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.
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?’
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
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.
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.’
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!