How To Cope With Stressful Interview Questions

Most people feel some degree of stress during an interview. This is hardly surprising, as you hold little power in an interview but are required to respond to the interviewer’s questioning, while under severe scrutiny. It is about as far from an equally balanced discussion as it’s possible to get.

Sometimes, an interview that already feels somewhat tense can take a particularly unpleasant turn when you find yourself put under even more pressure by an interviewer. What can be hard to handle is that the interviewer is doing this deliberately.

Why Do They Ask Stress Questions?

The interviewer is not doing this because they are sadistic, although you may have your suspicions. They are doing it as part of a strategy. They want to see how you are going to cope under pressure. This is usually because high pressure is involved in the position you’re being interviewed for.

The goal is also to upset your balance. The interviewer knows that you will have prepared for the interview, so they are trying to see the ‘real’ you when you have to formulate an answer on the spot.

Most of us are lucky enough not to undergo this brand of torture. But if you are applying for a position in a high pressure environment where financial decisions may need to be made, there is every chance that you’ll be subjected to this.

How Do They Put You Under Pressure?

If you can recognise the techniques that interviewers use to subject you to a high degree of stress, then you can avoid being manipulated.

Interviewers may ask you questions that sound critical of you or your work record, sounding critical of your lack of experience, a personal characteristic, or an earlier answer in the interviewer. This will be done in such a way that it feels like a personal attack.

An interviewer may ask you a series of questions very quickly, without giving you time to answer properly. They interrupt your reply by asking another question on a fresh subject or a string of follow up questions.

Sometimes the interviewer may be generally rude, not giving you any positive feedback or encouragement by smiling or nodding. They may leave long silences after you’ve replied to a question or just be argumentative.

A variation on this is the ‘good guy, bad guy’ two-hander interview, with two interviewers taking turns to reassure or unsettle you.

Another approach is to ask a ‘stress question’, which is often about a topic completely unrelated to the job. These questions can be abstract, to say the least. Examples include problem questions that verge on the bizarre: “If you could be a vehicle, what would you be?” or “which famous person would you most like to swap places with – and why?”

You can only be creative when answering these, as you can’t prepare for them.

Adopting the Right Mindset

With pressure questioning, the important thing is not the answer you give so much as your ability to come up with an answer, while coping with a stressful situation. The interviewer is more interested in your reactions, especially those that you can’t control.

You really do need to keep your composure and you can only do this by screening off some of the coercive techniques the interviewer is using. In recognising what the interviewer is doing, you are defusing the effect, as you can then retain some control.

Your reactions are important, so you must keep your emotions under control. Don’t get upset or feel personally criticised – defensiveness will be seen as weakness. Try to remain calm and collected.

Remember, this is all a performance (even if it isn’t, then you should still respond in the same way). You have to be professional at all times.

Responding to Stress Questioning

It’s most important that you don’t let them rush you. Breathing deeply and taking your time to answer is of utmost importance, as there is no other way you’re going to be able to stick to your train of thought.

If they interrupt you with another question, smiling and saying that you’d prefer to complete your answer before progressing to the next.

If they keep insisting, then you can say that you’ll leave your previous answer incomplete at their insistence. Don’t be rude – just calmly point out what is happening.

Remember what it is that you want to convey and stick to it. Your goal is to demonstrate and showcase your skills, achievements and experience.

Another option is to refuse to engage with machine-gunfire questioning that leaves you no chance to respond. This may be a good idea if the interviewer starts to go over the top – you may even earn points for standing your ground.

You can state that you recognise their desire to test your performance under stress, but that you prefer the realistic stress of responding to real challenges. Ask them to present you with a problem to solve and you’ll be delighted to work at this level.

Different people will feel comfortable with different types of responses, so think in advance which might suit you.

Handling Off-the-Wall Questions

The best approach to these questions is to enjoy them. While you never know when a question like this is going to come your way, you can prepare to a degree by reading examples on the internet and imagining what you might say in reply.

Get used to crafting an answer and finding ways to weave in the important information about your personal approach to work.

There is nothing wrong with smiling and taking a moment to think at this point. Your answer does not have to be particularly clever or funny. Try to be genuine and say something that feels right to you, rather than what you think the interviewer will approve of.

If you are completely unable to answer the question, you can ask to return to it later (but don’t be distracted for the rest of the interview).

The main thing is to remain professional and not to become flustered. As with every aspect of the stress interview, your goal is simply to remain relaxed, self-possessed and unstressed. The way you respond is more important than your answer!

Learn to Handle Your Nerves

If you become very nervous before and during interviews, stress or pressure questioning may seriously knock you sideways. It’s a good idea to address your levels of nervousness in any case, as these aren’t going to help your chances of gaining a job.

Breathing techniques, body positioning, self-hypnosis CDs – there are many approaches you can take, so try to find out what works for you. You can only benefit, in terms of your confidence and performance.


Interviews are stressful situations to start with. Most people have to deal with some level of anxiety or discomfort prior to and during the interview itself. However, the stress can reach new levels when the interviewer deliberately starts to put you under pressure.

Stress questioning is a strategic action designed to give the interviewer more information. They want to see how you react in a high pressure situation, usually because the job you’re applying for involves a high level of pressure and the need to make considered decisions in such scenarios.

The interviewer may also be trying to get past the prepared answers you are giving to get to the ‘real you’. There are different ways of doing this. If you can recognise the techniques, you can deal with them better.The interviewer may:

  • Sound critical of your previous answer or your work record.
  • Ask questions very quickly, so that you can’t finish one answer before another question is fired at you – these may be follow-up questions or unrelated questions.
  • Be generally rude, failing to give you positive feedback through smiles or nodding, instead leaving long silences after you finish speaking.
  • Do a ‘good guy, bad guy’ double act with another panel member.
  • ask a ‘stress question’ about a topic unrelated to the job, possibly on a bizarre subject (“If you were a car, which model would you be?”)

You have to remember that this is a performance and that it’s not personal. What you say when you answer isn’t as important as the way you respond – the interviewer is interested in how you cope rather than your reply. So keep your emotions in check and answer as professionally as possible.

Don’t be rushed, but breathe and take your time to answer. If interrupted, say you’d like to complete your previous answer first. If they insist, then state that you’re moving onto the next question at their request. However you answer, continue to focus on your skills, achievements and experience.

If the interviewer takes it too far, you can call their bluff and say that you understand their desire to see how you function under stress, but state that you prefer the genuine pressure of real situations.

Don’t get too worried by off-the-wall questions. Read up on them online, so that you’re familiar with this type of question. While you can’t anticipate the question, you can get used to thinking up answers to bizarre queries, while integrating positive information about your approach to work.

If you are usually a highly nervous interviewee, it’s worth taking steps to deal with your anxiety. This will give you a better of chance of surviving stressful interviews and improve your chances of gaining the type of job you desire.

Please leave a comment below and let us know your experiences of stressful interviews and how you cope with them.

Kind regards,

Paul Bradley.

Managing Director.
Bradley CVs Ltd.

3 responses to “How To Cope With Stressful Interview Questions”

  1. I was exactly in such a situation, and it was really hard to cope with! This article was very useful for me.

    Thank you

  2. Another approach is to ask a ‘stress question’, which is often about a topic completely unrelated to the job. These questions can be abstract, to say the least. Examples include problem questions that verge on the bizarre: “If you could be a vehicle, what would you be?” or “which famous person would you most like to swap places with – and why?”