“What is one of your weaknesses?” and other delicate interview questions

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Over the years, many people have asked me in one form or another how to handle delicate interview questions such as “What is one of your weaknesses?”

The purpose behind delicate questions

The fact of the matter is that life isn’t perfect and we spend a lot of time in places, at work or at school for instance, where we interact with others and where uncomfortable situations arise. This is reality.

There are two primary reasons why these types of questions are asked: 1) to understand the level of diplomacy the candidate uses when talking about something difficult and 2) to see the level of self-awareness a candidate displays. Obviously, there are many other reasons, but if you remember these two primary areas, they will help you to navigate most delicate questions that come your way.

Strengths and weaknesses

While the “what are your strengths/weaknesses” question is considered outdated according to HR best practices, it still remains a common question, so it behooves you to prepare for it.

What often happens when candidates don’t practice is that they will go on and on about their strengths yet the room will fall silent when it comes to identifying their “areas of opportunity” aka their weaknesses. Another common occurrence is that candidates will offer canned responses such as “I just work too hard!” or “I am so perfectionist!” Hiring managers have heard these answers a million times and they are not impressed. They then probe further and once again the room is silent.

My advice to approaching this question is firstly to balance your answers. Don’t state 10 strengths if you can’t come up with even one weakness. The message this sends to interviewers is that you have an unbalanced perspective and we don’t want that. When you speak about your weakness, talk about your approach to improving that weakness as well as what you do to work around it and function in the day-to-day. Let’s say you are someone who is extremely detail-oriented and while it has its advantages, in your current workplace it’s considered a hindrance. How do you function? What are tips and tricks you use to work around this? What are you currently doing to work on this weakness?

This approach works because a) you demonstrate self-awareness by knowing what your weakness is and b) you are willing to accept feedback and take action. This satisfies the interviewers’ questions and is a sign professional maturity on your behalf.

The formula for talking about setbacks

An uncomfortable truth is that everyone experiences setbacks in their careers sooner or later. This line of questioning may come up, and preparing for it will help you to do well in an interview setting.

What happens when a candidate doesn’t prepare is usually one of two things: 1) The person will ramble on and get trapped in verbal quicksand or 2) the person will be vague, which prompts further probing and they lose composure.

The formula for talking about setbacks and uncomfortable truths is as follows:

  1. Explain factually
  2. Be brief
  3. Discuss what you learned

By explaining factually and keeping your response concise, you are satisfying the question that the interviewers have without opening a can of worms. This helps you to limit further questioning on the matter. By then following up with what you learned, even if it was not explicitly asked, you demonstrate growth and you steer the conversation towards something more positive which helps you to stay composed and in control.

Trick questions and illegal questions

You can never control who interviews you and it may happen that you meet an inexperienced interviewer. When the interviewer does not have a clear line of questioning in mind or written down, they sometimes resort to “trick questions” such as asking you about favourite movies or what animal you would like to be. These types of questions are not in alignment with HR best practices by any means. Should you encounter these types of questions, your best bet is to ask the interviewer for clarification. What are they trying to get at with this question? This will help to uncover the tone which can guide you in your answer. It sometimes happens that it is not a trick question at all: the interviewer simply delivered the question poorly. For instance, engineering candidates or those in other analytical fields often get a question about how many golf balls fit in an airplane or a baseball field. While there are more effective ways to assess analytical skills, knowing that the interviewer wants to get at a calculation which estimates volume helps you to better formulate your response.

Some questions are illegal and should raise a red flag for you. Any question about age, nationality, race, religion or creed, sexual orientation or gender identification, marital status, children and family, illnesses or impairments etc. is illegal because they are potentially discriminatory. More often than not, the interviewer who asks this type of question is inexperienced but you never know who has sinister motives. Keep your eyes open and listen to your gut: this may not be the most professional company and you will have to decide for yourself if you want to go further in the recruitment process.

A final word

Most questions interviewers ask will have a more positive tone and be aligned with your strengths and your experiences, so spend most of your time prep time practicing these questions. Practice delicate questions and be prepared, but don’t spend all your time on these types of questions as they will not constitute the bulk of the interview. I would also recommend that you take a look at my article “What’s your reason for leaving?” to craft a winning summary about why you want to leave or have left your company.

Good luck!