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How to Answer a Question You Don't Know the Answer To...

ai practice interviews behavioral interview answer hypothetical interview answer practice interviews ai Apr 03, 2024

Have you ever found yourself in the intense spotlight of a job interview, only to have your mind go completely blank when asked a tough question? It's a universal experience that is even more common than you might think. The good news is there are steps you can take to prepare for this exact scenario!

You're Not Alone

Remember, getting stumped by an interview question isn't the end of the world. It's a shared experience that transcends industries and career levels. The real challenge lies not in avoiding these situations, but in how you respond when they occur.

Practice Makes Perfect

Starting with the basics, practice is paramount. Engage in practice interviews with friends, family members, your significant other, current or past colleagues, etc. This preparation will train your brain to respond more adaptively during the real deal.


Taking a moment to breathe deeply will help you reset and calm your mind helping you get through the initial surge of panic when you do not immediately have an answer. Sometimes in the moment it can be difficult to remember to breathe. I know it sounds crazy, but you may need a sticky note attached to your computer reminding you to use your breath to calm down your nervous system.

Restate the Question

Make sure you restate the question to the interviewer and get them to confirm you are answering the right question. This act alone can get the juices flowing and help your brain uncover the right answer. Don't hesitate to ask your interviewer to restate the question as well. Sometimes when they restate the question, the interviewer will provide more clarification/details that might also unlock the answer you are looking for. Lastly, this strategy is buying you more time for your brain to identify an answer that aligns with the interview question.

Take Your Time (Overall)

Tell (don’t ask) your interviewer that you are going to take a minute to gather your thoughts. In this minute you will have the time to review your cheat sheet:

and jot down some notes to get the juices flowing. This time is usually the key to unlocking your brain and coming up with an example/approach that will appropriately answer the question.

Take Your Time (Behavioral)

If the question is a behavioral question (Tell me about a time when, give me an example of) then you really want to review your behavioral example titles on your cheat sheet. Do any of your pre-planned examples work for the question? Then dissect the question and ask yourself, what is the core question asking, specifically, is this a question about relationships, processes, etc. Finding the core theme of the question can also help you to use one of your pre-planned examples.

Take Your Time (Hypothetical)

If the question is a hypothetical question (How would you, what would you, I want you to imagine, etc.) then your first step is to simply ask yourself, have I been through a similar situation in my career. Because even though you want to problem solve these questions and not use an example, thinking about a time you have been through something similar can unlock your mind. 

Then you really want to review your pre-planned assumptions on your cheat sheet. Do any of your pre-planned assumptions work for the question? Even if your pre-planned assumptions are not ideal, could you stretch and or pivot these assumptions to create an answer that will be relevant to the question.

Dialogue with Your Interviewer (Behavioral)

If you are still stuck/struggling after taking a minute to think through it, you will want to open up the dialoge with your interviewer. Specifically, for a behavioral answer, you may say something like “Sue, you asked a question about a conflict with my manager, I have a confict story, but it is with a colleague, is it okay if I use that example instead?” Or, “Sue I have been extremely fortunate to not have been in a major conflict in my career, is it okay to provide an example where I had to utilize my strong communication skills to achieve a challenging goal?” Or, “Sue I am struggling to find the right example, can we talk through what kind of information you are looking to uncover with this question? This might help me unlock a good example.”

The first two questions to Sue are better than the third, but simply opening up the dialogue will help!

Dialogue with Your Interviewer (Hypothetical)

This is where asking either/or and or yes/no clarifying questions can be really helpful to get you headed in the right direction when answering these types of questions. And the good news is that you will have pre-planned generic clarification questions written down on your cheat sheet.

So you can lead with these questions, but if you are still stuck on how to solve this type of question, you can pose options to your interviewer, such as, “Sue I think we could tackle this challenge through the lens of an internal problem or external problem is there one you prefer? Or, “Sue do you prefer for me to focus more on solving this from a business perspective or technology perspective?” These could also be clarifying questions at the beginning of your answer, but either way you are opening up the dialogue and ultimately, giving your brain more time to think and find the right path.

You Can’t Unstick!

Sometimes we simply get stuck. Practice, creating a killer cheat sheet, and talking through your thought process should work in 90%+ of cases, but sometimes we go blank. In these cases, you want to be transparent with your interviewer that you are a little stuck and anything they can do to give you a hint or provide some direction will be super valuable. Will this be a slight downtick in your overall interview performance/score, yes, but it is way better than the alternative of saying you do not have an answer!

Key Takeaways

  1. Practice - the best way to be prepared for these moments is to conduct practice interviews, the more we do anything the better brain connectivity we create.
  2. Breathe - When we forget to breathe we hold onto stress/anxiety, use your breath to slow your heart rate down and get grounded.
  3. Restate - Making sure you are both answering the right question and giving your interviewer the opportunity to share more is ideal when we get stuck.
  4. Cheat Sheet - In a virtual interview world, next to practice, your cheat sheet will be your best friend, create one and continue to tweak it.
  5. Take Your Time - Whether you are stuck or not, always take your time to think through things, slow and steady wins the race in job interviews.
  6. Dialogue - Talking through things with your interviewer demonstrates strong communication skills and awareness.

For more resources visit my website - Practice Interviews and check out our AI Practice Interview App.

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