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Handle negatively framed interview questions

30 August 2021

"Tell us about a time you've had to deal with a conflict with a fellow team member.  What were the circumstances and how did you resolve the situation?"

Natasha stared at the kindly looking individual who had just asked her this interview question, and her mind was blank.  She looked to the other panel members and there was no inspiration there.  She scratched the question out onto her notepad, but nope, still nothing was coming to mind.

Panic was rising.

This was an important job interview.  She had worked hard to get this chance, and with one little question it felt like it was all slipping away.

Her mind raced and was consumed with the words - Say something, say something, say anything!

"Well, I haven't really had an experience like that, but if ever I did..."  Natasha went on to mumble something that might have made sense, but she was ruffled.

The next question hit even harder.  "Natasha, we would like to understand what your approach is when projects you are working on are going off track."

Natasha's panic rose even higher.  Was she going to appear totally naive if she also answered this one hypothetically!

Somehow Natasha stumbled through negatively framed question after negatively framed question, progressively feeling worse and worse about the answers she was giving.  Debriefing with her partner over a glass of wine that evening she raged that if those were the types of questions they asked in interview, perhaps it wasn't a good place to work anyway!

Hiring managers and interview panels have an unfounded and false idea that asking negative questions, or questions about deficits, will reveal the best candidates, but this is not the case.  Negative based questions more often than not result in the experience that Natasha had, causing confusion and narrowing the response.

When faced with negative questions in an interview the best approach is to first recognise that it is a negative question, then search for the topic that sits behind the question (for example, the topic behind the opening question above is teamwork not conflict) and to frame your answer using this topic.  This reframe will have you give a fuller and more positive answer than only addressing the narrow negative question.

Doing this Natasha could have started her answer in the following way:  "Teamwork is something that is really important to me.  I believe that the strength of a team comes from....."

She would then finish her answer with something like: "While I haven't really had to deal with conflict with a fellow team member, as you can see from my approach to being a member of a team, I would..."

As always, wishing you a flourishing career.


Here is a short video on this idea.

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