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How to answer the ‘Tell me how you handled a difficult situation’ interview question?

Written by: Charlotte Rogers
Published on: 14 Jul 2023

Difficult situation image

Interviews are there so employers can learn more about you, your experiences and abilities. However, they want you to build on the points you are making and understand more about how you adapt to situations and how you use your skills in the workplace. Interview questions like this are designed to allow you to discuss your skills, whilst giving detailed examples of how you used them and learnt from those experiences. 

The best way to answer interview questions is to prepare in advance and ensure you don’t find yourself stuck on the spot, not knowing what to say. This article is all about this interview question in particular and how you can make the most of the time you have to answer it. 

Why do employers ask this question?

An important note to remember is that not all interviewers ask this particular question in the same way. It may be worded differently. For example, they may ask ‘tell me how you handled a difficult situation’ or ‘describe a difficult situation and how you overcome it’. Both require the same answer, so be careful and don’t get caught out by different wording. Take some time beforehand to research the different ways it can be asked. Simple yet effective preparation. 

Either way, they want to know more about your problem-solving skills. How do you reach when put in a difficult or uncomfortable situation and how do you still reach your goals? By asking this question the interviewer is opening up a door to learn more about:

  • Your ability to prioritise
  • Your communication skills
  • How you deal with potential conflict
  • Your leadership abilities
  • How you work in a team
  • Problem solving skills

Keep this in mind when you’re thinking of an answer. Use the list above (and more if you think necessary) and cross-check with the job spec. Do any skills cross over? Make sure you focus on these and form your answer around it. 

Why use STAR?

When answering any open-ended questions in an interview, it can be really useful to start with STAR. If you’ve read a selection of our ‘interview question’ series, you’ll know how important this method can be for answering questions. It can really help you form a good base for your answer and help you build upon it as you develop it further. STAR is a good place to start and an effective way of structuring your answers. 

Situation - Think of a time specific to this question and make it relevant to the role you’ve applied for. 

Task - What was the task at hand and what type of role were you working in at the time. (This could be really useful information for the interviewer)

Action - What did you do in this situation? Link it back to the original question and ensure you’re giving enough detail.

Result - What was the outcome and what did you learn from this experience? 

How to answer the question

The interviewer is wanting to learn more about how you work under pressure and your ability to do so whilst being a part of a team and learning from your mistakes. There are so many different elements you could consider when answering this question, so focus on one event to make it easier to navigate. 

Choose a time - Choose a time that you feel had an impact on your career. Whether that be from university, your apprenticeship or a previous role, make sure you’re choosing something that actually happened. It can be easy to make up a scenario, but if they ask follow-on questions, it can be hard to keep up with. 

Be specific - Make sure you are focusing on one event or project. You don’t want to mix too many stories into one, it can become a bit confusing for both you and the interviewer. SO, although tempting to try and show them everything you’ve learnt, stick to one event. 

Be positive - it can be easy to put yourself down during interviews but give yourself the credit you deserve. Try and stay positive throughout your answer and if it’s something that didn’t necessarily have the best outcome, talk about learnings. Focus on the situation, not the outcome. Whether the outcome was positive or negative, you would have learnt something. The positive ending could be you not reaching your original goals but learning from your mistakes. 

Use the STAR method - Interviews can cause a lot of pressure and when under pressure, it can be easy to forget what you had initially planned to say. When you have the STAR method, it can help make it easier to remember. You take it step by step and go from there. 

Believe what you’re saying - Job seeking can be hard and sometimes we doubt our own abilities. So, for the interviewer to believe in all the positive things you’re saying, you have to as well. Give yourself the credit you deserve. 

Example interview question

"I was working on a team project where we were working on a new idea. It was my first project in my new role and it was causing me to feel a bit nervous. We were building [insert here] and we had got off to a quick start. Everything seemed to be on track until we hit a bump in the road and progress seemed to start trailing off. This is when our project leader had an urgent query about the project status and why we weren’t making fast enough progress. To which, I didn’t know how to answer. 

“I decided it would be a good idea to step away from the project for a couple of hours, despite being behind and have a team meeting. We were all feeling a bit frustrated, but I thought it was a good idea to take a step back, regroup and get in touch with the project manager with a report. This way, we can try and see a solution, with all of us on the same page. We sent the report and had to think on our feet to come up with a solution to get us back on track. We ended up [insert here] and although it was only a temporary fix, got us back into the swing of things. 

We did end up finishing behind schedule and our first solution wasn’t successful, but we came together as a team and the outcome of the project was still a successful one.”

The above example can be adapted to you and your role but gives an idea on how you can use STAR to get your point across. It helps you form a good structure and can be adapted for pretty much any open-ended question thrown at you in an interview. Just stay prepared and if ever put on the spot, remember this structure and it can help you on your way.