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Keeping Your Cool in a High Stress, High Stakes Interview

Chrissy Scivicque

Have you ever found yourself wondering: "Is it just my imagination or is this interviewer trying to get under my skin?"

The questions all seem a little rude. The tone is sharp and overly critical. Sure, a job interview is nerve-wracking by nature. And of course you're being judged - that's a given. But this just feels like overkill.

You know what they say: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Some interviewers are intentionally trying to freak you out.

It's actually a real interview technique: Pile on the pressure and see how the candidate responds - sometimes called a stress test. And while it may feel like the interviewer is just a jerk who likes to make people squirm, there's more in it than that. The technique has a very specific purpose and you, as the interviewee, should respond in an equally purposeful way. Here's what you need to know.

First, it's not just you. If you feel intimidated, overwhelmed or even on the verge of tears, you're normal. The interviewer is not out to get you; he's out to get every candidate. He's intentionally trying to elicit a reaction. The interviewer wants to see how candidates handle themselves in these kinds of high-intensity situations.

The kinds of questions you're likely to encounter are designed to put you on edge. For example:

--Why weren't you promoted in your last job?

--Why haven't you accomplished more in your career?

--Why didn't you go to a better college?

--What makes you think you can survive here?

Those questions feel a little "in your face" don't they? Well, that's the point. The interviewer is watching your reaction: your body language, facial expressions, behavior and communication. Do you go speechless? Do you stutter? Do you get angry? Do you shift and fidget and show your discomfort?

To handle stress interview questions, your main goal is to stay calm. Don't take the bait. As best you can, shorten and simplify your answers. Don't be afraid of repeating yourself - especially if the same question is asked repeatedly in different ways. And don't be afraid of standing up for what you know is right. You were invited to the interview for a reason, so don't let them push you around or make you question your capabilities.

For example:

Interviewer: "Wow. You really haven't done much in your career. Why is that?"

You: "Actually, I respectfully disagree. I'm quite proud of my professional accomplishments, particularly the work I did on project XYZ..."

When it comes to a stress test, the answer itself typically doesn't matter as much as your unspoken response. So keep your cool, smile and stay strong. Speak slowly and intentionally. It's perfectly fine to pause and take a breath when needed.

A sense of humor can be your best ally in a situation like this. It's even perfectly OK to acknowledge what's going on in a lighthearted way by saying something like: "If you're trying to rattle me, it's not going to work."

Most people who encounter stress interviews are well aware of the high-pressure nature of their profession, so it's not altogether surprising. It's most common in interviews for sales jobs and other roles where there is a high level of stress to meet quotas or deadlines. Of course, if you're not prepared for a high-stress interview and it happens, you may want to consider what this says about the company and the role you'll be in should you take the job. If it upsets you deeply, it might not be the right position or environment for you.

Stress test interviews aren't easy. But understanding what's going on makes them much easier to handle. It's not personal; it's business. Make sure your reaction reflects that - stay professional and poised

Chrissy Scivicque, the founder of EatYourCareer.com, believes work can be a nourishing life experience. As a career coach, corporate trainer, and public speaker, she helps professionals of all levels unlock their true potential and discover long-lasting career fulfillment.

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