Zia Soleil—Getty Images
By Peter Swanson / PayScale
October 9, 2015

Congratulations: you got an interview! Good on you for taking the time to prepare. Does the thought of 45 minutes of unfettered questioning send you into a cold sweat? Are you a shoe-in on paper and a mush-mouth in person? It’s OK: most people are. In fact, 92% of Americans are stressed about at least one aspect of their upcoming job interviews. Tied for second place was the fear of not being able to answer a specific question.

It should give you some level of comfort to know that there are certain questions potential future employers simply cannot ask you: questions pertaining to your age, race, religion, sex, prior arrests or convictions, disability, and more — even your height is a forbidden subject. Unfortunately, those laws don’t cover the entire landscape of horrible questions an interviewer can ask. And in some cases, they’ll ask the illegal ones anyway.

What you should never do is be rude or confrontational. Going on the offensive could take an innocent mistake on the interviewer’s part and turn it into a lost opportunity for both parties. The best advice you can use in those situations is to remain polite, and simply steer the conversation away from the aforementioned illegal subject matter.

How do you go about steering that conversation? Here are two simple philosophies that can turn any bad question into a winning moment.

Be Honest About Your Shortcomings

While you should never feel compelled to discuss anything you’re not required to, you may simply be nervous about a past failure or mistake that you’re sure is going to keep you from the job of your dreams. Say you lost a big client, missed a few deadlines, or even got into an argument with your boss. Don’t try to hide those things, but rather embrace them as experience.

You didn’t get to where you are today because you knew everything on day one, or even did everything right all the time. You’re experienced because you made mistakes and learned from them. Take some time before your interview to address mistakes you made, and then try to articulate to yourself what you learned from them. When some form of the anxiety-inducing question, “What’s an example of a time you messed up?” comes along you know how to turn it into a positive.

Never Cast Blame

Employers want to see that you’re a team player. Team players don’t always get everything right, but at the end of the day they still honor their teammates. It’s likely that you’ve had a bad employer at least once. But even if you did everything right for them, never slip into the trap of disparaging someone else.

If you keep getting pressed to talk about a boss you didn’t like, or a co-worker with whom you didn’t agree, always bring it back to how the situation exposed an area in your own life that you were able to strengthen.

It’s OK to fail. Employers know that, and are looking not for perfect people, but those who know how to fail well. If you’re someone who’s eager to support their team, and quick to learn from their mistakes, your self-awareness will certainly carry you a lot further than arrogance and blame.

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