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The Three Hardest Words in the Job Interview

Joe was knocking the interview out of the park. I was a part of one of those abominable panel interviews and Joe had nailed a few hard analytical questions I had aimed between his eyeballs. The interview was less than half complete and in my mind, he had the job.

Then, it happened.

One of those traffic wrecks that you watch unfold in what seems like old-time, stop-motion cinema. Fenders crushing under the momentum of panic. Brakes squealing. And as quick as a Red Bull-guzzling Mongol’s scimitar, Joe’s future with my company was lopped off unceremoniously.

And it wasn’t what he said: It was what he didn’t say. Joe could not say those three irksome words. The three words that separated him from where he was, and where he wanted to go: “I don’t know”.

The question was actually a pointless question from someone who had no business conducting an interview. But there it was: a soul-crushing, unfair question that should never have been asked, but it was Joe’s lot in this interview.

I am far from the first to suggest that admitting “I don’t know” is difficult. Just Google it. It’s hard. REALLY hard. I did my best damage control on Joe’s behalf because I can look past a few dents on an otherwise pristine Porsche, but his panic had sealed his fate with the others.

Don’t let this moment pass without trying it yourself out loud. Say it firmly and add a little staccato: “I. DON’T. KNOW.”

That didn’t feel very good, did it? It doesn’t feel very good for anyone, least of all me.

I’m asking you to commit yourself right here and right now to embrace this discomfort. Think of it like that tie you overpaid for at Brooks Brothers (yeah, you aren’t the only one): Once you get past feeling like the tourniquet is about to turn you into worm food, your step has a little extra spring because you not only are the right person for the job, but you look the part as well.

It’s like that, but harder.

If Joe had answered, “I don’t know”, he would’ve had a new job. And if he had some relevant insight, and was calm because he was prepared, Joe probably could have negotiated more money than what was on the table.

Listen to the power of these three difficult words when framed with the kind of wisdom any competent professional has inside: “I don’t know. But, if I understand your question clearly, here is how I would approach solving the problem…”

Joe was the most competent person that panel interviewed—by far—but that did not get him the job. Lack of preparation left him powerless. My passion is to help you find power through preparation. Wielding power with those three tongue-incapacitating words is a good start on mastering one of the most critical job skills you have never been taught.

In the rest of this blog series, I will share more techniques to help you interview with confidence. To interview with the confidence to speak those three despicable words.

The confidence to get the offer.

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