Couch your weaknesses! – Interview strategy for the “what’s wrong with you” questions

Webster’s defines couching as “to say or express (something) in a particular way”. When delivering bad news in a job interview (about a weakness, the reason your last job didn’t work out, a difficult boss, etc.) it’s good interview strategy to couch your responses by putting two positives around the negative.

During one employment transition in my work history, I had just quit a job because of a very difficult boss. Wouldn’t you know it, one of the first questions I was asked in my next interview was, “Have you ever had a difficult boss?” I felt that the question was really trying to get at whether I was difficult to get along with – not the precise number of difficult bosses I’d ever had – so I decided to couch my negative answer between two positives.

I said, “I have always had terrific bosses. I remember one as a great mentor, and I learned invaluable information from them. Another was a great connector and was always introducing me to people that added value to my career or life in general. There was this one time when I encountered a difficult boss – she had some unusual habits; she would sleep under her desk at night and rarely bathe, things like that – which made working with her pretty challenging. I am looking forward to another great boss relationship in the future. What sort of boss are you?”

That last question – what sort of boss are you – was also my ticket off the negative topic. I didn’t see the value in me spending time on such a negative subject, so I asked a related question that got us off the difficult boss relationships topic and onto a conversation about how we would work together in the future – much more positive interview strategy.

This strategy of couching bad news between two positives can also work well for questions like, “Tell me about your weaknesses.” For the weaknesses answer, I like to recommend that people choose a skill that would be a “nice to have” in the new role, but not a deal breaker if they don’t have it – vs. choosing a behavioral problem and risking throwing yourself under the bus by disclosing it. When you choose your weakness, it should be something you are genuinely interested in getting better at, something you care about. Let’s say you’re a software tester and you’re asked this question in an interview. Your response might be, “While I’m great at deciphering and debugging C# code (first positive), I don’t yet have a lot of exposure to Java (the weakness), so I’ve begun a course on and have already learned how to create Java programs (the second positive).”

By approaching the weakness answer with this interview strategy, you have a chance to relate the different languages you are familiar with and you can convey an enthusiasm around learning new things that will give your audience confidence that you’re a proactive learner of stuff you need to know at work. You’ll appear undaunted by technologies and goal oriented. In this example, “Do you use Java here?” will get you off the subject of “tell me about even more weaknesses of yours” and onto a more positive conversation about the technologies used in the role. It’s important that you ease into the changing-the-subject questions gracefully, so it looks like an extension of your interest in the role and not an effort to dodge the subject.

– Jill Walser, Owner of I got the job! and intrepid interview strategy coach

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