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When interviews get tricky: how to handle difficult questions

Written by: Stephanie Sparrow
Published on: 19 Jan 2022

    Freelance - Interview Questions

    Tales of tricky interview questions have swept through social media. Candidates shudder at the thought of being asked “how would you move Mount Everest”, or “which super hero character would you be, and why?”.

    Do not panic. A rational approach will take the sting out of a curveball, which is  in any case not as common as the internet portrays.

    “These kind of questions are used to see how someone reacts”, says Andrew Shepheard, head of recruitment at CBRE UK. He explains that there is no correct answer. “The answer is immaterial as long as you can back up your answer and explain why.”

    Shepheard, who has responsibility for UK recruitment, primarily fee earners, chartered surveyors, valuers and building surveyors, does not use these type of questions but he did hear of a ‘curveball’ from another department.

    “I heard that someone asked a candidate in the wider business: ‘what kind of dog would you be, and why?’ The answer came back: I’d be a cat’.”

    The candidate went on to explain why they hadn’t answered conventionally and any candidate who decides to be even more ‘off the wall’ in their responses than the original question, should do so with some grace. Never look hostile even if the interview seems to be quite tricky.

    “A clever interviewer challenges you to a game of wits,” says Peter Moore managing director at recruitment and headhunting experts  Macdonald&Company. “Although he may not be trying to trap you exactly, he will often try to catch you off guard to see how you respond.”  Moore advises that your response should be “to sell yourself effectively”.

    Elsewhere experts in workplace psychology offer the following top tips on accommodating curveball questions in your interview preparation:

    *Prepare for all aspects of the interview with the same rigour and professionalism. Don’t over-anticipate a curve-ball—it might not come up

    *Appreciate the purpose behind the question: the interviewer is trying to find out how you think and perhaps link this to a corporate competency. The interviewer is not trying to ridicule you.

    *Reflect on the question, then react: commercial property roles require measured responses; not knee-jerk reactions. Remember to always be your best self: commercial property relies on well-managed relationships and professionalism. Showcase this, rather than verbal fireworks, in your answers.

     “Follow the classic type of preparation”, says Julie Towers, managing director at Penna Recruitment. “Know about the role, do the process. Mind map your story board and get your evidence pieces [about your career and results] ready in advance.”

    So don’t over-anticipate the curve-ball. Interviewers who are recruiting for a professional environment such as commercial property are more likely to want to ask you searching rather than outlandish questions.

    “There are generic things we look for at CBRE”, says Andrew Shepheard. “We look for energy, drive, hunger to be part of a growing business and whether the candidate is used to working in a fast- paced environment.”

    A well-phrased question can be challenging but is intended to investigate whether the candidate and company would be the right skills and cultural fit.

    “We might ask candidates for examples, but not naming names, of how they have built internal networks with current employers that have created more business”, says Shepheard, explaining that the rationale is to discover whether the candidate understands the concept of collaborative working which is important at CBRE.

    An ill- prepared candidate will trip up over the simplest question, even though a well- intentioned interviewer is actually offering them an opportunity to shine. For example Shepheard asks the interview-standard question “what do you know about our company?”, but does not expect a standard answer.

    “Simply repeating back to us the information which is on our website is not enough”, he says. “Research and preparation is key [in our market] and we expect this to be shown in interview.”

    Shepheard would expect to be told about the scope and scale of the business, and recent deals, for example, as well as awareness of key players and competitors.

    So, whether any interviewer asks you for examples of: how you have won a deal (known as competency or behaviour-based questions); how you would move a mountain (a curve ball) or what do you know about this job (a standard question for which you must always prepare) your aim should be to convey research (not rehearsal) and engage. Your aim is to look interested, well–informed and to keep the conversation flowing.

    “A good interview is a dialogue,” says Moore.