Hays’ Travis O’Rourke shares his advice for what to do when your mind suddenly freezes up in a job interview – and how to reduce the chances of it happening again.
It can feel like something straight out of a nightmare. You’ve prepared extensively for your job interview, got into the right frame of mind and walked into the room feeling confident. But suddenly to your horror, your mind has gone completely blank when asked a question.
What causes our minds to suddenly go blank?
We’re all human, we’ve all experienced this to some degree before, whether that be during an exam, presentation or a job interview. What counts is how we deal with it and move on.
So, let’s understand a little more about why this happens in the first place and what’s going on in your brain when your mind appears to, out of nowhere, go completely blank at crucial moments.
Research has shown that when we become stressed, “the brain tends to shut off the cortical networks involved in creativity, contemplation, planning and thinking abstractly.”
Essentially, what happens is that, instead of concentrating on the task at hand, the brain goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is a physiological reaction to the presence of something or a situation that the brain perceives as terrifying, either physically or mentally.
‘Mind-blanking’ is defined by a lack of conscious awareness. When being posed a question during a job interview, your mind can suddenly go ‘blank’, even when you know the answer to the question being asked and can fully articulate the right response – just not at the very moment you need.
The difference between sitting an exam and revising for it is similar to preparing fully for your job interview and then facing it. During revision or preparation, you’re naturally more relaxed, which allows for a perfectly logical and rational thinking process, often referred to as ‘cold cognition’, to take place.
During this process, the brain produces fewer stress hormones and the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex of the brain work normally.
Unfortunately, during more stressful situations, such as exams, presentations and job interviews, the brain begins to release more stress hormones, which subsequently triggers a period of ‘hot cognition’. These hormones make it harder for regions of the brain to communicate – and, suddenly, your mind can go completely blank.
As I mentioned earlier, this can happen to anyone, so here are some simple tips that could help you deal with your mind going blank in a job interview – and how you could avoid it happening again in the future.
Four things to do if your mind goes blank in a job interview
Stay calm and don’t panic
This is crucial. It’s important to know that the sense of dread and impending disaster washing over you isn’t everything you fear it is. Staying calm will allow your mind to enter back into a state of cold cognition, enabling you to think more rationally.
Take a deep breath
Not only will this give you a moment to collect yourself, a deep breath also sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. In a job interview, your brain has reacted to a situation it perceives as threatening and you taking a deep breath is calmly sending it a polite message in response that this time it’s mistaken.
Admit that your mind has gone blank
This shows honesty and humility, while giving you the opportunity to move on. It could also help you to relax from the sudden fight or flight response and allow you to ask the interviewer to repeat the question.
Repeat the question back to the interviewer
An alternative is to repeat the question back to them. This gives you a moment to collect your thoughts and listen to the question again in your own voice and for the interviewer to confirm that you have heard the question correctly.
Each of these steps is designed to give you that crucial extra time you need to collect your thoughts and relax. By following them, you’ll find that your mind becomes clear again very soon and you’ll be able to answer the interviewer’s questions eloquently and without hesitation.
How to avoid your mind going blank in your next job interview
So, we’ve covered what to do if your mind suddenly goes blank in the middle of a job interview. But is there anything you can do to ensure this doesn’t happen in the first place?
Relax as much as you can
As I mentioned earlier, when you’re relaxed you’re in a state of cold cognition, thinking logically and rationally, and therefore in the best position possible to perform at your best during the interview.
If, when preparing for your interview, you memorise your answers to common interview questions, you’ll not only sound scripted, but it’s also more likely that you’ll forget crucial details.
Over-preparing for a job interview can also make you believe that there’s only one way to give an answer – and this too can trip you up during moments of stress.
Get out of your head
Listen to the question being asked. Stop worrying about every minor detail and instead actively listen to the question being asked of you.
Taking notes while the question is being asked can help you to recall key points of the question and therefore help you give the best possible, most relevant answer you can.
It’s also fine to refer to any notes you’ve brought with you, which you may have put together while preparing for the interview.
Don’t worry about bouts of silence
They are normal in any conversation, regardless of the situation, so don’t dread them if they arrive. Instead, take the time to contemplate your answer.
Use gestures to retrieve key information
This study, published in the American Journal of Psychology, found that participants who were allowed to use hand gestures while recalling information performed far better than those whose gestures were restricted.
We’ve all experienced our minds going completely blank before – and at the most inopportune moments such as job interviews. When it does happen, it’s important to realise that this isn’t as catastrophic as it feels in your head.
Any temporary mind blanks shouldn’t derail your entire interview, as long as you deal with them properly.
Travis O’Rourke is the president of Hays Canada. A version of this article originally appeared on the Hays Viewpoint blog.
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