7. Stress interviews

In stress interviews, the candidate is being tested on his/her abilities to handle pressure or adverse behaviours. The candidate is exposed to a hostile, disinterested or intimidating interview, whose purpose is to destabilise the candidate. They can be deemed an unfair way to assess a candidate’s abilities as they are semi-sadistic and there are better ways of determining whether candidates can handle stress such as setting them a task which they should perform under pressure.

The types of questions or behaviours that you may encounter include at a stress interview include:

  • Odd questions: "What percentage of the Earth's water is contained in a cow?"
  • Doubting your integrity: "I am sure you are hiding something from me. Are you sure you didn’t get sacked from your previous job?"
  • Showing contempt: "Is that all you can come up with? Let's move on"
  • Throwing you off balance: "How do you like me so far?"
  • Questions on difficult work situations: "How would you handle a situation where you knew that your boss fiddled his expenses?"
  • Hostile body language: The interviewer is not looking at the candidate, rolls his eyes, lays back in his chair, takes phone calls in the middle of the interview or lets his secretary interrupt him for mundane matters
  • Quick fire: The interviewers asks questions in quick succession, not letting the candidate complete his/her answers
  • Big interview panel: The candidate faces a panel of many interviewers (6, 8, 10 or more) who constantly ask questions
  • Series of interviewers: Several interviewers come into the room one after the other, leaving no rest time for the candidate
  • Letting the candidate ask the questions: "What can we do for you?","What do you want to know?"

Here are some pointers on how to handle them:

Know who will be interviewing you

The best way to deal with such interviews is to prepare for it in advance by finding out who will be on the interview panel. Once you know who is interviewing you and their respective job titles, who are the decision-makers and who you would report to if you were hired, you are in an advantageous position. You have every right to find out who you are going to meet as ultimately, you are investing your own time. 

Once you have this information, it can help you to focus your attention on the person you'd be reporting to. A useful tactic to remain calm and focused is to take questions from everyone but deliver your answers to the person you'd report to. Keep your answers brief in order not to get interrupted (typically around 20-30 seconds). This method derives from the performer's method of picking one person in the audience to focus on - it relieves the pressure and stress of standing in front of a big, impersonal group.

Keep your control

It is important to be yourself, stay calm and not to retaliate in an aggressive manner.  Imagine you're in a meeting with your colleagues and it's your turn to talk about your piece of work. By talking too quickly you will show that you are feeling the pressure so make a conscious effort to slow down and speak calmly but affirmatively (do you ever see a politician racing through his/her speech without any pauses?!) Take a breath and pause to focus on the question they are asking you so you don’t blurt out something you regret or come across as agitated. Forget about the people in the room and remember that what matters is not their question, but the quality of your answer. Again, using a politician’s tactic, you might be able to subtly steer the answer in a different direction to avoid directly answering a difficult question. If they don’t like your answer, repeat it in a slightly different way and stick to that as your final answer. There is a risk they may not like your avoidance tactic but at least you have demonstrated you can remain calm under pressure.

Gain control of the space around you

Your panel are likely to expect you to remain seated so you will take them by surprise if you stand up and walk around while you talk – this is a useful tactic to dominate the room and puts you in a powerful position because everyone else is sitting down. If they tell you to sit down, calmly tell them you prefer to stand while you work as it allows you to think at your best. You might want to consider going up to a flip chart (if one is present) to draw diagrams or write some points on it to back up your answers. This should make interviewers slow down.

Don’t take it personally

Try to view it as a game and that the interviewers are only playing a role to see how far you can be pushed. Once you have understood that none of this act is personal, then you can relax a bit more.

When enough is enough!

If you feel the interview has gone too far and has turned into a ridiculous mind game, you can take a very assertive stance and stand up, lean forward and say, "I'm here to prove to you why I think I am the right candidate. If you really want to understand my capabilities, tell me the challenges you are facing and I'll show you how I would tackle them. If I can't help you on this level, you shouldn't hire me."

Being prepared for such an interview will certainly help in how you respond so the interview tactics are less of a shock (particularly if you know that the job/industry is renowned to be highly stressful so you may get tested this way) so at least you are psychologically prepared for it.  And remember, even in stress interviews, not all interviewers are like those in ‘The Apprentice!’ So take things in your stride and give it your best.