You may be a great interviewer, but what if the other person isn’t a great interviewee – in fact they’re an interviewer’s worst nightmare! How you deal with difficult interviewees will depend on the circumstances of the interview – e.g. whether it is a recruitment interview, a disciplinary, grievance or investigation interview etc. –  but here are some suggested techniques to use in different situations, and some appropriate phrases that may be useful.


If they’re…Uncommunicative

One word answers, shrugging shoulders – it’s like pulling teeth!

·         Use lots of probing questions to draw out info

·         Use open questions – ‘Can you tell me more about…’  ‘Can you give me more detail on…’

·         Give hints to get longer answers – ‘Can you spend five minutes telling me about…’

·         If they are being vague , say things like ‘Can you be more specific’ ‘Why exactly was that’ ‘What precisely do you mean by that’

·         If they are answering with ‘don’t know’ or ‘never really thought about it’ etc., try ‘Take a few minutes now to consider it while I catch up with my notes, and then tell me what you think’

·         Be direct –  e.g. ‘I really need more information than you are giving me in order to fully understand/make the right decision’

·         If appropriate, ask why they are acting this way, e.g. ‘You don’t seem to want to give me much information – why is that?’


If they’re…Rambling

At the other end of the scale – why give a 2-minute answer when they can give the half-hour version?

·         Ask lots of specific questions to get the relevant info

·         Repeat and summarise key parts to bring them back to the point – ‘So what you’re saying is…’  ‘Just to ensure I’ve understood this correctly…’  ‘I’m particularly interested in what you said about…’

·         Used closed questions to get one-word answers

·         Give hints for shorter answers – ‘Can you tell me briefly…’  ‘Can you sum up in a few words…’  ‘What are the key points…’  ‘We only have a few minutes more so can you just tell me…’

·         Be direct – ‘That is very interesting but doesn’t really answer my question – what I need to know is…’

·         If appropriate, interrupt or stop them – ‘Can I just stop you there… can we go back to…’


If they’re…Overly nervous

They keep apologising, fluffing it up & telling you just how nervous they are.

·         Acknowledge that they are nervous but don’t dwell on it – ‘I know this is difficult for you/can be a bit nerve wracking, but there’s no need to worry/please try and relax’ etc

·         Build rapport and get them used to talking to you – use something familiar or unimportant first, eg their journey, the weather, or whatever

·         Offer a glass of water or a tea/coffee

·         Don’t keep drawing attention to their nerves – after first reassurance, just get on with the interview.  Be friendly and informal if appropriate but remain businesslike

·         Try and be relaxed yourself – this should make them feel more relaxed as well


If they’re…Distressed

Oh dear – you don’t know if it’s genuine or not but here come the waterworks…

·         Have tissues and a glass of water/tea/coffee handy

·         Be sympathetic but remain businesslike – ‘I realise this is upsetting for you but its important that we carry on and sort this out’

·         If possible don’t let it disrupt the interview – allow them a few minutes to compose themselves but only stop for a break if really necessary. If they ask to stop the interview, suggest a five or ten minute break.

·         Don’t fuss over them or indulge them – whether their distress is genuine or exaggerated, it is likely to be prolonged rather than reduced if you do this.


If they’re…Belligerent/defensive/confrontational

Someone’s feeling feisty!

There are other techniques for dealing with forceful criticism, complaints etc – however this section and the one below relate to interview situations.

·         Don’t rise to the bait or get drawn into heated debate/argument/conflict – remain as neutral as possible and deflect inflammatory comments or questions – ‘That isn’t relevant to this conversation’; ‘I don’t intend to discuss that with you right now’ ‘I believe we should be focussing on…’

·         Refuse to answer inappropriate questions – ‘I’ll happily discuss that with you separately but this isn’t the forum for that’ ;  ‘That isn’t relevant to this discussion but we can arrange to talk about it another time’; ‘I’m afraid its not within my remit to discuss that with you’.

·         Be direct – ‘I’m getting the impression that you’re feeling defensive/uncomfortable/are quite sensitive about this – why is that?’  ‘We need to co-operate if we’re to sort this out/make the right decision – are you prepared to work with me on this?’

·         Maintain your authority and control – ‘I’ve stated our position on this and I’m not prepared to discuss it any further/it’s not open to debate. I’m ending this meeting now.’


If they’re…Aggressive/abusive

Just as well there’s a desk between you – scary stuff!

·         Don’t retaliate, lose your temper or raise your voice – remain controlled and formal

·         Don’t be cowed or let yourself be intimidated – remain firm and assertive

·         Don’t tell someone to calm down – this invariably exacerbates the situation!

·         State if their behaviour is unacceptable and be specific about it – ‘You are shouting/swearing/waving your arms about’   ‘I find your behaviour/language/tone of voice unacceptable/inappropriate/offensive/abusive and unnecessary’. Don’t refer to their ‘attitude’ – this is too ambiguous and tends to be inflammatory!

·         State the behaviour or conduct you require – ‘Please sit down/lower your voice/answer the question’

·         State the consequences – ‘If you are not prepared to behave in a reasonable manner/discuss this in a civilised way/act with professional respect and courtesy then I will have no option but to start disciplinary proceedings/give you a verbal warning/suspend you’

·         If necessary stop the interview -‘I want to discuss this with you/resolve this situation but I am not going to have a conversation with you while you are behaving like this’ ‘I’m leaving now/ending this conversation – we will continue when you are prepared to discuss this in a professional manner’. Worst-case scenario – if they are uncontrollable and all else fails, simply walk out of the room, return a couple of minutes later and try again.

Good luck, & remember – keep calm & carry on!

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