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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

A Quick Guide to Talking About Your Failures Without Being Self-Deprecating

It’s a common (and, admittedly, cringe-worthy) interview question. But, what about your response? Is that just as deserving of a wince and a pained expression?

I get it—talking about your failures is never easy. And, when prompted to do so, you probably go one of two ways. Perhaps you attempt to completely brush the question off and move on—after all, you’re the perfect candidate. You don’t have any mishaps in your past worthy of note.

Not you? OK, well then I’m willing to bet you swing way too far in the opposite direction. You not only own that screw-up, but you make it all yours. You were the idiot who managed to mess things up beyond belief. You can’t believe you were so stupid. “Seriously, could I be any dumber?” you ask the interviewer with a chuckle, as she internally debates whether or not she should send you home with her favorite self-help hardcover.

Yes, I know that you think this critical approach to talking about your letdowns makes you seem honest and willing to accept responsibility—but, it also makes you appear pretty low on self-esteem.

So, it’s time to learn how to walk that fine line and strike a balance between being totally blameless and completely self-deprecating when discussing your failures and missteps.

Here’s what you need to know to pull it off.

1. Avoid Being a Martyr

You didn’t get much sleep the night before, your schedule was packed, the phone kept ringing, and the sun was in your eyes. We’re all familiar with making excuses to try to sweep our own blunders and misgivings under the rug.

But, if you’re someone who tends to be way too hard on yourself when discussing any slip-ups in your professional history? Well, chances are you have the tendency to make excuses for everybody around you, and not necessarily for yourself. You want to make it look like you’re taking full ownership, so you leave out critical clues and details of the experience in the interest of saving face for other people.

I get it—you don’t want to throw people under the bus and give the impression that you’re trying to shift blame (and you shouldn’t!). However, when you’re armed with a solid example of a time you failed, your goal should be to give as accurate of recount of what happened as possible.

Saying something like, “There was a miscommunication on my team,” doesn’t make it look like you’re trying to pass the buck and downplay your own role. Instead, it just serves to give your interviewer a truthful portrayal of what exactly contributed to your failure. And, it’s definitely better than stating something like, “I’m just an incompetent idiot who can’t listen to instructions to save my life!”

While your efforts to shoulder all of the blame are admirable, they’re truly unnecessary. Instead, just focus on being honest—it really is always the best policy.

2. Stay Away From Harsh Language

Stupid. Dumb. Idiotic. Senseless. Reckless. Irresponsible.

They’re all adjectives you want to stay far, far away from when describing your failures in job interviews (or anywhere, really). Maybe these unforgiving words are your way of trying to inject a little personality or humor into your story. Or, maybe they’re your attempt to emphasize how how badly you managed to fall flat on your face. Either way, you’re better off being matter-of-fact when detailing the times that you came up short—rather than being harsh and brutal with all sorts of unnecessary adjectives.

Yes, perhaps the fact that you managed to miss a crucial client presentation because you still have yet to understand how time zones work was a first-rate idiotic failure. But, repeatedly beating yourself up over it and calling yourself names in front of your interviewer is just a surefire way to get shown out of the meeting—and perhaps into a therapist’s office.

3. Emphasize What You Learned

Here it is—the key piece of talking about your failures in more of a positive light. While you definitely want to answer the question head-on and provide a logical explanation of a time when you missed the mark, you should plan to follow up that description with the lesson that you learned.

Flipping the script this way accomplishes two things. First, it demonstrates to your interviewer that—while you have experienced those times that made you feel like a less-than-exemplary employee—you’re able to use those to continuously improve.

Secondly, it forces you to talk about those experiences in a way that’s inherently more affirmative and constructive. Sure, you might still be internally beating yourself over the head like a character from a cartoon, all because of that failure that you know is going to haunt you for years to come. But, the interviewer? All he sees is a confident and self-aware candidate who’s not only willing to own his failures—but ultimately learn from them.

Needing to openly discuss your past failures—particularly in the high-pressure environment of a job interview—always presents a unique challenge. You want to take responsibility for the missteps you’ve made. But, at the same time, you don’t want to be so hard on yourself that you come off as thin-skinned, obsessive, and ultimately unqualified.

Use these three tips to talk about your previous fiascos in a way that’s a little more positive—and a little less self-deprecating. Because no matter what you missed the mark on, there’s no need to make it sound quite so bad.

Photo of serious conversation courtesy of Jetta Productions/Getty Images.