Interview Question: Tell Me How You Handled A Difficult Situation
One of the most common interview questions is focused on difficulties and your ability to handle them. It’s a tricky one to answer because you don’t want to sound like a messiah but you also can’t make it seem like you’ve never dealt with a challenge.
It’s a complicated question to answer also because different people handle challenges in different ways. In fact, organizations tend to have variations in the way they solve problems. So, how should you talk about your own approach?
In this guide, we’ll focus on how to answer the important interview question by:
- Examining the purpose of the question
- Utilizing the STAR technique
- Looking at the different tips that improve your answer
- Identifying the mistakes you have to avoid
- Outlining the steps you should take
You’ll also be introduced to the different ways the question can be asked and there will be plenty of examples along the way to help you understand what makes an answer good.
THE PURPOSE OF THE QUESTION
Questions always have a purpose, especially when you’re attending a job interview. The interviewer is not adding fillers, small talk or random questions just to pass time – anything they say and ask is aimed at learning something about you and testing your ability to work in the specific role.
Therefore, to know how to answer this interview questions, you must understand the reason it’s being asked in the first place. When it comes to conflict resolution question such as this, the aim of the interviewer is to learn about the kind of person you are and how you behave in different situations.
There are bound to be difficult situations at any given workplace. It’s not a question of being able to avoid them but to handle them successfully. For the interviewer, this question allows them to evaluate your past behavior and use it to make predictions about your future behavior.
When you answer this question, you tell the interviewer three important things:
How you behave under pressure and what your strategy to approach tough situations is going to be. This reveals the interviewer how you deal with difficulties and whether this would be a good approach in the work environment you’re looking to join.
How you handle pressures at work and if you are able to respond the right way. The interviewer gets a better idea of your personality and whether you can solve problems quickly and efficiently, especially if the situation calls for it.
How you communicate and what kind of person you are. This answer will also showcase your communication style and allows the interviewer to get an idea on how well you’d fit the working environment and business culture.
DIFFERENT VARIATIONS OF THE QUESTION
The question “How did you handle a difficult situation” is a behavioral question with plenty of variations. Essentially, interviewers will ask this kind of conflict question in one form or another.
The tips and ideas in this post can work with many of the variations that this question can pop up in. The question can – with the exact same purpose and very similar answering strategies – also be worded like this:
- What actions have you taken in the past when you were faced with a difficult situation?
- How have you solved a problem at work?
- Tell me about a challenge you faced in your previous position.
- Describe a difficult task and how you dealt with it.
- Can you provide an example of a time when you made a mistake and how did you fix it?
It’s also a good idea to be prepared for more job-specific formats of this question.
For example, if you are interviewing for a sales job, the question might be directly sales-related and it can be something like, “Describe a challenging situation in sales and how to overcome it”. If it’s a customer service job you might be asked something like, “Tell me about a time when you faced an angry customer and how did you deal with it”.
USE THE STAR FORMAT
Now you know the purpose of this question and the different variations of it that you might come across. It’s time to start building your answer.
The best strategy to use in order to answer this and many behavioral interview questions is to opt for the STAR format. You can read more about STAR here, but below is a quick summary of what this strategy is and how you should use it in this answer.
STAR stands for:
SITUATION. You should start by briefly describing the context of the difficult situation. You need to provide the important background information to ensure the interviewer has an idea of the situation you were facing. You might say things like, “I was managing the creation of a new website that was supposed to launch in two weeks”. You simply want to outline the context so don’t spend too much time here.
TASK. This is another part of the context and the aim here is to show what you had to do. In essence, it’s about the challenge or difficulty you were faced with. You might continue by stating, “one of our senior editors found a major bug in the code and he wanted to push back on the deadline, which I knew the company wouldn’t appreciate.”
ACTION / APPROACH. Then you move on to the actions you took or the approach you used to tackle the difficult situation. You want to focus on this the most in your answer and really detail the kind of things and actions you used to try to resolve the situation. You might go on and say, “I understand the editors push to move the deadline but I also knew the company has to have the website running on time. I didn’t want to push him and the team too hard but instead focused on finding out what they need that could help solve the situation. We created a list of things we could delay and work on after the launch and put the effort in fixing the bug to allow the launch – even if not in the most perfect way possible.”
RESULT. Finally, you have to talk about the end results. You, ideally, want to highlight how your actions lead to a good and positive outcome. The most important thing in job interviews is the quantification of those results. If you can put a number (percentage, money, time) behind the results, you make it stand out more. You could continue saying. “In the end, the team understood the priorities and we were able to work together to direct resources where they were needed. In the end, we launched the website on time, increasing company sales by 20% in the first week and we had to fully functional site up within 2 weeks of launch.”
So, to put it all together here’s an answer using the STAR technique:
|Situation ->||Task ->||Action ->||Result|
|I was managing the creation of a new website that was supposed to launch in two weeks.||One of our senior editors found a major bug in the code and he wanted to push back on the deadline, which I knew the company wouldn’t appreciate.||I understand the editors push to move the deadline but I also knew the company has to have the website running on time. I didn’t want to push him and the team too hard but instead focused on finding out what they need that could help solve the situation. We created a list of things we could delay and work on after the launch and put the effort in fixing the bug to allow the launch – even if not in the most perfect way possible.||In the end, the team understood the priorities and we were able to work together to direct resources where they were needed. In the end, we launched the website on time, increasing company sales by 20% in the first week and we had to fully functional site up within 2 weeks of launch.|
TIPS FOR ANSWERING THE QUESTION
Now you have the technique to use when building your answer. You can use it to start creating your own example answers and considering different ways of responding. To help you build the answer further, here are four important tips you should keep in mind.
Always use a real example
The situation you pick should be real. You shouldn’t come up with a situation under any circumstance. The most obvious reason to not creating a difficult situation is to do with the simple fact that you would have come up with a challenge at any point – all of us. You don’t have to make up difficulties because all of have faced them at some point in time.
Therefore, you want to go back and find those moments (there’ll be plenty!) and pick situations that you can use. The key is to pick something that’s not completely trivial (I couldn’t find my keys once!) or, on the other hand, impossibly disastrous for you (I accidentally deleted all medical records!).
Outline and focus on your actions
As mentioned above, you have to ensure the majority of your response is focused on talking about your actions and approach. You want to go over in detail the steps you took to rectify the situation, explaining why you think your approach and strategy was important. You want to show the interviewer what you did and why you thought it was important to do it.
Emphasize the positive outcome
While the focus has to be on the actions, you can’t forget about the result. It’s important to pick a real example with a positive outcome. Things don’t have to turn out perfect but your story must have a so-called happy ending. You can’t just throw your hands up and say, “I tried everything and well that was that”.
Your response must show your actions did lead to change and that you learnt from the experience. Even when we can’t salvage everything, these difficult situations can help us learn something. You might use the example to show you now understand the importance of communication or you always spend more time double-checking your work.
The ability to learn from mistakes and difficulties is a quality employers across the board would appreciate. They want someone in the workplace that acknowledges things don’t always go to plan – because they simply don’t and that’s just life.
Focus on problem-solving and communication skills
Above all, in your actions and your outcome, the emphasis should be on the problem-solving and communicative side of things. It’s important you highlight your ability to come up with creative solutions or to approach problems with logic.
Good communication is important in all workplaces and it’s especially important when it comes to solving problems. You should highlight in your actions how you tried to listen to people or communicate the problem early because you understand the value of it. You can also do this when talking about results; as mentioned above, you can say you now understand the importance of communication.
3 SAMPLE ANSWERS
Check out these three sample answers to help you understand the STAR technique and start brainstorming ideas for an answer. Remember that you shouldn’t copy them but do use them for inspiration and guidance.
“During a period of financial difficulties during my time as the Account Manager in my previous position, I had to deal with renegotiating prices with multiple vendors. We needed to renegotiate repayment schedule, which was tricky because some vendors were fairly new. I developed a plan that I’d introduce them first to ensure I’ve considered their pain points and which also helps our finances. I then contacted them directly and asked for a face-to-face meeting because it would make it easier to negotiate. I explained the situation, presented my plan and we worked through problem points. In the end, we managed to renegotiate three out of the four deals and saw the company through tough times. The situation definitely taught me the importance of preparing for meetings and considering other points of view.”
The answer is good because it acknowledges actions and highlights the reasoning behind those actions. It goes straight to the point in terms of what was done and why. It also has a lesson learned moment right at the end.
“We received constant complaints about our business newsletter that I was working on. It never got sent on time and it often included a lot of mistakes. Everyone thought it’s a bad look for the company. I went home and decided to look into the problems – I came up with a plan that would cut down the content to make it easier to deliver it on time and without errors. I presented my ideas and the editor liked them. Now, the newsletter is super popular – the situation definitely taught me that it’s OK to focus on quality and not quantity.”
The above answer is effective because it highlights the person’s ability to tackle problems head on and to take initiative. It’s also showcasing the candidate’s willingness to stick their neck on the line and take responsibility.
“I had worked piled up due to bad time management and health problems. I was feeling under the pressure but stepped back and decided that I had to prioritize. So I wrote down a list of all the things I have to do and started creating a priority list for them. I also made sure I didn’t try to push myself too far, as I understood it would just lead to more delays in the end. I was able to finish my tasks, although not all of them in the desired timeline. However, the situation definitely taught me the importance of prioritizing and focusing on problems head-on. There is no point in running away from them and being honest can help.
This answer is honest and it shows the person’s vulnerability. The answer still manages to highlight how people can change and learn from mistakes. It shows authenticity and the ability to be responsible for one’s actions.
MISTAKES YOU SHOULD AVOID
The above will give you the tools to start constructing your answer. While it always helps to know what you should talk about in your interview answers, it can also be good to know the things to avoid.
Sometimes by saying the wrong things, you might do more damage than by forgetting to say a thing in the first place. When it comes to talking about handling difficult situations, there are three mistakes you don’t want to make.
Don’t talk badly of other people or companies
When you are outlining the situation and premise for the difficult situation, you don’t want to say bad or mean things about other companies or people. For example, if the difficulty was caused because the company failed to follow safety standards, you don’t want to bash the company for being so precarious. Acknowledgement of mistakes can be accusatory or simply a statement of facts and you can see it in the below examples:
|There were clear communication issues between the company and our customers, which I then wanted to find a solution to.||The company was horrible at informing their customers and it constantly caused problems I had to fix.|
The one on the left acknowledges issues and highlights the road towards solutions, while the answer on the right is just badmouthing the organization.
Don’t be too self-obsessed and focus only on your greatness
While your answer should focus on your actions and behaviour, since this is why you’re in the job interview, you can’t make your answer too self-obsessed. You can’t make it seem like the difficulties were other people’s fault and then you just had to salvage the situation, and you were the only one to do it.
Again, consider these examples:
|The team failed to communicate with the client in a timely manner and so I took charge in clearing the situation. I decided to contact them and talk about how we can move forward and improve our communication. This worked and the client wanted to come back.||Because Ron didn’t call the client, they got mad. It’s only because of my amazing ability to convince the client to come back that I fixed it.|
The first is an unnecessary attack on a single person the interviewer doesn’t have to know about. That answer also makes it sound like you just fixed it, while the latter outlines in more detail, what you thought the best approach would be.
Don’t pick a non-work situation – unless you don’t have any work experience
Finally, you should avoid using situations that aren’t work-related. You might have dealt with a tricky drama with your friends but personal problems are not good examples, even if they show you have good communication skills. Work interviewer answer should stay strictly professional.
If you don’t have a lot of work experience, you can always use academic examples. Other suitable examples might be situations you dealt in hobbies, such as sports clubs, or volunteering situations.
PREPARING FOR THE QUESTION
You now have all the building blocks to answer the job interview question “Tell me how you handled a difficult situation?” You know:
- The purpose of the question,
- How to use the STAR strategy,
- What are the tips for building better answers, and
- What are the mistakes to avoid.
In order to prepare for the question prior to your interview, you should follow these four steps:
Step 1: Think about a conflict that might arise in the role
Think about those common conflict situations you might be faced with in your work. Because your answer is an opportunity to highlight your fit to the role and the work environment, you want to showcase your understanding of the role and the company – even a simple question about a difficult situation can help you do this!
So, take a moment to consider the role and the daily tasks you’d be engaged with. What kind of problems might come about? Would difficulties be because you work directly with clients or in a big team? Do you have to communicate a lot or would problems be more technical in nature?
Write these ideas and possible conflict scenarios down to a piece of paper. This is to help you find a difficult situation from your past that would help highlight your astuteness for the role.
Step 2: Pick three to four examples of a matching difficult situation
As mentioned, the interviewer wants to reflect your past behavior to future behaviors and presenting a situation the interviewer might find similar in the work environment might help them realize you’re a good fit.
For example, if you are interviewing for a role in a customer service role, you want to highlight how you’ve managed to deal with a difficult situation in customer service. On the other hand, if your future role would be very technical, you might talk about a technical challenge you’ve overcome and so on.
The key is to find a professional situation from the past that would showcase your talent in dealing with situations you might face in the future. Your example should highlight those skills you’d need in this role.
Since you listed those common conflict situations that might occur in your role, you can use it to find examples from your own life. Think which difficulties might highlight your capabilities and match with the company the best and write those down.
Remember you don’t have to force an example at this point. Yes, customer service might be at the heart of your role but if you haven’t worked in a customer service role, you might struggle with an example. However, think about the skills you need as well – you need communication skills in customer service and you might have a past experience that relates to this!
Step 3: Use bullet points to create your STAR answer
Now you can put your STAR strategy to good use and start forming your answers. Remember you don’t want to learn your interview answers by heart – this is not supposed to be a script reading session and you do have to adjust to the conversation and the question.
Nonetheless, you can still prepare and think about your answers, if not word-to-word. Look at the example situations you have and create your STAR answer. Just use bullet points and the below template:
What happened? When? Where? What was my role?
What was the obstacle/challenge/difficulty? What needed to happen?
What did I do? Why did I do it?
What happened because of my actions? What did I learn?
Step 4: Practice your answer
It can also help to practice answering this question and other tough interview questions. You should consider role-playing with a friend, family member or a colleague. Ask them to ask the question and use your STAR technique to reply. If you don’t have anyone to do this with, you can always just talk aloud and even film yourself. This can help you identify how long you’re spending on your answers if the answer is detailed and direct and so on.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Answering the question, “Tell me how you handled a difficult situation” is not as tough as it first appears. You have the perfect template to answer it if you opt for the STAR technique – you will talk about the situation, task, actions and results in a direct and sensible manner.
You will succeed when you know how to match the situation you talk about with the skills and qualities you use in the job. The interviewer is always looking for those predictions and by picking the right example you can use this opportunity to highlight your match.
So, take the advice on board and start practicing the perfect answer!
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