When it comes to behavioral interview questions like asking you to describe a difficult situation and how you handled it, you need a strategy to prepare a good answer. The best approach is to take a challenging difficult experience and use it to show your emotional intelligence and your work experience.
This is a great opportunity to leave a strong impression on the hiring manager and show them you’re the best fit for the job.
5 Tips for Your Answer
- Choose a real work-related situation.
- Provide enough detail, but be concise.
- Show your thought process and your abilities in problem-solving.
- Show your leadership, communication, and technical skills.
- Make sure that the story has a positive outcome.
5 Mistakes to Avoid
- Avoid problems that you created yourself.
- Don’t focus on the negative aspects.
- Don’t blame or speak ill of other people.
- Avoid drama.
- Don’t downplay your strengths, but avoid sounding cocky.
How to Answer: STAR Format
You can use the STAR technique to organize your ideas and create a great answer to standard interview behavioral questions, like this one. STAR stands for:
S: Situation – give the interviewer some context to better understand your story.
T: Task – explain what the challenge in that situation was and include the main points.
A: Action – tell them how you handled that challenge.
R: Result – show the results you achieved.
Use the following examples of the best answers to this common interview question as guidelines to help you choose a difficult work situation you’ve experienced. Then use the STAR method to outline your talking points where you turn a tough situation into something positive and show you’re a good fit for the job.
Best Example Answers to “Describe a Difficult Situation and How You Handled It” Interview Question
1. Example Answer:
In my previous job, I had to take over a troubled project from a colleague who had quit. In my first meeting with the customer, he walked into the room yelling. He was angry about the problems we hadn’t solved yet. I didn’t interrupt him. I made notes of the issues he raised. When he finished, I told him I was going to address all complaints.
As I asked him questions about each issue, he started to calm down while giving me more information. I went over the specific actions I was planning to take and got our top specialists working on the issues. I made sure to frequently update the customer on my progress. He eventually apologized for his behavior. It took us one week to solve all problems, but I was able to gain his trust back in our company.
Key Takeaways: This answer shows the candidate handled an angry customer in an effective way. Instead of arguing back, they listened, asked questions, and communicated frequently. It also shows the candidate’s problem-solving abilities and efficiency.
2. Example Answer:
In the first week of my internship, a client asked for a major change on their website just a few days before its launch. The team had to work late, but the manager said that I didn’t need to. I decided to stay and help the team anyway. I wasn’t trained in the tools they used, but I offered to test the website. I tested every page over and over until all errors got fixed. After that, the manager decided to include me in the next project as a trainee.
Key Takeaways: This answer is a great way to answer this question if you don’t have a lot of experience and so don’t have other good examples you can use. Here, despite the lack of experience, this answer shows the candidate’s willingness to go beyond what was expected of him and be a team player.
3. Example Answer:
Back when I was the customer support team leader at ABCD Corporation, we had a new client who was often very rude to my team. I decided to meet with him in person to understand him better and hopefully create a more positive dynamic. My department only communicated with customers by phone and email, but I thought more was needed in this case.
During our meeting, I politely framed the issue in a way that communicated that we wanted to understand how to serve him better. I did not focus on his behavior, but rather on what we could do to exceed his expectations. He ended up apologizing and explaining that he was extremely stressed because of personal issues. After that, he was considerably easier to service.
Key Takeaways: This answer shows the candidate’s ownership of their team’s problem and how they took the initiative to solve it. It also shows their communication skills, interpersonal skills and problem-solving skills. It is an especially great way to answer the interviewer’s question if you are seeking a customer service job.
4. Example Answer:
When I started working at a small publishing company, my boss asked me to get some high-profile endorsements for a new book. I had never done that before, but I embraced the challenge. I made a list of about 60 names of great prospects. I first reached out to the top 10 names on that list. When I got the first positive answer, I continued contacting the other people, now mentioning the one who had accepted, and so on. I was able to get 18 endorsements that impressed my boss and were crucial to boosting the book’s sales.
Key Takeaways: The candidate didn’t shy away from a challenge, and their boldness was rewarded.
5. Example Answer:
Let me tell you about a difficult situation I had with a new project manager. She needed more billable hours in that quarter to reach her financial goal. So, she asked me to enter 80 more hours that month, and then I would subtract those hours from the following month’s timesheet.
I carefully explained to her that doing so was against the company’s policies. I couldn’t register hours that I hadn’t worked. And if that project got audited, she and I would be in trouble. She understood, thanked me for warning her, and gave up that idea.
Key Takeaways: It shows the candidate’s integrity and courage to do what is right even when having to stand up to a superior.
6. Example Answer:
When I started my last job as an HR training specialist, I noticed that every internal audit revealed some of the same errors in certain HR processes. I checked the training material they used for the managers. The training material was an extremely dry online course with a lot of text and no illustrations or media. I decided to create a new version of that course, with videos and multiple-choice tests after each lesson. Every manager ending up taking the course, and after that, the internal audits showed we were performing those processes correctly.
Key Takeaways: The candidate noticed a problem, came up with a good idea to solve the problem, and then took the initiative to make it happen.
7. Example Answer:
One of the most difficult challenges I’ve had so far was when a colleague was hospitalized one day before a presentation to a potential client. My manager asked me to fill in for him, but I wasn’t familiar with the products he was selling to the client. I used every minute I had to study everything he had already prepared and finish the presentation. I asked a specialist from the support team to help me with the technical aspects. The presentation was a success, and we were able to close the deal.
Key Takeaways: The candidate made the effort to learn and prepare the presentation in the short time they had, wisely seeking help from experts.
8. Example Answer:
In my first team meeting at ABCD Corporation, my manager told a couple of prejudiced jokes. Most people laughed. I noticed that a few other people were uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Even though I was new, I later approached him in private and respectfully explained that those jokes could be offensive to some people. He was surprised and said he didn’t realize it. In the next meeting, he apologized to everyone.
Key Takeaways: The candidate was bold to confront his manager’s inappropriate behavior, and he did so in a professional manner.
9. Example Answer:
I had a very difficult situation where the company I was working for was having financial problems. Because of that, I had to fire one person from my team. I chose the team member we had hired most recently. She had great potential, but she still needed guidance to do her job. Before I talked to her, I reached out to some acquaintances from other companies, and one of them was hiring. So, when I gave her the bad news, I also told her about that opportunity. I gave her a recommendation letter and she ended up getting hired.
Key Takeaways: The candidate showed well-thought reasoning in choosing who to fire. They also showed compassion by actively seeking alternate employment for the employee.
10. Example Answer:
While I was in college, I worked part-time at a coffee shop. The owner asked me to suggest a way to promote his new doughnut flavor. I suggested making mini doughnuts with that new flavor and adding one for free to each combo order during the launch period. It was a success. It became the third top-selling doughnut after only two weeks. Customers also wanted to buy the mini doughnuts, so we started making mini doughnuts in all flavors, and they also became top sellers.
Key Takeaways: This is a good example of a candidate who was able to add incredible value, even though they were still in college at the time, had little/no job experience, and only worked at the coffee shop on a part-time basis.
11. Example Answer:
In my previous job, there was this time when a customer wanted a new website built on a very tight schedule and with a limited budget. I knew it was too risky. I turned down the work and respectfully explained my reasoning to the customer. The customer was upset and hired another company for the job.
Sometime later, the customer called me. They had a lot of delays with their project and realized that the schedule and budget combination was unworkable. They should have allowed for a longer schedule or a larger budget for that project. The customer told me that they wanted to work with us in the future because they valued our judgment and appreciated the honest feedback we had given.
Key Takeaways: The candidate made a tough decision to refuse a project that proved to be problematic. Though it initially resulted in a tense situation, the customer eventually realized that the candidate was right and appreciated their integrity.
12. Example Answer:
About two years ago, we had a new team leader. He was constantly overworked while my teammates and I had free time, so I decided to talk to him. I told him that there were many tasks that we were used to doing, and that he could delegate them to us instead of doing everything himself. At first, he hesitated. But he eventually realized that we could handle those tasks, and our team’s workload got more balanced. Our results also improved after that.
The answer shows that the candidate has the courage to approach a superior and essentially tell him that he could improve his delegation skills…respectfully. The candidate identified an area for improvement and took initiative. In pursuing a fair workload distribution, it also shows that the candidate is hard working.
13. Example Answer:
On my last job, I was asked to join a large project that was almost finished. When I studied the specifics of the tasks I was responsible for, I realized someone had made a wrong estimate. It should take at least two weeks longer to finish them. I talked to the project manager, and I helped him redo the plan. I also suggested adding a junior specialist to help me with the simpler tasks. We were able to finish everything in time and within the budget.
Key Takeaways: In this example, the candidate had to join a project at the tail end and get up to speed quickly. Not only did the candidate do this, but they discovered a critical problem, had the courage to diplomatically raise the issue and worked to solve the problem in a way that minimized negative impact on the project goals.
14. Example Answer:
I was working late at the office one day when a customer called. My colleague had sold them a vacation package, including reservations in a hotel in Orlando, Florida. However, the hotel receptionist couldn’t find them. I immediately checked our system. I saw that the reservations got canceled due to incorrect information, but my colleague hadn’t noticed. So, I called the hotel manager, explained the situation, and the hotel manager was able to get the customer a room. I apologized to the customer and gave them a bonus for their next vacation.
Key Takeaways: This is a great example if you are applying to customer service jobs because mistakes inevitably will happen. The candidate didn’t hesitate to help the customer. They solved the problem and offered a bonus to try to make the customer satisfied despite what had happened.
15. Example Answer:
I once had to lead an application development project on an extremely tight budget and schedule. It was a strategic client, so I couldn’t refuse it. I got our IT team to set up a VPN tunnel to the customer’s internal network, so most of my team worked remotely, reducing the travel expenses. I also had the junior programmers do some of the work, which reduced the labor cost. I was able to finish the project within schedule and budget. The customer was impressed, and I got a promotion.
Key Takeaways: The candidate showed how they handled a tough project for an important client. They came up with solutions to lower costs and finish the project successfully.
Some standard interview questions may seem a bit scary at first. But if you plan your answer and practice it, you can turn this difficult interview question into a great example of your skills. Prepare your STAR interview answer using what you have learned here and show your potential employer that you have what it takes to get that job. Good luck!
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.