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Answer Tough Interview Questions By Perfecting the Pivot

Posted on by Ben Forstag

Answer Tough Interview Questions by Perfecting the Pivot

Even a mundane conversation can take an unexpected turn, and this is especially true during a job interview. From out of nowhere the hiring manager might ask a question that completely throws you off your game…

Perhaps the she asks about why you left your last position after only six months on the job.

Or she asks you for a hard salary requirement.

Or, out of nowhere, she asks if you’re familiar with the latest version of Bear Claw. (Surprise! You’ve never heard of it!)

This is a tricky situation. The solution is to execute a graceful pivot, a deft response that effectively dismisses and redirects a troublesome line of inquiry to more familiar territory.

Pivoting (also called bridging) is a way to address difficult topics by refocusing the questions back to your talking points. You quickly acknowledge the problem and then seamlessly move to a strength that counterbalances any potential weakness.

The key idea here is to end each response on a positive note. This keeps you on message and is generally what the interviewer will remember most. (Plus, it minimizes the likelihood of an awkward follow-up question!)

How important is the pivot in today’s world? Watch any politician on the Sunday news shows and you’ll see more pivots than a modern dance class.

For the rest of us, there are proven strategies for pivoting under fire even when faced with an uncomfortable interview question. Here are some tips to help you perfect the pivot

Stall and consider

First of all, it’s essential to give yourself a minute to think and hopefully keep the panic out of your voice. There’s no shame in taking a slight pause to organize your thoughts. In fact, it’s 100 percent necessary.

In the case of the mysterious Bear Claw software, try a joke, such as, “Bear claw? I’ve got plenty of experience. Been eating them since I was a kid.” While the interviewer decides if the quip rates a polite smile, you mentally review all the software information pertinent to the position, so that you can reach a reasonable assumption as to whether it’s a design program, a spreadsheet, presentation software, or whatever.

If you’re not comfortable with a witty remark, a thoughtful approach is the best bet. Go right ahead and practice a thoughtful look in front of a mirror or with friends. Master an expression that says, “Huh. What an interesting question! I’d have to give it some thought.”

And since you are, in fact, stalling for time, you can even say, “What an interesting question! I’d have to give it some thought,” or a similar sentiment that allows you time to access information.

Find your face

Needless to say, confusion or mental turmoil should not play out on your face, or result in a case of the fidgets. Controlled body language is vitally important during the interview process, because you are being watched and judged on what is said and how you say it.

The ability to radiate calm serenity, even after you’ve been tossed a grenade, shows the manager that you don’t rattle easily, that you carefully consider each detail, and aren’t just shoveling out canned responses from the interview playbook.

Build a bridge to more comfortable territory

Of course, stalling and clarifying only get give you time to gather your thoughts. Eventually, you have to answer the interviewer’s question.

Here’s where you pivot.

As you put together your response, think of ways you can reframe the question so that your responses ends on one of your strengths. Nearly any professional setback or resume weakness has some silver lining; make sure you highlight this positive in your response.

Here are some positive concepts you might highlight use in your response:

  • What you learned from the experience / how the experience changed you
  • Something you think is important to the immediate needs of the employer
  • Your higher core values
  • Other skills or abilities that compensate for potential weaknesses
  • A question that emphasizes your strategic thinking

Let’s look at our earlier examples to see how you might pivot your way out of tough questions. Here are some model responses:

“Why did you leave your job at Company X after only six months?”

I was really excited about the position at Company X because I saw it as an opportunity to help a regional brand expand nationally. However, after joining the organization it became clear that the management was not comfortable with expansion. Given gulf between their needs and my interests, we decided to part ways.

What I learned from this experience was the importance of “fit” when it comes to the workplace. That’s why I’m being so deliberative in my job search and it’s why I’m excited to be talking with you. Your organization seems to have a dynamic, growth-oriented culture, and I see the prospects for a perfect fit. I’d love to hear how your team has handled the company’s rapid growth over the last few years.

“I see you made $75,000 in your last job. Would you be comfortable taking a pay cut to work here?”

 I believe my past salary reflected the real value that I brought to the organization, particularly my proven ability to solicit individual and corporate donations.

I’m flexible, within reason, when it comes to salary. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. I think it’s more important to explore how fundraising skills could help Nonprofit X. Can I tell you more about the work I did at Nonprofit Y and how it might apply to your situation here?

How much experience do you have with Bear Claw v 2.3? It’s the only software we use.”

You know, I’ve worked with a lot of different software programs, but I don’t have any experience with Bear Claw. My background is in coding, so I’m confident that I can figure out Bear Claw fairly quickly. Can I ask why the organization chose Bear Claw over other software options? I’ve always been a big fan of CompanySoft…

Obviously, coming up with a smooth pivot response takes some work. Try scripting out some answers to the questions you’re most likely to get in an interview. With a bit of practice, is a good pivot the perfect tool for answering tough interview questions.

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Ben Forstag
Ben Forstag is Managing Director of Mac’s List, where he is responsible for the organization's editorial and business operations. Ben has an extensive background in communications and marketing, primarily in the nonprofit and healthcare sector. Contact Ben at ben@macslist.org.
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