflect their actual learning. There were occasions when one was not as prepared as one could be, but earned high marks. The opposite scenario is also true -- when one was well prepared and, yet, earned a less than stellar grade. The examination's design often accounts for the different outcomes. Variability in the kind and quality of questions presents itself in interviewing as well. Some search committees ask deep, insightful, and probing questions, while others ask recycled and seemingly random, unrelated questions.

Thorough preparation is a hedge against forgetfulness and potential interview blunders. It is also an insurance policy against interviews that lack high-quality questions to draw out one's best characteristics. In addition to doing things before the interview, such as preparing good questions for interviewers, there are a number of things one can do during and after the interview to make a favorable impression. These can be used whether or not the course of the interview allows one to put their best foot forward.

In a recent post, interviewees were advised to write down notable things about the position in question, key elements from one's background, and a few questions to pose of hosts as a means of interview preparation. In some situations, it may be appropriate to have this information in a portfolio placed before oneself in the interview. In other situations, this is impractical. Nonetheless, the exercise of reflecting upon one's experiences, documenting these ideas, and reviewing the information days before and again moments before entering the interview, will have one ready and prepared with an arsenal of good thoughts top of mind.

Good questions are artfully prepared and are usually precise in their language and tone. Poor questions have telltale signs such as being too long, having too many parts, and leaving too much room for interpretation. Some questions meander their way to the point and some otherwise good questions are delivered in an adlib fashion that masks their true meaning. Here are a few techniques for responding well when the questions asked are not the best: a) pause, b) ask for the question to be repeated, c) ask for a clarification, d) offer more than one answer to the question, or e) answer the question and then offer some additional commentary at the end.

When asked a difficult, awkward, or generic question, pausing before answering gives you a few more heartbeats to think through the question and formulate a coherent response. When necessary, the response might be more detailed, thorough, and deeper than the question itself. As an example, if one is asked to explain their research agenda or how they overcame a past workplace setback, one might contextualize the question without prompt. Explaining how one's research agenda is complementary to the work of the department or providing a work example that might be similar to the position's setting gives an answer richer than the question would have otherwise deserved. Asking the interviewer to repeat an ill-formed question allows more time to respond, and it might give him or her a clue that the question is awkward or incomplete. When repeating it, he or she may alter the question, clarify the question, or provide information closer to the gist of what they intended to ask.

Asking the interviewer for clarification is important if you legitimately do not understand the question or if you did not hear it correctly. However, if used strategically, it can demonstrate your mastery of a given subject. If the question is about one's experience with a specific piece of technology or software, the clarification could be phrased as, "If you are asking if I have experience with the XYZ protocol, I have used it successfully for years. Or, are you asking if I am familiar with the various technologies used in the profession as well as the techniques that they are based upon?" When used infrequently and subtly, this allows you to enhance the response to questions that do not adequately bring out your extensive background and expertise. Another way of putting one's best foot forward is to offer the search committee two or more quick responses and then ask them which one that you should illuminate. In the above example, one might say, "I have experience with the ABC and the XYZ protocols and I have also used the two leading software programs in use today. Were you asking me about the technologies, the research protocols, or both?"

If one is not a veteran or expert, the clarification technique can still be used to advantage. A good response might be, "If you are asking if I am familiar with various technologies and research protocols, I am. I learned about many in my studies, have worked on a few since then, and am well-read on the subject of how rapidly things are changing in our discipline." This response bridges the divide between being asked about a particular thing and enlarging it to an applicable global standard or principle -- one in which you are likely knowledgeable. It also demonstrates the final technique of adding commentary after answering the initial question. The afterthought gives you two chances of getting the question right. Indulging the interviewer and responding in kind is dutifully appropriate; however, extending your response gives you an additional opportunity to make a favorable impression -- regardless of how well the question is articulated.

If, at the interview's end, you walk out of the room and do not feel it went well, do not fret. Borrow the mantra of the Yogi Berra quote, "It is not over until it is over." If you did not perform well because you had a bad day, or because the questions did not allow you to put your best self forward, here are three things that can give you another bite at the apple. Leave documents behind, share your latent observations, and write a follow-up letter. Some candidates find it profitable to bring a sample or two of work products to leave behind with interviewers. Copies of articles written, presentations or speeches delivered, work completed, newspaper clippings that sing one's praises, and similar documents can serve as evidence and reminders of one's strengths. If you know that you were nervous and did not do your best, just say it. If your wealth of experience did not come out in the formal setting, share that with whomever will listen. Many search committees will give you credit for this level of self-awareness as they know that interviews can discombobulate even the best prepared. Last, in your follow-up thank you letters to the committee and hiring manager, you can also make note of important information not previously covered.

As advised earlier, writing down talking points helps one remember key details from their past. Moreover, this is also a hedge against uninspiring questions. Asking good questions of the interviewers demonstrates one's knowledge and preparation and can help make up for questions that do not effectively discriminate between good, average, and excellent candidates. Other techniques for making a good showing include pausing to think of ways of embellishing one's answer to run-of-the-mill questions, or asking for the question to be repeated or clarified. The latter can prompt the interviewer to offer an improved version of the question or possibly give some useful insight into their actual intent. Finally, offering a solid answer and then additional commentary to your response when you are unsure will also put you in good stead. When you prepare for both being at your highest level as well as for when the human interviewers might have a bad day, you help yourself have the best interview performance possible.