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What If You Don’t Know the Answer?

By Joe Stein

As a savvy Job Seeker, you know that it is important to anticipate what questions you may be asked, prepare your answers, and practice answering in a role play situation.  Your goal, in doing all of this hard work, is to be ready for anything that may be thrown at you during the course of the interview.


It is, however, impossible to know everything.  Every time you step into an interview, you run the risk of being asked something that you simply do not know the answer to.  This is a different scenario than if you are asked a difficult question that you need time to process or you did not understand what was asked.  How you handle yourself in this “sticky” situation of “not knowing” may be what determines whether you move forward to the next step in the hiring process.  Let’s start with some paths to avoid if you are stumped, followed by some tips that may allow you to wiggle out of a tough spot.


What Not To Do:

• Panic – Interviewers are trained to read body language and to recognize when someone is uncomfortable.  Among the items to avoid would be a blank look on your face, starting to stammer with your words, sweating, and avoiding eye contact.

• Lose Your Confidence – Regardless of whether you handled this question adequately (it is hard to really do it very well) or poorly, you can not dwell on it.  You need to move on to the rest of the interview without any noticeable negative impact.  Quickly refocus and go back to your game plan that you have already prepared.

• Become Apologetic – It is OK to offer a quick apology if you feel it is appropriate in the moment…”I am sorry I am not familiar with that”, however, overemphasizing your apology or repeating it will work to your detriment.  You will be serving to place a spotlight on your non-answer and end up coming across as lacking confidence or unqualified.

• Make It Up – In my opinion, most individuals overestimate their ability to talk their way out of situations.  If you decide to take the route of trying to “schmooze” your way out of the question, you are taking a huge risk. There is a slim chance it will work, but a very good chance that your response will become a “deal breaker” for the Hiring Manager.


What You Can Do:

• Turn It To A Positive – If you are asked something you truly have not experienced before, then you can state that fact, but then communicate how you would love to learn more about it.  Follow-up with a statement regarding how quick of a learner you are and how successfully you have picked up new skills in the past. 


• Stress Your Follow Up – Sometimes, in the working world, you don’t know the answer when asked a question.  If the scenario warrants, you can use a time where you were asked a question that you did not know the answer but then researched and came back to the person.  This example is particularly impactful if you are seeking a leadership role where that type of follow-up is crucial.


• Be Quick and Short – In this situation, you will want to determine quickly if you can answer the question.  If you think you may know the answer, then a pause will allow you to gather your thoughts and provide your response.  However, if you know you can’t provide an answer, then any delay will just allow the Interviewer a longer period of time to analyze your indecision and level of discomfort.  Whatever you decide to do, you do not want to belabor your answer and engage in a long-winded response.  Your goal should be to adequately address the question, try your best to turn the response towards a positive, and then move the conversation forward to another topic.


• Focus on the Intangibles – While what you actually say in an interview is important, just as critical to a Hiring Manager, however, can be the intangibles.  Can you handle the situation in a confident but self-effacing manner?  Do you maintain your poise?  Was the question handled with integrity and without misrepresenting yourself?


Even in today’s challenging economy, Hiring Managers realize that no one will possess every desired skill, attribute, and experience.  There will probably be something that you just do not know about, it and that is generally OK.  The key, however, is how you handle yourself when placed in this situation.  By responding professionally, when asked something you do not know, you greatly improve your chances of moving forward in the hiring process.


As always, best of luck in your job search!

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