Freelance Writer & Nonprofit Information Officer

The time-tested behavioral interview question “How did you handle a difficult situation or a professional setback?”  can crop up whether the job is bagging groceries or taking over operations as a chief executive. It’s such a classic that even ABC News has closed out presidential debates by asking each candidate to share with viewers a professional setback that they had overcome. 

How do you handle difficult situations? Do you follow a formula or make it up as you go along? If you have a strong moral to your professional setback story, this question is an easy way to impress interviewers and ensure they remember you. It is also a great way to show an interviewer that you’re thoughtful, own up to your mistakes and work to adjust your behavior as a mature and dedicated employee. 

Why do interviewers ask “how did you handle a difficult situation or a professional setback?”

“How did you handle a difficult situation at work?” and its variations are a solid, open-ended way for interviewers to learn a bit about a person’s personality and thought processes, as well as test their story-telling skills. Most applicants will have a response ready for “tell me about yourself,” but “how did you handle a difficult situation?” sometimes trips people up, so this can be a useful time for interviewers to see how someone thinks on their feet and prioritizes if they have to choose a story to tell quickly. 

Interviews often give an advantage to extroverts and people who grew up in supportive environments and were encouraged to voice their opinions and thoughts. “How did you handle a difficult situation?" is one of a few common interview questions that lets you immerse yourself in the past and tell a story, which is easier for some introverts than listing your best and worst qualities. Behavioral interview questions (asking you to explain how you did or would behave in certain situations) can also give your interviewer insight into how you have dealt with situations such as conflict, deadlines, work pressures, and other challenges. 

This question also helps interviewers assess an applicant’s emotional intelligence. Does the applicant describe their behavior in the difficult situation as “responding” to the situation (pausing, thinking, asking questions, checking in with themselves and then moving forward) or as “reacting” to the situation (immediately talking, jumping into action, doing or saying something they later wished they hadn’t, etc.)? Do they say anything about the importance of listening? Demonstrate their ability to prioritize? Avoid emotional drama? These are all important questions interviewers might be able to answer after hearing a response to “How did you handle a difficult situation at work?”

How to answer this question in an interview.

1. Set the scene.

“How did you handle a difficult situation?” is one of many open-ended interview questions that lends itself way to the STAR technique. The first step in following "STAR" is Situation. Setting the scene for the interviewer — describing where you were working, when, who was involved, etc. — is helpful for two reasons. One, it gives you a moment to orient yourself and get in the groove. Also, it helps your answer have structure and ensures the interviewer has adequate background knowledge to appreciate the nuance of the story to come. 

2. Describe the difficulty.

The second step in the STAR technique is Task. The important part of this step is describing the difficulty, conflict, setback or task that is the focus of the answer and clearly explaining why it was a trying and influential experience. By indicating what you needed to do first, you can then build on your story to show how you went above and above. 

3. Walk them through your actions.

There is a difference between saying what needed to happen and showing what you did to change a situation. Sure, you needed to get two co-workers to work together so that the three of you could finish a project. But what you did was sit down with each of them to honestly discuss expectations and priorities, made sure to have in-person work sessions on neutral ground and organized the workload to maximize individual contributions and minimize time wasted on personal conflict. This step, the Action step of the STAR methodology, is focusing on the innovation or tenacity that you displayed to achieve what needed to be done.

4. Talk about what happened.

The final step of the STAR methodology is to go over the Results of your actions. It is important that the story isn’t too complicated, you want your interviewer to understand why you did what you did and what happened because of it. Was the situation fixed? If not, why not? How is it still a good representation of you handling a difficult situation? Provide enough detail so that the interviewer understands but not so much that you lose the forest for the trees or end up going on for ten minutes on this one question. 

5. Identify the take-away.

In the end, the interviewer will want to hear a happy ending. After you have gone through the STAR steps, it can't hurt to spell out your moral for your interviewer. This doesn’t mean the situation the story focuses on has to have turned out well. In fact, stories that turn out poorly can often make the best examples as they help show your humility. If the specific incident didn’t have a happy ending, what did you learn? How did you grow? How is it still an impressive example of how you dealt with a difficult situation or a professional setback?

Examples of difficult situations or professional setbacks to talk about in an interview.

  • Two of your co-workers hate each other.
  • Your co-worker is a pen-clicker (or has some other annoying habit).
  • An HR manager says something inappropriate.
  • Your boss expects extra work/overtime/work that is not in your job description.
  • Your child’s school play is at the same time as an important work event.
  • Your boss asks you to be involved with a project you don’t ethically agree with.
  • You are experiencing racial (LGBTIQ-related or ableist) discrimination at work.
  • Someone takes credit for your work.
  • You need to push back or correct a coworker or boss.
  • You are laid off.
  • You misunderstand an assignment and do it wrong.
  • You get sick right as something vital is happening at work.
  • You have a pressing personal issue that influences work.
  • You don’t enjoy or believe in your work like you used to.
  • Your boss is rude to you,
  • You must take time off to help a sick family member.
  • You are not being paid enough.

Example responses.

A story about overcoming an issue with a team member.

“I recently was working as an office manager in Company X overseeing data acquisition and analysis of widgets. I was working with a great team, but we had an entry-level employee who was turning in reports that were incomplete. Their direct supervisor had asked them multiple times to make sure that they included X, Y and Z, but consistently, these reports were coming in with information missing and that we had to re-do in order to use in the next step of data analysis. I feared that while expectations were being given, they weren’t clear, so I took the time to put together an example report with all the necessary information. I then asked all the supervisors to go over the template with their direct reports and post the examples with the weekly due time somewhere visible. Not only did the one entry-level employee’s reports drastically improve, but the quality of these specific reports also improved office-wide. Too often employees are forced to say “I have no idea what my supervisor wants” to coworkers since we haven’t spent the time to adequately go over expectations. Listening to co-workers and communicating expectations clearly are two priorities I try to take with me wherever I go.”

A story about resetting boundaries.

“Right out of college, I joined a company doing system and networking administration. Right out of the gate, I was working way more overtime than I expected but I was learning so much I was extremely grateful. As time went on though, I was taking on more and more responsibilities and expected to work more and more hours. This would have been okay, but whenever I asked about reclassifying my job or even getting overtime pay for the overtime hours, my HR department would refuse to engage. This went on for a few months and I wrote several letters and spoke to a number of people higher in the company. It became clear after a time that I was not going to be fairly paid for my work, so I left the company. I really appreciated the experience I gained there, but I was ready to place a higher value on myself and my work. The transition was difficult and scary, but it allowed me to prioritize myself, as well as regroup regarding my goals for the coming years, my strengths and weaknesses in my field as I dusted off my resume and my time management in and outside of work.”


This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

Jasmine Shirley is an operations professional who has worked with organizations such as the Forum for African Women Educationalists - Zimbabwe Chapter (FAWEZI) and Movement Labs, with experience in mobilizing volunteers, design, social media, and SEO. Her focuses include identity-responsive pedagogy and policy and anti-racist-centered social justice.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for answering “how did you handle a difficult situation or a professional setback?” Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!