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How to Deal with a Confused Candidate
by Simon North
Quite often and quite naturally, a candidate can be stressed and it’s not always easy to see in their stressed state whether they’re confused or not. Quite often we see candidates who are unprepared. With a candidate that seems confused, are we mistakenly interpreting unpreparedness as confusion or are we dealing with a candidate who is genuinely not with it or seems unclear about where they are? It could be a combination of these things.

The overriding issue, if you find yourself in this position, is to respect the person in front of you. It’s quite binary—you can either respect them, give them time, find out more and be helpful, or you can write them off, see them out and just move on. Whilst you might have a desire for the latter of those courses of action, if we can spare the time we may be surprised at the subsequent result. By being kind and being patient, we may well find that we have a candidate that is really pretty good.

Whether they are a good candidate for the job you’re seeking to fill may not be the main issue. You never know when the candidate you have sitting in front of you could be good for a different role or could be seen by one of your colleagues for a job they are dealing with. If so, the fact that you been helpful to the individual at a difficult time could lead to you and your firm having a friend for long time; a friend who could be a good source for your company and, depending on their level, you never know that they may not become a client for you in the future.

Confused candidates can quite often just be like rabbits in the headlights. For the candidate, the whole process of coming to meet you is a culmination of days, if not weeks, of anxiety leading up to this crucial interview with you. As recruiters, we’re used to meeting and interviewing people on a daily basis all the way through the year. Our personality type loves the idea of meeting new people and talking to them about their work and life. But that puts us recruiters into probably quite a small minority of people who enjoy that type of work. Can you imagine what it’s like if you’re not built like that, where absolutely the last thing that you would enjoy is meeting total strangers and having to impress them with your candidature for a job they know a lot about and you know little about at this stage? In terms of power and influence, the human equation is more balanced towards the recruiter at this stage than the candidate.

The other thing that may happen with confused candidates is that they may not have thought hard enough, or well enough, about their own basic requirements throughout the day of the interview, like whether they have eaten and drunk enough. So if they arrive in a dishevelled heap after a longer journey than they expected, it might be kindest thing to offer them the restroom to get themselves together and brush their hair or to get them a cup of tea or to just give them time and space to settle down. Sometimes you hear that the very brightest people are not always those who have the highest amount of common sense and what you don’t want to do is to exacerbate a confused candidate’s situation by not allowing them the chance to show you why they’re a good candidate for a job.
It might also be useful, where you see someone who looks confused, to give them breathing space - to start by letting them listen to you talk for a bit at the start of the interview. Alternatively  let them read any material that you have on the employer—perhaps a job specification or corporate brochure. Rather than sitting opposite them at a table, you might want to come and sit closer to them so you can both look at the document together where you’re able to highlight various aspects of the material—thereby being seen as on the same side rather than in any adversial position.

Another method of helping a confused candidate could be to ask them open questions that make the candidate think. Ask questions such as ‘how did you get here today?’, ‘what was your journey like?’, ‘what is your experience of our firm?’, and ‘how much do you know about the company you’re being interviewed for?’ Those sorts of question require the individual to think in a different way than if you asked closed questions like ‘was your journey okay?’ or ‘did you come by train?’ That kind of closed question can be answered by someone in a near catatonic state and doesn’t actually get you going in a two-way conversation.

Something else you might want to do is to take the individual out of the environment you’re in. For example, if you have the wherewithal to take time out of the building, you could perhaps go for a walk outside, round the block. A change of scenery and a change of air can have a positive effect on the candidate. The most important impact is that you’re not looking into the eyes of one other and you’re not stationary. By walking forward and not making eye contact, it takes the pressure off and it’s easier to illicit information in a different way than if you’re sitting in the same room, face to face.
When you go into an interview, whether you are the interviewer or interviewee it is pretty obvious what are the easy questions to talk about and which ones are challenging and tough. So if you find yourself with a confused candidate, why not give them an easy ride in the first 5 or 10 minutes? Let them talk about things which are easy to talk about whilst giving them the chance to relax and ease themselves into the conversation. Putting a confused candidate on the back foot with challenging questions straightaway will leave both them and you nowhere.  You are likely to give up on them much faster. But these small tips can make a big change to a conversation with confused candidate.
One of the challenges of the recruiting, selection and interviewing process is that it is a pressurized, transactional and stressful process for some people. Not everybody will be like the brand new car on the forecourt and sometimes you will come across a confused candidate. It is your choice whether you can turn that situation into a potential advantage for you and for your organisation.

Simon North, co-founder of Position Ignition, one of the UK’s leading career consulting companies specialising in helping individuals and organisations with their career development, management and direction. Simon is an expert in recruiting, HR and career transition and can be found at: To read more of Simon’s thoughts on careers and HR challenges visit: for careers advice or their website for organisations:
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