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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

How to Salvage an Interview That's Not Going Well

people at a job interview
ONOKY - Eric Audras/Getty Images

If you’re crushing your interview (in the best sense of the word), you’ll often see some reassuring non-verbal cues—the interviewer might smile as you diplomatically answer a trick question or nod when you talk about your management style.

Along similar lines, if you’re crushing your interview (in the worst sense of the word), you may pick up a general sense of disinterest: An interviewer who’s tapping her foot, staring at the clock, or failing to ask follow-up questions isn’t exactly a good sign.

So, what can you do when it’s just not clicking? Can you salvage the interview?

You absolutely can, by employing one of the top skills interviewers look for: thinking on your feet. Look at a rocky start as an opportunity to show how you can adapt and get back in the game—just keep in mind the dos and don’ts of course correcting mid-interview.

Don't: Call it Out

Ever notice how the most awkward thing about a situation can be someone saying, "awkward?" The same applies for interviews. If your first few answers felt strained, you might feel like you should jump in and clear the air ("I feel like we got off to a disjointed start... ”), but definitely don’t. Instead, focus on making your future answers as strong as possible.

Odds are, this is not your interviewer’s first time around the block; meaning, if you started shaky, he’s already noticed. But the good news is: He will also notice that your answers got better as soon as you settled. He’ll likely attribute the beginning to nerves and move on (that is, unless you keep reminding him that the beginning of the conversation was off!).

Do: Take a Quick Inventory

While you should keep your concerns to yourself, you most definitely should not ignore them. Try to do a quick assessment of what might be turning the interviewer off: Did you simply flub one answer, or are you doing something more, like rambling, looking at the floor, or only speaking to one interviewer?

Before your next answer, take just a moment to collect yourself. And as you answer the next question, focus on all of the interview training you have—sit up straight, make good eye contact, and speak clearly, confidently, and concisely.

Don't: Be Afraid to Change it Up

Remember, consistency is only a virtue when you’re on the right path. So if you feel the interview going downhill, don’t be afraid to change tactics. Have you been formally addressing the staff as Mr. and Mrs.? It might make sense to loosen things up and say, "May I call you Sara?" Speaking to your interviewer like a colleague will make the interview feel more collegial, and it might be just the change of pace you need.

Alternatively, if you made a joke and it bombed, don’t keep trying—you’ll want to answer everything else by the book.

Do: Take the Lead

If you find yourself answering simple questions (think "how do you manage your time?") and waiting for follow-up questions that never come—you don’t have to suffer in silence, waiting for the interviewer to make the next move. Instead, take the lead and create your own follow-up.

How does this work? For example, you could answer the time management question briefly, then continue with, "A time I employed these skills was…" You can also try, "Does that answer your question, or is there anything else I can share?” Or, you can use a bout of silence to ask your own questions: “How do others on the team manage their time and projects?” Any of these approaches would be good segues into further conversation—and good ways to fill those awkward silences.

Don’t: Take it Too Personally

So, what if you take an inventory, sit straighter, and try to initiate follow-ups, and your interviewer still seems icy? Consider that the lack of affirmation may be a tactic: Some interviewers are harder on top candidates to see how they handle curve balls and perform under pressure. (Confession: I’ve done this.) Additionally, some companies have a rigid interview protocol for hiring managers to ensure they don't appear to show bias or favoritism.

So don't internalize it and think, “This interview isn’t going well because I’m doing something wrong," and instead, try: "This is a challenge that I’m going to demonstrate I can meet!" By simply staying positive and professional, you'll rise above the candidates who visibly falter under the additional stress.

Do: Follow Up as Usual

After such a tough experience, you may be thinking that a thank you note isn't worth it, or that you might as well make "worst. interview. ever." your status update. But remember: Until you officially have an answer in hand, the verdict is still out. So it’s important to keep things professional.

This means doing all the same follow-up you would if the interview had gone well—i.e., writing a stellar thank you note to each of your interviewers. It’s always worthwhile to leave a great impression, and who knows where you really stand in the candidate pool.

Interviews are like tests—your impression of how you did may not bear any relevance on how it actually went. Just try to do your best and resist throwing in the towel. At worst, you’ll have had an expert lesson in interviewing that will make future interviews seem easier; and at best, you’ll have done better than you thought.

Photo of job interview courtesy of Shutterstock.