Interview Tips: Handling Difficult Questions

June 14, 2005

Dear Job Seeker,

"Give me a specific example of when you had to resolve a difficult team situation."

Behavioral event interview questions are often the most difficult to handle and have been used for over 20 years by skilled interviewers. In today's job market, you're likely to encounter an interviewer asking this type of question.


During the interview, you are asked to describe how you dealt with a difficult team situation in the past. Asking you about the past indicates this is most likely a behavioral-event interview (BEI) question. Responding requires you to recall an example when you dealt with a specific situation.

BEI questions focus on the past while theoretical questions focus on the future. The response strategy for a theoretical interview question is similar in structure but different in content. (The response strategy for theoretical questions will be covered in an upcoming article.)

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Behavioral-Event Interview Question
The purpose of BEI questions is to solicit evidence or examples of a specific competency or skill you possess.

BEI is based on the premise that a person's past behavior is the best predictor of his or her future performance. Interviewers are tasked with predicting your likelihood of success in a given position and will use your past behavior as one indicator of your future performance.

BEI questions have two parts: the introduction and the focus. The first part of a BEI question (introduction) is a phrase such as the following:

- “Tell me about a time when you …”
- “Describe a situation when you …”
- “Walk me through a situation where you …”
- "Give me an example of a specific situation when you…"

The second half of the question focuses on the situation with which the interviewer is interested. For example, if the interviewer is seeking information about your analytical skills, he or she might ask the following question:

"Give me an example of a specific situation when you had to formulate a detailed analysis of a new product, new project, or new market."

If the interviewer is seeking information about your ability to collaborate on a cross-functional team under tight deadlines, he or she might say:

“Tell me about a time when you participated on a cross-functional team that had to deliver project outcomes within a tight deadline.”

Interviewers asking BEI questions want to hear about actual events in your past, rather than how you might handle a situation in the future.

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Relevant Experiences
You have many experiences you can discuss to demonstrate different dimensions of your competencies and skills. Work experience is just one form of experience. However, if you don't have work-related experience, you can highlight other experiences to demonstrate the skills the interviewer is seeking.

Evidence of your talents can come in many forms. Projects done in an academic setting, volunteer work, professional associations, and other life experiences may provide relevant evidence of your abilities.

Whether you got paid or not is of secondary importance to the content and context of your actions in a specific situation. For example, you may have experience building and leading a six-person volunteer team that analyzed how a local community funds recreational projects. During this summer project, this team may have also formulated and presented recommendations to local government officials on how to improve funding allocations. This team experience is just as meaningful as any business-grounded team situation.

Your responses to BEI questions need to be structured and easy to follow. Interviewers are seeking a detailed and interesting story about your past. They want to know what you did, obstacles you overcame, and results you achieved. They want to learn what you did versus what the team did, hence you'll want to balance your description of what “we (the team) did” versus what “I did.”

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Response Strategy
Structure your response using the STAR technique:

S T - Describe the Situation or Task
A - Describe your Actions and Approach
R - Describe the Results

What You've Learned
After you respond, it's effective to describe what you learned from an event and what you may do differently in the future. Describing “what you learned” communicates that you reflect on past events and seek to identify areas of improvement. The STAR-structured response, coupled with “what you learned,” demonstrates your focus on constant learning and performance improvement.

Immediate Feedback
You may also want to complete your response by asking a question to ensure you have answered the interviewer's question effectively. To solicit immediate feedback you can ask such questions as:

- “Was that the level of detail you were looking for?”
- “Was that the kind of example you were looking for?”

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Interviewer Follow-up Questions
Interviewers are likely to ask follow-up questions to get more details. For example, interviewers might ask the following:

- What did you do? - What did you say?
- What were you thinking? - What was your role?
- Who else was involved? - What challenges did you face?
- What do you feel this event indicates about you?

Sample Response
The following STAR-structured response demonstrates how to handle the question covered in this module when describing an academic project.

“Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult team situation.”

Your Response:
Situation or Task: (ST)
“The situation was that our four-person team was tasked with developing models for field operation of our company. The task was to identify initiatives to improve efficiencies using different methods. Two team members focused on one analysis approach while the other two members worked on another method. We had to formulate three initiatives to improve operations. “

“One team member wasn't showing up for meetings, despite constant reminders and encouragement. His lack of participation was affecting team efforts and needed to be resolved quickly.”

Action and Approach: (A)
“My approach was to meet with the problem team member in private and explain the team's frustration and how his actions were affecting the project. I asked if there was anything I could do to help. Before taking this action I discussed my intentions with the other team members to get their consensus."

“The problem team member told me he was burdened with another difficult project. I proposed we find resources to help him with the other project. He agreed. I also asked him to commit to specific actions toward our project and to attend team meetings.”

Results: (R)
"After I found other resources and employees to assist him with his other project, he was able to invest more time on our team's project and focus on specific milestones. The final team result was that we finished our project on time and presented our recommendations to the company's operations leadership team.”

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Rodney Capron, Jr.
President/CEO Pongo Software, LLC


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