That’s exactly what they’re designed to do! The lighter you are on your feet, the better you’ll do.
The object of a stress question is not to gain information from the content of your answer.
Stress questions are designed to gain information about how you behave under stress. That’s why I call them “stress questions.” The questions themselves are supposed to create stress.
Let’s take a look at one of the “scariest” stress questions:
“What was your greatest failure?”
You certainly are not obligated to recall your real greatest failure in front of a complete stranger. And actually, interviewers don’t expect you to. Instead, the interviewer is testing to see how you react under stress by asking you a question that is, in itself, stressful.
How do you beat it? First, take a deep breath and entertain one of these answers:
“Perhaps my greatest failure was not going to college right after graduating from high school. Anyway, I waited until I got a few years of work under my belt and then I got a degree in physics, with highest honors. I guess it didn’t turn out so badly.”
Or . . .
“Well, you know, I was entered in a tricounty triathlon, and I trained for over 6 months for the race. I even hired a personal trainer and radically altered my diet and weight-training program. When the day of the race came, I was totally prepared and “psyched up” to win. I was sure I could place in the top three, if not take home the blue ribbon. I did the race in less that 1 hour, 32 minutes, 7 seconds. I gave it my best shot, but I came in fourth.”
Or . . .
“Once I decided to plant an elaborate vegetable garden in my backyard. I went to the hardware store to buy all the tools and seeds. I also bought a book on how to grow a vegetable garden, and I even took a county parks and recreation course on how to grow your own food. I followed all the directions I had learned, and I planted six kinds of vegetables, but the only thing that ever came up were the tomatoes. I guess I’m really much more of a corporate executive than a gardener!”
With responses like the ones above, you’re pointing out “failures” that are little more than minor disappointments. You’ll also notice that you’re actually calling attention to some good qualities like diligence, persistence, willingness to try something new, or even excellence. This approach works well since this is only a stress question to test your reaction.
If you have good rapport with the interviewer and can see that he or she has a good sense of humor, you might give it a lighter touch:
“I suppose my greatest failure was not being able to take those three strokes off my golf game.” [laughs]
“I think . . . not being able to make a perfect soufflé.” [chuckles]
Whatever you do, don’t let them see you squirm!
All the best,