Handle the Stress Interview

Handle the Stress Interview

Ah, the stress interview -- the job candidate’s worst nightmare. It comes in many forms, from mildly provocative to sadistic. Its purpose: To put candidates on the defensive. The logic behind it: Stressful situations show the true person under the polished preparation, and candidates who perform well under pressure in the interview will handle work stress in a similar fashion.

Stress interviews aren’t perpetrated exclusively by creeps who want to see you squirm, although job seekers may beg to differ. This approach is a legitimate and effective way to predict a candidate’s performance at work -- which is, after all, pretty stressful at times. Sometimes they take the form of a panel interview, where you get grilled by a team of people. The candidate who handles interview pressure with confidence and grace goes light-years past the candidate who can handle only the easy questions.

Types of Stress Interview Tactics  

  • Painful or Aggressive Questions: Even a mild-mannered interviewer can test your interviewing skills by asking a question like “Why were you fired?”
  • Aggressive Interview Attitude or Behavior: Some interviewers have a cultish faith in a tough attitude. They adopt a show-me attitude in their words, facial expression, body language and behavior. You’re supposed to believe their behavior is your fault, as if you were a naughty child.
  • Unexpected Interview Behaviors: The interviewer tries to throw you off with unexpected behaviors. For example, an interviewer might ask the same technical question several times, pretending not to understand your answer. You explain several times, each time getting more exasperated at the questioner’s stupidity.
  • Brainteasers or Puzzle Interviews: Puzzle questions are becoming more popular. You are not expected to know the actual answers to questions like “How much does all the ice in a hockey rink weigh?” but you are expected to explain how you would find out.
  • Case Interviews: Briefly, you are presented an open-ended business situation -- usually a dilemma or set of hard choices -- and required to describe a path toward a solution. The case interview tests your knowledge of relevant business issues, quantitative and analytical skills, ability to prioritize and anticipate problems, and communication skills.

How to Respond

The key methods to use when asked stress questions are similar to tactics used in high-level salary negotiation:


  • Clarify the question and the nature of the answer desired. This can buy you some time to think. What is the interviewer trying to get at? Don’t feel any compunction about asking questions to get clarification; sometimes, this is exactly what’s expected of you.
  • Communicate what you’re thinking and doing.
  • State assumptions, and ask for unknown information.
  • Focus on the way in which you’re solving the problem, not necessarily the “right” answer.
  • If you answer with a story, don’t lose the point.
  • Be open, honest and direct, but refuse to be emotionally intimidated.

Like dogs, aggressive interviewers can smell fear. But be aware that the person who asks brutally tough questions might turn out to be warmhearted and easygoing -- after you’re hired, of course.