person on phone

We’ve all been there: You’re on the phone during an afternoon walk, and suddenly, fire engines are barreling down the street and you can’t hear anything. Or you plan to take a work call at your local Starbucks—but for some reason, the music is 10 times louder than usual. Or there was crazy construction on the highway, and so instead of chatting from your home office, you’re in your car on your Bluetooth.

Now, imagine this isn’t just any call: It’s a phone interview.

As you’d imagine, you need a whole different set of survival skills when you’re dealing with a distracting situation—and trying to land a job. True story: I once had building maintenance knock on my apartment door to search for the source of a leak during a phone interview.

Here’s what I learned from the experience.

1. Calm Down

You can’t control whatever strange thing is going on—but you can control how you come off. If you sound like you’re a moment away from a panic attack, you’re not projecting the image of someone who capably handles challenges. And, even if you manage to speak at a reasonable pace, if you’re still freaking out that things aren’t going as planned, you might be too flustered to, you know, answer questions.

Remind yourself that this is an opportunity for you to shine in spite of less than ideal circumstances. You’ve probably had other times in your career when things didn’t go as planned (think: you’re giving a speech and the microphone cuts out, or you’re late to an important meeting because the city transit system is covered in ice), but you made it work.

Snafus happen—all you can do is the best you can. And taking some of the pressure off of yourself is a vital first step.

2. Gauge Whether (or Not) You Should Tell Your Interviewer

In my situation, I started the phone call by saying, “I’m so sorry, I just got a call that my apartment is leaking into the unit beneath mine and maintenance will be coming over momentarily.” I went with this approach for two reasons: 1. I anticipated something disturbing the flow of the interview (I would have to answer the door and let maintenance in) and 2. The situation was literally out of my control. I felt that it was better to be upfront than to catch the interviewer off-guard when I interrupted her to answer the door.

On the other hand, if the reason you’re distracted is because of a poor decision you made, it’s best not to tell your interviewer. If you chose to run errands before your interview and it took longer than expected—don’t tell your interviewer that you’re parking your car at the mall (which, yes, a friend of mine was told while conducting an interview). Don’t share that you’re whispering because you took the phone interview in your office and have yet to tell your boss that you’re seeking other employment.

Basically, you want to minimize disruptions during an interview. Consider forewarning the interviewer if it will make the call go smoother—just so long as it doesn’t make you look unprepared.

3. Weigh the Risks of Reconvening

Of course, it’s going to be nearly impossible to rock a phone interview if you can’t hear the person on the other end of the phone. If something prohibitive is occurring—you don’t have service, a fire alarm is going off, or you’ve recently come down with laryngitis—your best bet is to reschedule the interview.

Ideally, you’d never cancel within 24 hours of the scheduled time—let alone once the interview has begun. And yes, there is a chance that this approach will lose you the job. But it’s better than 30 minutes of “What did you say?” and “Can you hear me?” This way, you at least have the chance to look like a take-charge person.

Say, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t hear you, so I’m going to send you an email right now.” Then hang up, and send an email that explains the extenuating circumstances. Apologize for the inconvenience, tell the interviewer that you didn’t want to waste his time, and give several times that you can reschedule (more than an hour out, in case the situation hasn’t yet resolved itself—because you can’t take this approach twice).

4. Repeat (or Rephrase) Questions

If you can gather yourself—and speak and hear—your best bet is to take the interview. You may have only considered repeating interview questions as a strategy when you need more time, but it can also be invaluable when you have a split focus.

For example, during my phone interview, maintenance knocked while the interviewer was mid-question. It took me a full minute to open the door, point frantically at my phone and make “I’m sorry, this is super important” gestures—and then I realized it was my turn to speak and I had no idea what to say.

So, I started by reframing what I thought she had said, which then allowed for the interviewer to add anything I’d missed. It sounds something like this: “If I understand correctly, you’re looking to grow your client base, and you’d like to hear some of my thoughts on how I could make that happen within my first six months.” That way, the interviewer can say “exactly,” or “specifically for an international audience,” or “actually, I said, ‘six weeks.’”

You might lose a few points for listening, but it will keep the flow of the conversation better than asking the interviewer to repeat himself altogether (and make you look better than guessing and missing a vital part of the question).

Things don’t always go according to plan during a phone interview. It’s frustrating, but it’s life. Use the tips above to readjust, and commit to doing all you can to make things go smoothly for the rest of the process—starting with a great thank you note.

Updated 6/19/2020