Deftly explaining how you handle difficult work situations will help take you from interviewee to new hire.

One of the more creative ways employers learn about a candidate's abilities and experience is with open-ended questions requiring detailed answers. Often-used queries include, “Describe a difficult situation or project and how you overcame it,” and “Tell me how you handled a difficult situation.”  

Regardless of how the question is asked, here are some tips to help you ace the answer and get the job.

Why employers ask this question

As part of a behavioral-based interview, this is an effective way for a hiring manager to learn a great deal about an applicant without using multiple questions. It also helps in assessing your emotional intelligence, a deciding factor for many companies today.

Asking this question gives an interviewer insight on many key traits including:

  • How well you listen

  • How you prioritize

  • Your initiative

  • Your communication skills

  • Whether you own up to your mistakes

  • Whether you can avoid creating drama

  • The ways you deal with conflict, deadlines, and other work pressures

  • The strength of your leadership skills

  • Your instincts to ask for help when needed

  • Your ability to think on your feet 

People with these behavioral traits already intact can immediately handle the unforeseen challenges that come with the job, making them desirable candidates — especially for high-level positions. That's why it's critical to answer this question effectively.

Note: The interviewer may decide to ask about a specific situation rather than leaving that up to you. If so, you can state that you haven't handled that particular issue and offer to describe how you would deal with it. You may be asked about that particular scenario for a reason, so do your best to answer it rather than trying to use a different example.

How to respond to “Tell me how you handled a difficult situation”

Because this is likely part of a behavioral interview, use the STAR method to prepare a great answer beforehand so you can confidently respond during the interview.

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result, the four areas you want to touch on when answering this type of question:

  • Situation: Explain the event/situation in a few concise sentences.

  • Task: Briefly describe the task/situation you handled, giving relevant details as needed.

  • Action: Explain the actions you used to complete your task or solve your issue. This is the place to be very detailed and specific so take your time providing this information.

  • Result: Present the specific results you achieved. If applicable, provide statistics or other quantifiable information used to achieve your results.

Following the STAR method will help you answer this question effectively so that the interviewer clearly sees that you have everything they desire in a qualified candidate.

Sample responses to get you started

Some general topic areas to focus on when developing your answers include:

  • Choosing to act with integrity during an ethical dilemma

  • Taking initiative to approach and effectively solve a difficult situation

  • Using a particular thought or action process to find a solution to a tough problem

Use the following samples to help you:

  1. At my current job, a client called late Friday afternoon with an urgent question about their project status. Usually my boss directly interacts with our clients, but he'd already left for the weekend. I told the client that while I might not know the exact answer, I could possibly help because I was also working on the project. The client was fine with that. We worked through the question together, and I was able to provide enough information that the client felt the rest could wait until Monday. I left a detailed note for my boss asking him to check in with the client on Monday.

  2. In my recent job as a department manager, there was a new hire who consistently provided incomplete reports. They were asked multiple times to include all the required information, but the reports continued to lack all the data and had to be redone for others to do their jobs. I wondered if the new employee was getting clear information, so I created a sample report for the new hire showing all the required data. I also asked other supervisors to review this with their reports and to post a chart of when the reports were due. As a result, the quality of everyone's reports improved, not just those of the new employee. I learned that it's really important to listen and to clearly communicate expectations to get the desired results.

Add all the specific actions and thought-processes that apply to your example, and try to make it sound like you're telling a story versus rattling off facts.

Avoid these mistakes

When answering this type of behavioral-based interview question, try to avoid topics that make you or anyone else look bad. For example:

  • Avoid speaking badly of current/former company, co-workers, supervisors, or direct reports.

  • Try not to come across as “superior” in your past or current role.

  •  Conversely, don't play yourself down — unless it's explaining how you've grown.

  • Don't describe a non-work-related situation, unless you have no relevant work experience to share.

The more you prepare, the more confident you'll be in describing how you handled a difficult work situation — and that greatly increases your chance of getting hired.

When it comes to acing the interview, it's all about practice. That's where our coaches come in

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