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We all have been there: sitting at a job interview and suddenly hearing “describe a difficult work situation.” You freeze because you can’t find a way to paint the situation with a positive twist or you can’t even think of a difficult situation. Your mind goes blank. What happens next?
Coming up with examples of difficult situations at work gets tricky because you need to think of a challenging yet manageable situation. So you can show that you are the right candidate. Do not worry. We will teach you how to describe a difficult situation and how you overcame it in a way that will impress interviewers.
A potential candidate is more often than not asked to express how they overcame a difficult situation at work. Therefore, you need to learn to describe a difficult task and how you addressed it - include it in your preparation for an interview!
Recruiters tend to ask behavioral questions such as “provide an example of a difficult situation at work” because your answers shine a light on your emotional intelligence and problem-solving abilities required to deal with difficult situations at work.
From how you answer the interview question about difficult situations, recruiters can gain insights into your communication skills, sense of responsibility, and efficiency at tackling complicated problems, among other key traits.
💡 Note: If you are applying for a customer service position, recruiters may ask a variation of the popular interview question, such as an example of dealing with a difficult customer.
One of the most effective ways to tackle the interview question “how to handle difficult situations at work” is to use the STAR method. This technique helps you organize your thoughts and deliver a great answer.
STAR stands for:
🎯 Situation: Start by giving proper context to the interviewer. You will want to explain all the relevant details about the difficult situation at work you faced. For example:
“I used to work as a customer service manager. One of the most important tasks was evaluating my team and providing feedback. However, after a merger, new team members joined our department. It was very hard to communicate and coordinate at first.”
🎯 Task: After giving them a thoroughly explained difficult situation at work example, you have to show them you are objective-oriented. For example:
“My objective was to develop an effective communication mode that allowed us to work well together within a month.”
🎯 Action: It’s time to answer how you handled the difficult situation. Explain your moves in detail, and provide all the necessary information to show how you solved the difficult situation at work. For example:
“I started with a get-together activity where we made sure team members got to know each other and their responsibilities as well. Moreover, I arranged weekly meetings to update everyone on their progress. Finally, I highlighted the input every person had for everyone to understand the importance of working as a team.”
🎯 Result: Remember to provide a positive wrap-up once you give your example of how did you handle a difficult situation. Providing statistics will help you paint a better picture of the outcome to the recruiter. For example:
“After the first month of working together, our team got to the efficiency level before the merge. And by the end of the first year, our productivity increased by 45%.”
You will be able to ace the “tell me how you handled a difficult situation” interview question if you follow the structure of the STAR method.
You will increase your chances of making a good impression by reading examples on how to describe a difficult situation and how you handled it.
This example of a difficult situation at work shows how important the input of the candidate was for his previous workplace. Making the candidate a much more promising option:
“I started my career at a language school. They did not have a proper class structure and every teacher did what they liked in their classes. However, it was hard for students to achieve a standard level. Therefore, I started to write a plan for each class. I did plenty of research and aligned with the other teachers so we all started using the same base materials. By the time I left, the school had a proper class plan for each grade, and the students all achieved fluency before graduating.”
This interview question example answer teaches you how to handle a difficult customer. Following the STAR method can give a positive twist to a negative situation when answering how you solved such a difficult situation at work.
“When I was a customer representative for an electronics firm, I handled a furious client. The cellphone he had just bought seemed faulty, and he had lost his temper when he called us. My main objective was to improve the situation overall. I started by addressing his complaints until he calmed down. Then, I apologized and offered help with a replacement. Additionally, I offered him a reduction on his next purchase. He was grateful in the end.”
It is common for interviewers to ask you to answer how to deal with a difficult coworker as an interview question. After all, conflict resolution will be part of your tasks if you join the HR team.
“When I started working as an HR assistant, I was assigned to a recruit. At first, many of her coworkers complained she was always late with her reports and did not like to work in teams. Therefore, I decided to retrain her. I set KPIs for her to achieve and bi-weekly one-on-one sessions. Within the first month, all her teammates were already more welcoming, and by the end of the first trimester, she was surpassing every KPI.”
This example of what to answer when an interviewer asks “tell me about a time you handled a difficult situation” works great. Even though this case is about a graphic designer, you can use it for different positions in similar situations:
“My previous company started expanding rapidly, so I started getting swamped with requests for designs. Everyone used different channels. It was hard to keep track of every project. Therefore, I created a set of graphic briefs for different common designs. People just needed to fill it with their requirements. Moreover, I established a communication platform. It reduced our communication errors and improved my workflow while creating a much more doable workload.”
Describing a difficult work situation is only half of the objective. Focus on finishing with a positive twist that highlights the impact of your efforts. Take a look at the following paragraph as inspiration to answer how did you handle a difficult situation in your job.
“When I joined a startup, their social media department was non-existent. I created guidelines for every platform with the right messaging and tone of voice. I took one week to learn about our mission and vision from our CEO and created decks that explained everything about social media to anyone who joined our team. By the time I left, our follower base had grown over 10,000 followers on Facebook and 25,000 on Instagram.”
Coming from a freelance path, you will have unique experiences to share when the recruiters ask you to answer how would you deal with a difficult customer during an interview. In this example, the candidate goes over a difficult situation at work that helped her improve her career status and welfare.
“I started my career as a freelancer. I learned the complications of not defining the right metrics when accepting a job. I ended up working for a picky client who wanted me to keep changing details for free, even long after the time we agreed to work together. I learned from the situation, and the next time they wanted to work with me, I set clear limits on redesigns and my tariff. Thanks to that, I could work with several more clients and build my portfolio.”
Sharing a story where you went from zero to hero is a unique way to describe a difficult task and how you addressed it. In this particular example, the interviewee shares how he managed to solve a difficult situation at work by basically creating a cohesive department from scratch:
“The company that I used to work for had a gigantic boom in demand. They needed to grow quickly to adapt to their demand and were hiring many new employees when I joined Most people in my department were new and unclear about their roles and degrees of authority. I implemented a weekly marketing meeting and created a deck for everyone to follow. Everyone had the chance to share their ideas and become a team quickly. Our team efficiency in generating leads went up 50% during the first semester.”
Here’s another interview question about a difficult situation. As a candidate for a project manager position, you want to show your problem-solving abilities and astuteness when you answer how did you handle a difficult situation.
“I once managed a residential project. Since it was in a different city, the company hired a local engineer to run daily operations. However, after taking the wheel, I quickly realized everything kept getting pushed, and we were way behind schedule. I moved to the town for a month and created guidelines to follow to report as well as KPIs. We caught up to speed and finished the project within the deadline agreed with our partner.”
Those expecting to work in sales need to prepare to answer how to deal with a difficult customer as part of the interview questions. In this example, the candidate goes over a difficult situation at work that he could solve thanks to his experience with e-commerce.
“Once, I had to deal with a client who wanted to cancel an already shipped because he claimed that the system failed to apply a coupon. However, due to my experience with e-commerce, I could track his funnel and noticed he ordered the items days before we published the coupon. He accepted his mistake and apologized. I offered to grant him the same discount on a future purchase. The customer was happy and repurchased within two months.”
This example of a difficult situation at work shows us how previous experience in different areas can be valuable in a new job. The candidate not only described a difficult work situation, but he also highlighted valuable skills for the recruiters to consider.
“When I worked for XYZ, our main customers were from another country. Therefore, we used to get requests at night - angry customers do not like to wait. Thankfully, I had some programming experience. I set chatbots that reduced wait time during our off-time and solved over 40% of the incoming messages. Customer satisfaction went up 35% by the end of the quarter.”
It is time to focus on some additional tips now that you read a few examples on how to describe a difficult situation and how you handled it.
Keep it real when describing a difficult situation and how you overcame it. Recruiters will know if you are lying or trying to overhype your resolution. The best way to show them your skills is by sharing an authentic story when you solved a difficult situation at work.
As we stated, using the STAR method is the prime way to describe a difficult task and how you addressed it. Remember that you need to let the recruiter understand how your brain works. When providing examples of a difficult situation at work, you should provide every important detail.
Yes, you will be discussing a difficult situation at work. However, that does not mean that the recruiter wants to hear you complain for too long. Go over the situation, even the negative points. However, focus on the positive aspects when describing a difficult task and how you addressed it.
Be wary of sounding too full of yourself when describing how you overcame a difficult work situation. Yes, it is great to shine a light on your strengths. But there is a thin line between showing how well-prepared you are and trying to oversell yourself. Keep it in mind when providing examples of difficult situations at work you solved.
Do not paint your previous employee as the villain when discussing a difficult situation at work you solved. No recruiter will like your profile if you sound disloyal. Even if you did not have the best time at your last company, give your story the most positive twist.
🔑 Key Takeaways:
You will do great if you follow these tips and go over the examples on how to answer “how did you handle a difficult situation”. Remember, it is one of the most common job interview questions. Learn how to describe a difficult situation at work and paint a positive twist on the solution you came up with.
Good luck with your interview!
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--- Originally written by Roger Rene Ortega Figueroa ---