Drawing A Blank

contributed by Dr Stephen E Bangert, PhD

Most advanced academic programs require a thesis or dissertation before a degree is awarded. This is certainly true of doctoral degrees where some original research or issue stemming from such research is conducted. A candidate selects a topic along with a committee of professors to guide him/her through the process (and hopefully makes it through before becoming a scapegoat of political infighting). There is a definite format for reporting one’s research, as well as an approved style guide for writing. The final step requires the candidate to defend what he/she has written before the committee and any other faculty member who chooses to attend this publicly announced defense.

Years ago when I subjected myself to such torture, I become more and more tuned to the countless horror stories of what had happened to others in the process—from losing their original research, to not backing up their writings, to being grilled by the committee. On the day of my defense, I felt confident as I waited for the committee to gather. I visited with one of my professors who loved to tell stories, and for whatever reason chose to tell the story of young woman he had advised who went absolutely blank when it came time for her defense.

Talk about the power of suggestion on an already anxious mind. The thought preoccupied me, and as my defense started and questions were posed, I answered with distraction. Then I drew a blank. Fortunately the committee did not attack but supported me and allowed me to recover. I survived, but long carried the memory of a performance with which I was less than satisfied.

Drawing a blank is not uncommon when interviewing.  So what can you do if you find yourself in this uncomfortable situation?

Offensive measures are the best, and the best offensive measure is preparation. Start your interview preparation by anticipating situations that might occur, and questions that might be asked. Think through these situations and questions and develop strategies and answers to address each. Then envision yourself comfortably responding. Such preparation should allow you some fallback responses that generally fill the blank.

Of course, there may be some situations and questions that you don’t anticipate or where anxiety gets the best of you and you draw a blank. Then what?

Consider these defensive measures:

You might want to ask for clarification. This buys you some time to gather your thoughts and formulate a response. Just be careful not to ask too often for clarification. The interviewer may then question your mental capacity. And of course, it would not be wise to ask for clarification when you really wanted the question just to be repeated because you were not listening. You can envision a comedy skit where the interviewer asks: “What was your favorite subject in school?” or “Where were you born?” and the candidate asks for clarification.

A variation of this tactic would be to give a partial response and then ask for clarification and expansion.

Another tactic is to respond with broad, generalized terms. For example if you were asked how you would solve a sexual harassment problem, it is best not to spend the next five to ten minutes qualifying the situation and gathering information. It would seem as though you were stalling. In other words don’t try to solve the problem, just address how you would approach it, the priorities you would set, the people with whom you would want to communicate.

If the problem posed is similar to something you’ve experienced, you might make reference to that experience describing the circumstances, explaining your initiatives and detailing the results that you achieved.

There may be questions that are asked early in the interview that leave you wondering which way to lean. You don’t know what the interviewer is thinking. For example: “If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to do?” or “How long would you see yourself being with this company?”

In both of the above examples, it would be wise to steer a neutral course, committing yourself to a challenge but not painting yourself into a corner. Respond and then ask a question of the interviewer to gage their thinking. In the first example you might respond by saying: “I am certainly looking to build on my experience and skill achieving results comparable to my last position, but more importantly let me ask how I might be of resource to this company.”

In the second example you might respond: “As long as there is the challenge that you describe, I would see myself committed to this team. Do you have a particular time frame in mind?”

Another tactic you might choose is to call attention to the present reality. This takes the focus off the question and to the dynamic. It buys some time and perhaps some empathy. For example you might say: “Gee, I’m drawing a blank; I’m not sure where to start.” or “Whew, I think I’ve just experienced your curve ball; help me out here.”

Hopefully, you will not experience a horrorifying moment of drawing a blank during an interview, but if you do then consider using some of the above tactics. And if you can’t remember these tactics, then cross your fingers, toes and eyeballs and hope the interviewer is interrupted with an urgent phone call.

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