#165: 5 Ways to Respond to English Job Interview Questions When You Don’t Know the Answer

Feb 19, 2020 | Job Interviews in English

Interviewers love to ask difficult questions in an English job interview. They do it so they can see how you think and how you respond to stress. 

So how should you answer job interview questions when you don’t know the answer or feel stuck?

That’s a good question. In fact, it’s exactly the question I received in my Facebook Community this week.

“What can I say at the moment I forgot the answer or how to say it in English? In order not to make a long pause.”

I love this question because native and non-native English speakers get stuck, forget words, or don’t know the answer to a question sometimes.

In that moment you have two options:

  1. Have a long, awkward pause. (But this sounds unprofessional and unprepared.)
  2. Or use a successful strategy to help you answer difficult English job interview questions. 

When you handle this situation well, you sound calm, confident, and in control.

In today’s Confident English lesson, you’ll learn 5 ways to respond to English job interview questions when you don’t know the answer or feel stuck. 

5 Ways to Respond to English Job Interview Questions When You Don’t Know the Answer

Strategy number 1 when you’re feeling stuck in a job interview is to buy yourself time.

To buy time is an English idiom that means to purposefully delay something so that you can do or achieve something else.

In this case you want to delay your answer so you can have time to think.

Here’s how you can do that:

Start with a brief pause.

I mentioned this in my lesson on 7 Tips for a Successful Phone Interview in English. Taking a brief pause gives you a moment to breathe, evaluate the question and get your thoughts together for your answer or how to buy yourself some time.

Then, use a phrase like:

  • That’s a great question. Let me think about that for a second. I would say that…
  • Wow, that’s a good question. I’ve honestly never thought about that. Let me think just for a moment.
  • That’s a complex question. Let me collect my thoughts on that for a moment.
  • That’s a question I really need to think about. Can I take some time with it and come back to it later in the interview? 
  • Let me think back for a moment. I remember when…

Now strategy number 2 is to clarify the question.

When clarifying, you can also ask the interviewer to define or explain their question.

Here are a few ways to do that:

  • I’m not sure I understood the question fully. Could you explain what you mean by _____?
  • I’m so sorry, I’m not sure what you meant by that. Can you repeat your question please?
  • I’d like to make sure I understood correctly. You’re asking __________?

Not only do these clarification questions buy you some time to think but they also guarantee that you understand the question and can respond appropriately.

Strategy number 3 is one of my favorites and it might surprise you: think out loud.

I love teaching my students how to do this in my Confident Job Interviews course

The job interview is an opportunity for the interviewer to see how you think and how you work under pressure. That’s one of the reasons interviewers ask difficult questions.

And they know you won’t have perfect answers to every question. 

For example, if they ask you about your process for reaching new customers or dealing with problems on a team or onboarding a new employee but you don’t have a clear process for this (yet), then imagine the steps you would take.

Start with, “In this position, I would start by _______” or “It depends on the situation but I would _____” and then go through the steps you would take in that process.

As you do this, be sure to include signposting or transition words like first, second, then, after that, and finally to help your answer flow smoothly. (If you’re one of my Fluency School or Job Interview students, then you know all about signposting and how important it is for clear communication.)

Strategy number 4 is focus on what you do know. This is perfect when an interviewer asks you about a definition or concept that you just don’t know.

Instead of saying ‘I don’t know’ focus on what you do know or how you would find the solution.

For example, let’s say there’s a software program you’ll need to use in this new position but you’re not familiar with it. When asked about it, focus on programs you are familiar with and how you’ll be able to adapt quickly to the new one.

And now, strategy number 5 for how to respond to an interview question when you don’t know or feel stuck is follow up.

In my Confident Job Interview Course I highlight the importance of sending a thank you email and what it should say. 

This email is also a great opportunity to provide a well-thought answer to the question.

To do this, you could write, “I appreciated your question on ______. After giving it more thought, I would say _______.”

Now I’d love to hear from you!

What is the best lesson you’ve learned about how to respond when you’re feeling stuck or don’t know the answer to a question in English? 

Do you have a phrase or question you always use? Share it with me and the whole Confident English Community. 

You can share in the comments below. This is the best way to communicate with me, get feedback, and ask questions.

Have a fantastic week.
– Annemarie

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