Ask an Expert: I Freeze Up During Job Interviews
What should you do if you freeze up during a job interview?
Job and life advice for young professionals. See more from Ascend here.
I have great social skills, but during job interviews I struggle. I have trouble recalling answers to questions that I have practiced beforehand. It’s probably my introverted self. More specifically, I freeze when I’m asked behavioral or competency-related questions, ones that ask me to describe my actions in particular scenarios like, “What would you do if X happened”? or “Can you give me an example of a time you did Y?”
I get fidgety when I’m presented with a situation that I haven’t dealt with directly. I try to gather my thoughts on how to best respond, but then I become stuck in my head and appear hesitant. My answer looks like a feeble attempt at creating an example rather than me actually talking about my decision-making in similar situations.
Unfortunately, I always end up with at least one question where my response is “I don’t have an example for you.”
How can I overcome this and get better at interviews?
It sounds like you are stuck in an anxiety spiral. Here’s how that usually works: You want to do a good job, so you put pressure on yourself. That pressure only makes you more anxious. The anxiety that is building inside you impacts your performance, as well as your perception of how you’re performing. As a result, you start doubting your competence, and the pattern repeats and continues.
I’m going to offer you a few tips and suggestions. Keep in mind that you don’t need to take all of my advice. Cherry-pick what makes sense to you and ignore any aspect of my answer that doesn’t fit right.
When I trained as a clinical psychologist, our major exams were oral. To practice, our instructors advised us to set up mock exams with practicing psychologists around town, particularly those working in areas in which we had less experience. A wise mock-examiner told me to expect that anxiety during the exams would knock off my thinking by 20 to 25%. He suggested overlearning somewhat to compensate for this.
More than a decade later, I still think about this comment in similar situations. Why does it help me? It allows me to recognize that while anxiety might affect performance to a degree, it doesn’t destroy it. Even if you unexpectedly become caught in a spiral, find solace in the fact that you’ll still remember 75% of what you know.
To that end, over-prepare for your next interview by about 25%.
Anxiety can often get in the way of people preparing and practicing. But this is self-sabotaging, so don’t let it stop you.
Most of us are our own worst critics and that makes our self-perceptions somewhat warped. Whenever we analyze our strengths and weaknesses, there will inevitably be aspects we get wrong. We’ll exaggerate faults that were minor, unnoticed, or not flaws at all. We’ll overlook strengths. We’ll miss true negative aspects that could be corrected. The more anxious you are, the more this pattern will be skewed negative.
To gain a little clarity, practice and get unbiased feedback. Find mentors, peers, friends, or even family members — anyone you trust — who are willing to do a mock interview with you. When possible, try to practice with someone who actually has been in an interviewer role before — or even better, someone who has hired for the type of job you’re seeking. They may be able to let you know what competencies and attitudes they’re most looking to see, and what mistakes you should seek to avoid.
As you practice, be honest about your fears. The more upfront and unashamed you are about what you’re experiencing, the more likely you will get the feedback you need. For example, you can say, “I want to sharpen the examples I give of work I’ve done in the past, and I want to react in a more composed way when I get a question that stumps me.”
Lastly, I’d ask to tape your practices and the feedback you are given. In the moment, the other person’s feedback may be warped by your anxiety. When we’re stressed, we risk blowing up minor comments into major ones, or overlooking the actual positive notes we are getting. Recording the session will help you process it more accurately later on.
While mock interviews are a great way to get feedback, I wouldn’t stop there. Experiment with a few different types of practice, or a combination of practices, to figure out what helps you most.
For example, before running through the interview with a friend, write down your answers to questions that may have stumped you in the past. Instead of defaulting to “I don’t know,” come up with some sample responses and rehearse them aloud.
You might practicing saying, “That’s a great question. I haven’t dealt with that exact situation. Can you flesh out the scenario you have in mind a little more so I can take a minute to think about what my strategy would be?” or “Gosh, I’m stumped by that. Whenever I’m initially stumped, this is the process I use to figure out how to get clear on how I want to move forward.”
Think about how you will keep your tone open, curious, and competent. You don’t need to show you know it all, only that you’re clear-headed and responsible.
It’s easy to think that the capacity to perform well when anxious is a character attribute. You may think that you either have that strength or you don’t. But managing anxiety is a skill, and just like other important competencies, it needs to be mastered.
For example, rumination, or endlessly replaying negative events in your mind after they’ve occurred, often causes people to tie themselves in knots instead of solving problems in logical ways. In your case, ruminating after interviews could be holding you back from taking the steps to get the feedback and practice you need. The more you practice, the easier you will find it to put yourself in anxiety-provoking situations, and the more you will improve your ability to disrupt any rumination or harsh self-criticism that occurs after them.
The same applies if you are a perfectionist who gets anxious when a small thing goes wrong. You’ll need skills to recognize and manage this behavior, skills that you can whip out as needed. While I could give you suggestions like taking slow breaths before and during the interview to reduce the chances of your body going into fight/flight/freeze mode, I think the more important pathway is the practice that we talked about before. Practicing will reduce your anticipatory anxiety and improve your answers. As a result, you will feel better during interviews.
One place generic advice falls short is that it doesn’t take into account that most of us already have a lifetime of problem-solving experience. People don’t easily make connections between their past accomplishments, how they reached them, and how similar self-improvement strategies can be applied in new situations, and even address their current problems.
Let’s try that now. Consider, very broadly, how you’ve improved your performance in the past. Don’t just think about work. Think about problems that you’ve solved in any domain, across your whole lifespan, including when you were a kid.
Thinking abstractly, and again, very broadly, consider how the approaches you’ve applied to solve those problems in the past can help you improve your interview performance. For example, if you were once unfit and became fit, how did you do it? If you were once nervous in a social situation, how did you cope? What hard skills have you learned? How can you use those same principles now?
Perhaps you’ve followed a very disciplined approach to improve in the past. You could take the same approach today, say, by scheduling an interview practice every Friday for the next six weeks. When people get anxious, they overcomplicate what it will take to get better. But, chances are, you already know what works for you.
The fact you have reached out to us here, and clearly articulated your view of the problem to be solved, shows you’re resourceful, have a capacity for self-reflection, and you’re cognitively well-organized. Those are all strengths you can apply to mastering interview skills.
Ask an Expert: I Freeze Up During Job Interviews
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