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5 Ways to Answer Interview Questions

That Seem Straightforward But Really Aren’t

In the realm of your interviews, things are not always as they appear. Most of us are faced with questions that seem straightforward but are actually loaded with subtext. These are questions where the interviewer is looking for more than just the literal answer. We call it using your emotional intelligence, a skill that can be learned.

Understanding the underlying intent of an interview question can be the difference between a good impression that moves your forward or a missed opportunity. In this article, we will explore five strategies to help you navigate such situations and answer questions in a way that addresses what is really being asked.


1. Read Between the Lines

What it Means

Before you answer, take a moment to consider why the question was asked in the first place. Is the interviewer trying to gauge your cultural fit, technical or management skills? Understanding the context is crucial for crafting an appropriate response.

How to Do It

  • Listen Carefully: Pay attention not just to the words, but also to the interviewer’s tone and body language.

  • Ask for Clarification: If you're unsure, it's okay to ask for more details. This shows that you're engaged and thoughtful.


Question: "Can you work under pressure?"

Real Question: "Can you give me an example of how you prioritize projects under tight deadlines?"

Answer: "Absolutely, I thrive in high-stakes environments. In my previous role, I successfully managed multiple projects with tight deadlines by prioritizing tasks and collaborating effectively with my team. Here is an example…"


2. Showcase Your Relevant Skills

What it Means

Sometimes, the question is a gateway to talk about your skills and experiences that are relevant to the job or situation. Many skills may not be relevant even though you think they are.

How to Do It

  • Identify the Skill: Determine what real skill or quality the question is targeting by thinking like the interviewer.

  • Provide Examples: Use specific examples from your past to demonstrate that skill.


Question: "Tell me about a time you failed."

Real Question: "Are you a risk to our company since we have tight deadlines?"

Answer: "In my previous role, I led a project that didn't meet its initial goals. However, I took that as a learning opportunity, analyzed what went wrong, and implemented changes that led to success in future projects. For example…"


3. Align with Objectives

What it Means

The real question often aims to understand how you fit into the larger goals of the team or organization.

How to Do It

  • Know the Objectives: Research the company or project goals ahead of time and understand its culture.

  • Align Your Answer: Show how your skills, experience, or approach align with the culture.


Question: "Why do you want to work here?"

Real Question: "Do you align with our company's mission and goals?"

Answer: "I'm passionate about [Company's Mission] and believe my skills in [Relevant Skill] can contribute to achieving [Company's Goals]. For example…"


4. Be Honest but Tactful

What it Means

Sometimes the question is testing your integrity or self-awareness.

How to Do It

  • Be Honest: Don't try to give the 'right' answer; give the true answer.

  • Be Tactful: Frame your answer in a way that is honest but also shows you in a positive light.


Question: "What's your biggest weakness?"

Real Question: "Are you self-aware and committed to personal growth?"

Answer: "I tend to be a perfectionist, which can make me spend too much time on details. However, I'm aware of this and working on balancing quality with efficiency. For example…"


5. Keep It Professional

What it Means

Even if the question seems personal, the underlying intent is usually professional.

How to Do It

  • Stay Focused: Keep the conversation centered on professional topics even through you are talking about personal interests.

  • Be Concise: Answer clearly and concisely with personal activities that are relatable.


Question: "How do you spend your weekends?"

Real Question: "What are your interests outside of work, and will our employees want to spend time with you ?" Pick universal activities that employees can relate to.

Answer: "I play chess with friends, volunteer at my local soup kitchen, and hit the gym regularly."

Mastering the art of answering what's really being asked is a skill that comes with practice and awareness. By employing these five strategies—reading between the lines, showcasing your skills, aligning with objectives, being honest but tactful, and keeping it professional—you'll be better equipped to navigate complex conversations and make a lasting impression.

Remember, the goal is not just to answer the question but to understand the question behind the question. Once you do that, you're not just responding; you're communicating. And effective communication is the cornerstone of professional success.


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Mike Mittleman is a career coach whose business focuses on finance professionals based in the NY/CT/NJ tri-state area, helping navigate their career paths with confidence and success. For more tips and personalized coaching, visit



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