The time-tested behavioral interview question “How did you handle a difficult situation at work?” can pop up whether the job interview is for 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 a professional setback that taught them resiliency — a slightly more specific version of the standard question that you might consider its cousin.
Below, we’ll go over exactly why interviewers choose to ask this question and how to make a great impression with your answer.
“How did you handle a difficult situation at work?” and its variations — such as “Describe a difficult situation you faced and how you handled it” — are a solid, open-ended way for interviewers to learn about an interviewee’s experience, personality and thought processes.
First and foremost, your answer can give your interviewer insight into how you’ve dealt with situations such as interpersonal conflict, deadline pressures, and other challenges — and how you might handle similar challenges at this job. Like other behavioral interview questions, it requires you to share a story that actually demonstrates how you’ve behaved IRL rather than speaking vaguely about your skills.
A specific story helps interviewers assess your emotional intelligence. Do you describe your behavior as “responding” to the difficult situation (pausing, thinking, asking questions, checking in with yourself, etc. ) or as “reacting” to it (immediately talking, jumping into action, doing or saying something you later wished you hadn’t, etc.)? Do you talk about the importance of listening? Demonstrate your ability to prioritize? Avoid throwing your boss or colleagues under the bus? Ideally the answers are all yes — and give the interviewer tangible evidence that you’ll do the same in your future roles.
Finally, the interviewer wants to see how you frame and articulate the story you’re telling. “If you answer these questions succinctly and well, you show firsthand that you’re a strong communicator,” career coach Jane Scudder says of behavioral questions. “If you wander aimlessly and, after a 10-minute winding narrative, ask, ‘What was the original question?’ you’re showing that you may struggle with framing answers, information and your competencies in a compelling and meaningful way.”
First things first, you’ll need a story to tell. Pick one that’s relevant to the role and company you’re interviewing for. “You want the answer to resonate with your interviewers,” career coach Tara Goodfellow tells The Muse, and show them that you can “solve potential pain points they have.” Beyond that, Muse editor Regina Borsellino points out, make sure it’s about a professional experience (not a fight you had with your partner, for example), shows off your skills, and doesn’t imply you can’t do this job.
If you’re stuck trying to pick a story, here are a few you may want to consider:
When a big project got knocked off track in terms of timeline and/or budget
When a client was unhappy or made a last-minute request
When you had to work with limited resources
When you had competing priorities and had to figure out a plan
When you had to adapt to a new strategy or direction
When you misunderstood an assignment and didn't complete it correctly
When you had to deal with two coworkers who didn’t get along
When you had a difficult working relationship or miscommunication with a colleague
When your boss asked you to be a part of a project you don’t ethically agree with
When you needed to correct a coworker or boss
“How did you handle a difficult situation?” is an open-ended interview question that can be expertly answered using the STAR method. In short, the STAR method is an interview technique that allows you to tell a story in an organized way. S stands for situation (set the scene), T for task (describe your responsibility), A for action (explain the steps you took), and R for results (share the outcome).
When you set the scene for the interviewer, describe where you were working, when, who was involved, etc. This step ensures the interviewer has adequate background knowledge to appreciate the story to come. But remember, this description is meant to be simple and concise. “Sometimes people provide too much detail and their answers are too long,” career coach Emma Flowers tells The Muse. Especially in this first step, try to give the context you need in one or two sentences. So you might start your answer with:
“My previous role at Fairfield Designs required me to work closely with colleagues on the creative team in order to pitch and execute campaign designs for our clients. On one occasion, we had a client who wasn’t thrilled with the final design our team sent over.”
The second step in the STAR technique requires you to describe your task (or part) in the situation. By indicating what you needed to accomplish, you can then build on your story to show how you handled the situation.
“It was my job to be the liaison between our creative team and our clientele. I would handle all questions and concerns coming from our clients and communicate necessary information to them from our team. So it was on me to smooth out any complaints from clients.”
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 adversarial 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, have in-person work sessions and organize the workload to maximize individual contributions and minimize time wasted on personal conflict. This step, the action step of the STAR method, focuses on the actual steps you took to achieve what needed to be done.
“In this case, even after many previous consultations with our junior creative director that I personally set up, the client didn’t feel that the design captured the spirit of their brand and demanded a refund for our design services. I first listened carefully to their frustrations with the design. Then I communicated with them as gracefully as possible that we could not grant them a full refund, but that I would see what I could do. After brainstorming a few possible solutions and discussing with my team, I came back to the client and proposed a private consultation with our senior creative director to discuss their concerns with the design and two more rounds of revisions and feedback. They agreed to the consultation and ended up loving the final design our senior creative director put together for them, thanking us for our persistence in making sure they had a great experience with us.”
The final step of the STAR methodology is to go over the results of your actions. “Interviewers don’t only care about what you did—they also want to know why it mattered,” according to The Muse. So tell them: What was the outcome or resolution? What did you learn from this experience? How did it change your approach going forward? Make it easy for the interviewer to see why you did what you did and what happened because of it — which might mean quantifying the impact of the steps you took and explaining what you learned that you carried with you to future situations and jobs.
“This client came back to us three times in the next two years with new projects that brought in more than $100,000 in revenue. And they always requested to work with me again. It really drove home for me the importance of courteous communication and creative problem-solving, which I make sure to bring to every project I work on.”
“I recently was working as an office manager for Branchview Systems overseeing data acquisition and analysis of widgets. I was working with a great team, but we had an entry-level employee who was regularly turning in incomplete reports. Their direct supervisor had asked them multiple times to make sure that they included the correct performance insights,, but consistently, these reports were coming in with missing or incorrect information. That meant my team had to take time to fill in the gaps before we could move on to the next step of data analysis — slowing down our productivity and output. 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 and offered to run a training session where I broke down all the steps to show in detail how I put it together. Not only did the one entry-level employee’s reports drastically improve, but the quality of these reports also improved office-wide. As a result, we went from completing 23 analyses a month on average up to 31. Listening to coworkers, communicating expectations clearly, and finding opportunities to teach and mentor are now priorities I try to take with me wherever I go.”
“When I was working as a customer support representative for Sunnyvale Kitchen Appliances, I spent the majority of the day answering customer inquiries via email or telephone. During my time there, we made a switch in our warranties for our appliances. Instead of offering a lifetime warranty, we switched to a year-long warranty. Even with the various communications we sent out to new customers, many of them still called or emailed to complain about the new warranty policy. After speaking with my other colleagues on the customer support team, I realized that transitioning back and forth between handling calls about the new policy and other, more actionable requests was slowing us down overall and increasing caller wait times. So I approached our senior manager with the idea of splitting the team up in two groups for each shift and redirecting warranty calls to one group and maintenance and other requests to the second group. This allowed the team to handle incoming calls more efficiently, reducing wait times by about 30%, while also ensuring all of our customers felt heard.”
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.
Fairygodboss team editors contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.