The interview questions that often present the biggest challenge to a candidate are the ones that focus on negative experiences (such as the classic “what is your biggest weakness?”). Such questions have the potential to make or break an interview. You might look insincere if you give an overly positive response (nobody always handles stress perfectly). Or, you risk looking unreliable and untrustworthy if you place too much emphasis on how you struggle to handle stress.
Now, consider this: an interviewer asks you how you handle stress. How will you respond? Of course, every job comes with some amount of stress. Each one of us also has a very different threshold for stress. So, it's important to know how you would deal with stressful situations.
Here is a short guide to help you get through the minefield of this question.
What is the purpose of the question?
During a job interview, an interviewer has a limited amount of time to test you. This involves an assessment of your soft skills. How would you perform in different situations? Will you reflect on your actions or haste into decisions?
Your response is supposed to help the hiring manager determine if the role suits you. This will be true especially if you are applying for a fast-paced role where stress is a part of everyday life. The interviewer will want to know what your approach to stressful situations is. Everyone handles stress differently; the approach that works for a primary school teacher might not be useful for an investment banker.
How can you answer?
The answer depends on the role you’re interviewing for. If you can think of a relevant personal experience on the spot, bring it up: it’s always a good idea to connect your answer to a real-life anecdote. Think about how you handled a stressful situation in a particular context and link that to your wider philosophy.
Try and be as honest as possible. The reason this is a “trick” question is that the interviewer isn’t just listening to you talking about how you handle stress, but s/he is also observing your level of stress at that moment. Be mindful of your body language and nonverbal cues. If you claim that you're calm in a crisis, your body language should show that. Do not give the interviewer any reason to doubt the sincerity of your answer.
What to say, what not to say?
Despite this being a question about stress, try not to linger on the “stress” aspect of it too much; focus instead on the positive sides. Explain the way you use stress as a catalyst for productivity or a source of motivation.
Here are some sample answers for you to take inspiration from:
Talk about the time a stressful taught made you more resilient
“The deadline was moved to a week earlier, so it definitely created a lot of stress. But I learnt some crucial time management when working on that project. I still use some of those time management tactics even today.”
Show how you're motivated & driven by stress
“Having to complete three important assignments in a week was very stressful, but the stress I experienced made me even more motivated. This was positive stress, which helped me focus on meeting the target. I made a fun adventure out of it using a Pomodoro timer.”
Show how you planned ahead & pre-empted stress.
“Taking on an additional module at university was stressful, but I managed to overcome the stress by planning my schedule carefully and making sure I had time to rest and recharge.”
Show that you focus on the situation & not the stress
“Completing my internship in the middle of lockdown was definitely stressful, but I adapted to my situation and reduced my levels of stress by taking short breaks between Zoom meetings and regularly checking in with my co-workers to avoid feeling isolated.”
Going the extra mile
It is good to prepare an answer in advance, but try not to sound robotic or give the impression that you’re rattling off a pre-rehearsed answer (even if that is the case). Your communication skills are also being tested. Show that you're someone who handles stress as well as you're describing.
Written by Lucia Forlini-Cataldo. Lucia is an e-commerce content writer and freelance journalist based in Warwickshire.
Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels