Answering 'Tell me how you handled a difficult situation'

Updated 31 August 2023

'Tell me how you handled a difficult situation' is one of the most challenging and common questions you may get asked in an interview. An effective way of answering this question is to give a truthful answer that outlines how you overcame a particular scenario. Learning how to answer this question effectively can improve your chances of success when interviewing for a job. In this article, we look at why employers ask this question, outline how to answer this question effectively, list some buzzwords you can use in your answer and look at some example answers.

Why do employers ask 'Tell me how you handled a difficult situation' in an interview?

There are a few reasons why employers may ask the question 'Tell me how you handled a difficult situation' during an interview. One reason is to get a sense of how you deal with challenging situations. This can give them some insight into your character and how you'd handle the different challenges that you may face while working for them.

Another reason why they may ask this question is to determine your ability to react to situations quickly. This type of question can be rather challenging to answer straight away, so it can impress employers if you can quickly provide a coherent response.

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How to answer 'Tell me how you handled a difficult situation'

When interviewers ask you to describe how you dealt with a challenging situation, they're looking to gain insight into your problem-solving abilities and how you handle stressful scenarios. By carefully considering your response, you can answer these questions effectively. Below are some steps you can follow to provide a good answer to this common interview question:

1. Take a moment to think

To answer this question effectively, first, take a moment to think about a difficult situation that you've handled well in the past. Once you've thought of an example, describe the situation briefly and then explain how you dealt with it. Be sure to focus on your actions and what you did to resolve the issue, rather than only telling the interviewer what happened. Taking a moment to think can help you to formulate a coherent response and prevents you from providing a response that doesn't answer the question fully.

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2. Be specific

When interviewers ask about how you handled a difficult situation, they're looking for specific examples of your problem-solving skills in action. To give a great answer to this question, have a story ready that highlights your analytical abilities and resourcefulness while under pressure.

Example: 'I was once in a situation where a client was very unhappy with a project's results. They were threatening to cancel their contract and take their business elsewhere. I knew that if I didn't act quickly the company would lose a lot of money, so I sat down with the client and listened to their concerns. I then did some research and came up with a few possible solutions. After presenting these options to the client, we were able to come to a resolution that satisfied both parties'.

Related: 8 common problem-solving interview questions to understand

3. Stay positive

Staying positive when answering this question allows you to demonstrate to the interviewer that you can remain calm while under pressure. It helps to remember that the interviewer isn't trying to trick you or make you look bad by asking this question. Instead, they simply want to get to know you better and see how you handle adversity. In addition to staying positive, ensure that your answer is brief and to the point. Try to only discuss the main highlights of what happened and how you handled this difficult situation.

Related: How to be a positive thinker: 6 ideas for positive thinking

4. Talk about what you learnt

To answer this question effectively, ensure that you reflect on your experiences and consider how they taught you new skills. Discussing what you learnt during this experience is a great way of demonstrating your ability to perform while under pressure. It's also a good opportunity to demonstrate your other skills, such as your time management, organisational and problem-solving abilities.

Example: 'In my last job, I was working on a project that was behind schedule. I was feeling a lot of pressure from my manager to get things back on track. This meant that I ended up working late nights and weekends to get the project finished on time. It was a difficult situation, but I learnt a lot about time management and project planning'.

Related: How to impress in an interview: a step-by-step guide

5. Practise beforehand

When preparing for an interview, it's useful to think of some examples of how you handled difficult situations in the past. This allows you to answer this question more quickly and can improve your confidence, particularly if you've received feedback on your answer when practising with someone else beforehand. Some examples of situations you can discuss include:

  • A time when you dealt with a lot of customer complaints and how you rectified the issue.

  • A time when you had to work long hours to meet a deadline.

  • A time when you had to deal with a difficult colleague when working on a project.

Related: 5 practice interview techniques (with practice questions)

Buzzwords and phrases to include in your answer

Another good way of answering this question is to mention some buzzwords and phrases. This helps you to demonstrate how you coped with the situation while also giving the interviewer a better sense of your skills. Here are a few phrases you can use when answering the interview question 'Tell me how you handled a difficult situation':

  • 'I remained calm while under pressure'.

  • 'I took a step back and assessed the situation'.

  • 'I identified the key issues'.

  • 'I came up with a few potential solutions'.

  • 'I implemented the solution and monitored the results'.

Below are some helpful buzzwords you can use during an interview to discuss how you dealt with a challenging scenario:

  • 'Adaptable': Being able to change your tactics or broader strategy is a key skill that can help you to overcome any difficult situation.

  • 'Calm': Staying calm while under pressure is another vital skill that many professionals are often expected to have and using this buzzword shows employers that you have this ability.

  • 'Communicative': Being able to communicate effectively is crucial in any challenging scenario, so emphasising your communication skills can be beneficial.

  • 'Problem-solving': Interviewers ask this type of interview question to assess your problem-solving abilities. Using this buzzword in your answer shows that you understand the question and helps to highlight to employers that you have this skill.

Related: Learn what not to say in an interview (with examples)

Example answers for this question

Here are some industry-specific examples to show you how you can answer 'Tell me how you dealt with a challenging scenario':


Below, you can find an example answer for this question that relates to the engineering industry:

Example: 'I was working on a project where we were trying to build a bridge. The problem was that the river was too wide and the ground was too unstable. We tried everything, but we just couldn't make it work. Finally, I had an idea. I suggested that we build two bridges instead of one. We decided to build one bridge on each side of the river and then connect them in the middle. It was a risky move, but it worked. The project was a success and we were able to finish the bridge on time and within budget'.

Related: How to answer 'Do you work well with other people?'


Here's an example answer that relates to dermatology:

Example: 'I was once in a situation where a patient was very unhappy with the results of their treatment. They were yelling and demanding to see the manager of the practice. I remained calm and professional in this situation. I assured them that I'd do everything possible to help resolve the issue. I spoke with the manager and we agreed on a course of action that satisfied the patient. This required some extra work on my part, as I had to plan and administer a new treatment plan, but I was able to diffuse the situation and calm the patient'.

Related: Conflict resolution interview questions (with sample answers)


Below is an example answer that relates to the catering industry:

Example: 'When I first started working in the catering industry, I dealt with various difficult situations. One time, we were catering an event for a very important client. Everything was going well until one of the servers dropped a tray of food. It was a disaster as the client threatened to cancel the contract and I knew that I had to do something quickly to diffuse the situation. I managed to calm the client down and assured them that we'd get the event back on track. From this experience, I learnt that it's essential to stay calm in difficult situations while trying to find solutions'.

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