Tough Questions, and how to answer them.

One of the main questions our Interview Coaching Clients raise is how to answer the tough questions the interviewer may throw at them.

Tough questions are those hard to answer, hard to predict questions asked in such a way that it is difficult to assess how to respond.

Of course beyond preparing you for the mostly likely areas of questioning and ensuring you are thoroughly prepared for the day we cannot predict exactly what you be asked.

However we can illustrate the most typical types of tough questions and give you some strategies that should see you through.

What are the tough questions?

  • Those you can’t answer
  • Those you don’t understand
  • Those designed to put you under stress
  • Those that are poorly worded by the interviewer
  • Illegal questions
  • Salary questions

There is a brilliant book we recommend for help with answering tough questions.

It is by Martin John Yeate and it is called ‘Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions’
It has heaps of questions, straightforward and difficult and it is definitely worth buying.

Here are our tips:

If you follow all the advice on this site and have done the thorough preparation recommended including preparing your answers and researching the company you should be in a postion to answer most of the tough questions.

Remember our formula:-

Have that written somewhere so you can see it if you get stuck for words, take a sip and a deep breath and do your best to follow the model.

Help: I can’t answer the question

Deflect the question– ‘I’m not sure about that but I can tell you this……’

Make a comment to give yourself thinking time – ‘That’s a good question, let me think about how best to answer…'

Ask them to rephrase –‘Good question-that wasn’t something I was expecting would you might asking it again so I can be sure….’

‘Sorry I missed that–could you put it another way please’

And if you really don’t know;

I’m afraid I don’t have the answer right now–but maybe I could tell you about ………(something you do know about)?

I don’t know the answer but when I am faced with something I don’t know I usually....make up for it by……………………"

Help: I didn’t understand the question

The important thing here is not to answer the wrong question. It’s much better to clarify before answering. Usually the interviewer will re phrase it and you can move on

‘I didn’t quite catch that-could you rephrase your question?’

Help me answer the stress questions

Thankfully an interviewer that thrives on making things difficult for you is rare. Usually it says more about the style of manager or company you would be working for than it does about you, so beware.

No one wants to work for a domineering bully who wants to catch you out so you might save yourself from a job you wouldn’t want to do.

Nonetheless the interviewer may genuinely be testing you to see how you would react when taken off guard and are not being asked the questions you may have rehearsed.

Tough Questions such as :

How did you rise to the challenge?

What do you do if everyone disagrees with you?

What has been your biggest disappointment?

Who do you least like working with?

What would you do if xyz happened?

What a your criticisms of you present company/boss?

How do you handle pressure?

What is the most stressful thing you could face at work?

It is worth preparing to answer these questions, linking your skills, experience and background to those required by the job.

Always remember our formula


Take a look at our list of positive Professional Behaviours to weave into your answers

Refer back to our list of positive professional behaviours and always have an example ready.

Help: the interviewer didn’t ask the question properly!

Interviewers are not perfect people. They may not have prepared properly.

They may not be very experienced as interviewers. They might not be great at phrasing questions.

But nonetheless a poor question is very hard to answer.

‘Could you please rephrase the question to make sure I understood it’.... ‘Thank you’

‘I’m not sure I know the answer to that but I can tell you this…..’

Help: This is an illegal question

Most questions that delve into your private life fall into the category of illegal. If they are not strictly illegal they are straying into dangerous territory and should be handled with care.

Here are some examples of questions that are potentially discriminatory and therefore illegal. Interviewers would need to have lived in a cave to not realise these questions should not be asked. However there is always one who thinks they are above the law.

What religion are you?

How old are you?

Are you married?

Do you plan to have children?

It is best not to point out the illegality of the question as you may find yourself in a confrontation (and will therefore not get the job).

Any questions about family commitments and personal relationships are suspect if not illegal.

You should reply politely and simply that your outside work commitments will not interfere with the needs of the job.


Be careful not to be too free with describing your interests outside the workplace. Questions about your hobbies are not in themselves discriminatory but can feed into people’s prejudices.

Only refer to interests that are pretty uncontroversial and mainstream unless your interests equip you in some way for the job you are being interviewed for.

You don’t want the interviewer to judge you by any negative stereotypes they may have.

Alternatively there may be times when your background and outside interests are a definite asset and are therefore worth referring to.

For example you might do voluntary work that directly links to the vacancy.

If you talk about your family the interviewer may not comment as they will be on their guard to keep away from ‘dangerous ground’

Help: What if they ask me what I earn-or what salary I want?

We agree this is a tricky area.

We have a whole section on this site devoted to Salary Questions and Salary Negotiation The simple answer is to not answer directly but to defer the question to outside of the interview. If pressed give a range for your salary pointing out it is at the upper end of the scale.

On expected salary again defer but if pressed say I would expect to be earning more than I am at the moment –in the range of…

You will find much more on the do’s and don’ts of salary negotiation and other tough questions by clicking here.

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