How to Deal With Negative Questions in the Job Interview

You feel prepared for the interview. You are confident walking through the door to meet your interviewer. You have your positive experiences and stories ready to answer questions.

The interview is going along smoothly when all of a sudden the interviewer starts throwing “curve balls.” The interviewer begins asking for examples of negative situations –  times when you failed or had problems coping with work.

You are not prepared to talk about your failures or times when you were challenged by difficult situations. You become flustered and you lose your confidence. You also lost the opportunity to get a second interview – or an offer.

Most interviewers aren’t attempting to be cruel when they ask for negative information – they are trying to find out if there are any “skeletons” in your closet – what problems you may have from past experiences.

So what do you do when you encounter those “curve balls?” You deal with them in a positive manner.

Here is an example of a question seeking negative information and how to deal with it.

Question –

“Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with someone at work and how you resolved it.”

Answer –

“I usually get along very well with almost everyone.”

“There was an incident that happened with a person who was not pulling his weight on the team and it was affecting morale. All the team members were getting disgruntled but nobody was doing anything about it.”

“I took it upon myself to have a talk with the person when the opportunity presented itself. It didn’t start out smoothly – he was defensive at first and resented my speaking to him about his work behavior. I was careful to let him know that I wasn’t judging him but rather was concerned about the team and the ability for everyone to get along.”

“Eventually he confided in me that he had some family problems at home that were affecting his energy level and patience. I listened attentively while he told me about his problems.”

“Once he became aware that his behavior was affecting other’s work he made a special effort to be more open and receptive. The team spirit improved greatly after that – as well as the productivity.”

If you look carefully at this answer you can see that it offers many positives. The answer starts out with a positive statement: “I usually get along with almost everyone.” It’s a good strategy to add something positive about yourself and how you manage to get along with people before you begin to talk about a negative situation.

The next positive phrase used is about style: “I took it upon myself….” This statement shows initiative and ability to do something about the problem while other team members were content to be disgruntled.

This example also shows a sense of caring about fellow employees – taking the time to find out what the problem was and being a real “team player.”

You can see that there is a good deal of positive information that can be emphasized in an answer – even if it is an example of a time when things were negative.

Sometimes interviewers are trying to avoid making a hiring mistake that was made in the past.

In the event that there have been problems in the past at this company you will have demonstrated that those problems won’t be an obstacle for you. You have shown the interviewer that you will do what you need to do to resolve an issue or at least to get the facts about the problem.

Turning negatives into positives is an important skill to learn. When you are asked a negative question, stop and think about how you can refocus the question to include some positive qualities.

Sample answer – excerpt from “Perfect Phrases for the Perfect Interview,” Carole Martin 2005 (McGraw-Hill)

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