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Messed up at interview? How to recover the situation

Don't let one slip-up derail the whole meeting - handle the situation well, and your ability to stay calm and collected could actually go in your favour!

Messed up at interview? How to recover the situation

Interviews can go wrong for all kinds of reasons. You spill your coffee over the interviewer, your mind goes blank, or you give an embarrassingly weak answer. Don't let one slip-up derail the whole meeting - handle the situation well, and your ability to stay calm and collected could actually go in your favour!

1. Admit the mistake

When it comes to recovering from a faux pas, it's nearly always better to acknowledge your mistake.

'Don't ignore what just happened hoping the interviewer hadn't noticed. They had,' warns Corinne Mills of Personal Career Management and author of Career Coach.

'If you stumble over your words, say the wrong thing or fall on your face, it's far better to acknowledge out loud what just happened. For example, you might say: "I'm not sure that came out as I intended, let me try again," so at least you try and put it right.

'If you ignore it, they might query how self-aware you are, or whether you do that kind of thing all the time.'

2. Your mind goes blank

If you've analysed the most likely questions and planned your answers, you're unlikely to go blank on the day. However, if nerves get the better of you, there are ways to recover.

'Taking a sip of water can buy you a few moments to gather your thoughts. If that doesn't help, it's usually enough to restate the question and pick one part of it that you can answer,' says John Lees, author of a wide range of career books including How to Get a Job You Love. 'Just don't fall back on the give-away cry for help, "can you repeat the question?"

It may happen that you think of a better answer later – but choose your moment carefully.

John says: 'It's understandable if, under pressure, you think of a good answer later in the process. If you feel you've already ticked the box against interview requirements, leave it alone. However, if it's a vital piece of information wait until the end of the interview, and then say you would like to clarify something and go back to the question asked previously.'

3. You can't think of an example

Scenario questions that begin "tell me about a time when…" should be easy to answer if you have prepared well. If you're asked something unexpected, John's advice is to play for time.

'You could say: "I'd like to match my experience as closely as possible to the job, so could you give me a little more insight about what this role requires?" If you can't think of an example from your working life, think about something taken from your life outside work.

'If you still can't think of an answer, say so rather than improvising badly."

4. You give a weak answer

The interviewer raises their eyebrows and your heart sinks as you realise you've given an embarrassingly weak answer. If you can rectify the situation immediately, then do so. If a good answer doesn't come to mind, shrug it off and move on.

'Beating yourself up for earlier answers in the interview room means you've lost focus on the task in hand. No Formula 1 driver thinks about the last bend – your attention needs to be on the next piece of track,' says John.

'If you keep thinking about what you were asked five minutes ago your attention will be in the wrong place. Instead, focus only on the question you are answering.'

5. You say something negative about yourself

If you say something that shows you in a bad light, John's advice is to stop and re-focus.

'You can't undo that step, and going back over it digs you deeper in the hole, so just commit to (1) keeping positive in the rest of the discussion and (2) rehearsing difficult question areas so you don't make the mistake of criticising past bosses, organisations, or your own performance in future.'

If you find yourself talking about a past mistake, the situation can be recoverable.

'This can work actually work in your favour if you can show what you learned from the experience and you communicate how you would do things differently in future,' says John.

6. You were caught lying on your CV

A good interviewer will have analysed your CV before the start of the meeting, and will ask probing questions to clarify any inconsistencies.

'If it becomes clear that the interviewer has found a fake or over-inflated claim on your CV, or that the information you've given doesn't add up, don't make matters worse by trying to cover your tracks,' warns Corinne.

'If you're lucky, the wrong date or job title might be forgiven as a genuine mistake – lying badly as you go red in the face is an immediate cause for rejection.'

7. Learn your lesson

Finally, learn your lesson and try to look on the bright side.

'In some respects, keeping your cool at interview when things go wrong is a good test of a candidate's mettle,' says Corinne. 'If you completely go to pieces when you spill your water over yourself, then it's not going to say much for your resilience. However, if you manage to stay calm, that can be quite impressive.

'Don't beat yourself up. We are all human and make mistakes. If there is anything you can learn from it fine, if not, then just move on – there will be other opportunities.'