Answering a difficult interview question

Publication date: 
Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I’m currently unemployed but I’m getting some callbacks for interviews. So far, I’ve only been to two, and each time I’ve been puzzled by the same question: tell me about a difficult situation that you were in and how you solved it. I can think of many examples but have a really hard time making them sound interesting (or long enough, for that matter). I sit there struggling to figure out how to approach this question and then my confidence goes out the window. Can you help me so that I can ace the next interview — I feel like I’m not getting a job offer because I can’t get past this question!



Dear Sarah,

First of all, congratulations on getting two interviews under your belt — that’s a huge deal and it tells me that your resumé is compelling enough to get employers interested in you as a potential candidate.

Interview questions are not perfect. They’re designed so that an employer can get a rough idea of what the candidate is like within a short amount of time. Job seekers must be on their best behaviour during an interview and try to present the optimal picture of who they are. At the same time, an employer doesn’t want to fall into the trap of hiring a good-presentation-but-poor-performance employee, so he or she asks questions intended to give some idea about what the person is really like. Again, imperfect, but there’s no other way.

In case of your dilemma, you are being asked a behavioural question and it’s meant to (sort of) predict how you’d behave in a challenging situation. The employer is not trying to trick you into telling him/her about your mistakes but is rather looking to see how you deal with mistakes. Incidentally, saying that you’ve never had a difficult situation probably would make an employer suspicious — so don’t be afraid to be human (although, don’t overshare — no one needs to know about the time you fell asleep at your desk).

By telling the employer how you’ve dealt with something in the past, you’re giving him/her insight into how you might behave in the future. It’s your decision process that the employer is most interested in, which is why it’s good to have some interesting stories prepared. In our From Stress to Behaviour — Job Interview Types article we talk about preparing for this type of question by first looking at the skills the employer is looking for and then coming up with a story to demonstrate your use of such skills. So, if this is a job in customer service, for example, you might want to talk about the time you dealt with an irate customer. My favourite model for tackling this question is called the STAR approach:

  • S = Situation (Briefly describe the situation.)
  • T = Task (Talk about what you were trying to achieve.)
  • A = Action (Explain what you did to achieve your results.)
  • R = Result (Describe your results.)

When I was working with an employment counsellor, we sat down and wrote out a few situations that could be compartmentalized into the STAR model. It made a difference to see it on paper and be able to parse my examples into cohesive parts that fit together. I prepared a few stories to ready myself for the interviews, and, suddenly, once I knew exactly what I was talking about, my confidence soared.

Good luck with your future interviews and make sure to check out our interview section on more tips on how to ace them.


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