The Interview: Discussing Difficult Situations

8024705731_dab0f97c91_m (1)All scenario-based interview questions are tough, but for me the toughest is when I’m asked to describe a difficult situation from my professional past and discuss what I did to work through it. Now, this isn’t because my professional experiences have all been rosy and I’ve never come up against a policy or coworker I disagree with. I have. Everyone has.

What makes this question so tough is the context, not of the situation you have to discuss, but of the situation you’re in; it’s you in a room you’ve never been in before with a person you’ve never met before, talking about an old workplace that your interviewer has presumably never experienced. What this means is that you are essentially on a level playing field with the people in your story.

To explain what I mean here, I’ll give a hypothetical example. Let’s say your difficult situation is that you had to deal with some really annoying classmates or coworkers who were always getting offended by petty things. If you say it like that, your interviewer is going to wonder if you’re telling the truth OR if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t see saying offensive things as a huge issue. That’s a big risk for the company to take. They’re either getting someone who can work with difficult people, or someone who is a difficult person to work with.

Don’t make them weigh the cost. Speak as neutrally as possible. Don’t describe things as “better” or “worse.” Just call them “different.” You handled things differently than your coworkers. You and your former coworkers had differing opinions on what job functions should be high-priority and which should come second.

Remember, the job you’re interviewing for is two things at once; it is potentially your future job and it is also potentially your future former job. Speaking highly of past work experiences shows that you are a gracious employee who is thankful for the opportunity to do great work.

What do you think? How much can you say about difficult work situations from your past in a job interview? Let us know in the comments!

(photo by Flickr user Samuel Mann used under a Creative Commons License.)

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