But there’s another stressor that can be just as crippling: You’re asked a question, and you know your answer—but you also know it’s not the answer the interviewer wants to hear.
Here’s an example: You show up to the scheduled meeting, and the hiring manager leads you through an open-concept workspace to his office. He turns to you and asks, “So, what do you think of shared office spaces?”
The “right” answer—the one he obviously wants to hear—is, “I think they’re great! I love collaborating and interacting with my co-workers all day, every day.”
But what if the response that actually rings true for you is the very opposite—that you like working independently and you’d prefer to shut yourself in a nice, quiet office and focus on your work without constant distraction?
You want the job, of course, but you also don’t want to flat-out lie and land yourself in a position that isn’t a great fit for you. To figure out where to draw the line, keep these four tips in mind.
1. Realize You Don’t Actually Know What the Interviewer Wants to Hear
If candidates always knew what their interviewers wanted to hear, there probably wouldn’t be so many people who respond to the infamous “What’s your biggest weakness?” with “Perfectionism.” Because as many hiring managers will tell you, that’s exactly what they don’t want to hear.
In many cases, interviewers want you to be candid and honest about your shortcomings. Yes, they are looking for particular qualities and experience, but they also want to know that you’re a person, not a robot. For example, a hiring manager who asks you to recount a mistake you made truly wants to hear about your blunder (and how you learned from it, of course)—not that you’ve had a miraculously mistake-free career.
You may think your answer isn’t what the right one—but it may actually be the breath of fresh air that lands you the job.
2. Rephrase if Possible
In some cases, you may be able to be honest with your response while still putting yourself in a good light.
For example, maybe your interviewer asks you how you handle stress. The honest answer? It usually sends you into a complete emotional breakdown—you burst into tears or start snapping at everyone who comes within 10 feet of your cubicle.
But, that’s probably not going to inspire much confidence in the hiring manager. So, consider how you can rephrase in an honest but more positive way by focusing on how you are working to improve in that particular area.
“When I face a stressful situation, there are times when I let the pressure get to me. However, I’ve realized that what really helps is breaking down tasks into more manageable pieces and focusing on just one portion at a time. I’ve found that when I approach a stressful situation that way, I’m able to complete the task more efficiently and with a level head.”
3. Ask More Questions
When you assume you know exactly what the interviewer is looking for, you can box yourself in to the thinking that right answer is a black or white issue. However, by asking a few clarifying questions, you can speak honestly while still positioning yourself in a good light.
Consider the example of the open-concept workspace. Assuming you don’t want to work alone all the time, you could answer the question with, “I enjoy collaborating with my co-workers, but when I really need to focus, I prefer to work independently, in a quiet area. I see you have a pretty open office here—are there any quiet spaces employees can go to get away from distractions?”
You’re being completely honest, while showing your flexibility—and most importantly, you’re digging in to figure out if the role is truly right for you. Because just as the company is evaluating you, you’re also evaluating the business and the open position. For your future career satisfaction, it’s important to avoid just aiming to please, but to dig in to figure out of the role is actually a good fit for you. Which brings me to:
4. Know Your Deal Breakers
In the end, you have to know what’s truly a deal breaker for you and let that be your guide, rather than focusing on how to answer the question in a way that appeals to the interviewer.
For instance, if you want a role that requires absolutely no contact with customers, then an interviewer asking, “How do you handle angry customer calls?” is likely a sign that you won’t be a good fit for the position.
On the other hand, maybe you don’t handle stress well—but it’s something you’re working on, and you know that most challenging, career-advancing positions are going to encompass some level of stress. In that situation, it may not be a complete deal breaker, and would be worth it to formulate an answer that is both honest and appealing to your interviewer.
Of course you want your interview answers to be music to the hiring manager’s ears. But you also don’t want that to get in the way of landing a job you love. Strike the right balance—while still being honest—and you’ll be on track for a career that’s a perfect fit for you.
Photo of interview courtesy of Shutterstock.