Stumped in an Interview? Three Tips to Remain Cool and Composed

Mar 28, 2019

By Deborah Vieyra

Your palms are wet, your heart hammers like a construction site, your ears get hot. They’ve asked you a question you can’t seem to think of the answer to. You thought you had done everything to prepare. How is this happening?

There really is no other experience like being an interviewee. So much hinges on what you are able to do in the moment. There is no do-over, no second chance, no editing. I say this not to make you run for the hills chased by your own anxiety, but rather to introduce you to strategies that will help you thrive in this setting, regardless of what is happening on the inside.

First, know that the interviewers are by no means expecting you to be flawless. They want the real-life human. You, not an algorithm that is able to spew out perfect answers. The aim of the interview process is to get to know you better to see if you are a suitable candidate. However trite it may sound, the first rule then is to be yourself.

To help you feel relaxed as you navigate this process, I’ve outlined important survival strategies that will help you keep your cool:

1) Ask for clarification

It’s simple—to ensure that you answer the question asked of you, it’s vital that you understand the question in the first place. If you are unsure, the best response is always to ask. The likelihood is very slim that you will be penalized for this. In fact, there is a great chance that, by asking for clarification, you will demonstrate your capacity for both accuracy and humility. The last thing you want to do is give a runaway train of an answer that goes full speed in the wrong direction. Asking for clarification allows you to wrap your head around what is expected of you—and then deliver.

2) If you don’t have the exact answer, explain how you will find it

In some cases, you simply may not know the answer to the question that is being asked of you. Don’t respond to this by giving false or misleading information. Put yourself forward with integrity. Highlight that, while you don’t have immediate answers, you do understand the complexity of the question. Rather than explain exactly how you would solve the problem, tell them how you would approach the problem. Where would you seek more information? What skills would you use that you currently have to find out the answers that you need? If you can display a capacity for critical thinking and problem solving-ability, you will cast yourself in a very favourable light. This is far more valuable than having all the answers.

3) Take a long pause

Pausing is the speaker’s friend. It allows you a moment to gather your thoughts and provides the listener with the time to process information before moving on to the next topic. While there is no hard and fast rule, think of 15-20 seconds as a good ballpark measurement for a pre-answer pause. Let them know you are considering one of several examples you could draw for your response. Once you have done so, you can take your time composing your answer in your mind before speaking. This gives you a moment to collate your thoughts into a cohesive answer, meaning you can move forward with confidence. In addition to this, a perfect pause will likely be welcomed by your listener. As many public speaking experts know, the pause is one of the most effective tools to have in your arsenal. A well-timed pause can have the psychological effect of keeping your interviewer on edge for your response. Whatever comes out of your mouth will sound thoughtful!

Final thoughts

Your interview is often the final hurdle in an application process. Allow yourself the time to give considered answers that do justice to all the hard work you have already put into the process.

Lastly, remember that they’ve called you into the interview because they want to meet you. They are already interested in what you have to offer. Now show them that they’re right!

Deborah Vieyra is a Fulbright alumna from South Africa who completed her MA in Applied Theatre Arts at the University of Southern California. She now works as a writer, proofreader and performer in Vancouver, Canada.

© Victoria Johnson 2018, all rights reserved.