Critical Thinking Skills | Foundation 6 – Lesson 2

Go back to Job Search Prep Syllabus.

One of the things an interviewer (or phone screener) is going to be looking for in you is your ability to think critically. And while this competency is rather broad, encompassing such conceptual abilities such as your ability to analyze information, spot trends, handle ambiguity, get creative, and move to action, as well as more tactical abilities such as your ability to solve problems, manage time, track details, and the like, the place where your peer group tends to fall short—and therefore where the greatest opportunity is—is in the ability to handle uncertainty and ambiguity.

What this means is, in an interview, (almost) never stop to ask for clarity. Now, I’m not suggesting that you go and run off half-cocked! No! What I am suggesting is that you make some assumptions about how you think I want the question answered, and then you check those assumptions, by setting up the answer, moving through it, and then double checking that you handled things completely and asking if you “left anything out.”

To be clear, the following questions are ones that might generally trigger a call for clarity. For each, I have suggested an alternative response:

  1. “I see you lived in Northern California for a year… tell me about that.”

    This is a broad, open-ended question that might cause you to want to ask for clarity—does the interviewer want to know what the weather was like? What the people were like? Your general impressions? Your daily routine? Resist the urge to ask for clarity, and respond as you might if a friend had asked it: compare it to the city where you now live; give your 3 favorite things and 1 thing you’d like to see changed; share your favorite moment/place. Add structure to the question proactively!
  2. How did you do in your last job?

    I ask a form of this question in all my interviews. There is a “right” answer, and that “right” answer does not begin with, “What do you mean?” What I want to know with this question is whether or not you measured your own performance, and how you connected that measure to some bottom line organizational metric. I don’t care if you work the mail room, I want to know that you are dialed into the concepts of revenues and/or profits. Try this: “While qualitatively it may not have been a great fit, quantitatively, I made sure I hit my numbers.” Provide details.
  3. So, what are your plans?

    I know this question is ambiguous: do I mean with regards to this week? This job? Your life? Don’t assume I’m asking an ill-thought-out question… in fact, I am purposefully being vague because I want to see at what level you choose to answer this question. Tell me about your life, and you’ll have given me a clue you’re a strategic thinker. Dial me right into your plans for the day, or ask me for information before being able to move forward, and I’ll know straight away you’ve primarily driven with a “doer” mentality. Try this: “In the short run, my plans are to find a position that meets certain criteria. (List the criteria.) Longer term, the plan is generally to live a simple, fulfilling life, but the details on that haven’t quite gelled yet. I’m still pretty focused on the day-to-day.” (Note: it’s OK to say you are focused on the day-to-day because you’ve already established, through your previous sentence, that you’re aware of the strategic level.)

After you watch this video, also take a look on my blog for more information about this very important topic!


Here’s a “simple” exercise to help you get comfortable handling ambiguity in your communications:

Sit down in front of any video-enabled computer/video camera and record your answers to the following questions. If you don’t have access to a recording device, do this in front of a mirror:

  1. Tell me about high school.
  2. Tell me about college—I want to know everything… classes, first impressions of campus, social scene, job search, the whole nine yards, from the decision to apply to today.
  3. Where do you live?

After you answer these questions, watch your responses and ask yourself these two questions: Are you more interested in this person now than you were before you asked the question? Did the response generate a follow up question in your mind that you’d like to ask? You’re looking for a “yes” to both questions.

Got guts? Transcribe your responses and post them below in the comments field.

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2 responses to “Critical Thinking Skills | Foundation 6 – Lesson 2”

  1. mdabhi says:

    Quick Question: when you say that you should never ask for clarity in an interview. Do you mean that if a question is asked by the intreviewer and you don’t understand, you shouldn’t ask the decision maker to repeat the question as it makes you look in-ept?

    As in the past I’ve been guitly of doing this, interviewer asks a question I know the anwser but I have trouble articulating those answers and so stuble along the intervie. So then I go back and ask interviewer to explain the question as I didn’t understand it.

  2. Jason Seiden says:

    @mdabhi Never say never! If the question is truly unintelligible, or if you don’t understand what is being asked at a fundamental level, then definitely ask for direction.

    If the question seems ambiguous but understandable, such as “Tell me about high school,” then run with it. In a case like this, where you understand the question but aren’t sure how the interviewer wants you to approach the response, set some direction. (i.e., Show leadership!)

    If you don’t have confidence in the direction you’re taking, add a preamble to your response:

    “High school… that covers a lot of ground! I’ll walk you through a few different, important elements of my high school experiences, including academic, social, and extracurricular, and if there’s something you want me to spend more time on specifically, you let me know, OK?”

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