Interview question: Tell me about a time you’ve dealt with a difficult person

Difficult interview questions? What about difficult people?

Some interview questions are used to test your competencies, whilst others place an emphasis on your career goals. This one, on the other hand, is really a question of character – asked to gauge how you react in difficult situations.

We’ve already covered some of the most common interview questions that could come up, but here’s our advice for how to answer: ‘Tell me about a time you’ve dealt with a difficult person’:


The real question

What they’re asking: ‘Tell me about a time you’ve dealt with a difficult person’

What they’re actually asking: ‘You know everyone’s difficult sometimes, right?’

OK, so this question isn’t really about the difficult person; it’s about you.

The key is to recognise that nobody’s perfect, and demonstrate that you have the tolerance, listening skills, and understanding to work successfully with them anyway.


Step 1: Steer clear of clichés

This question often prompts two possible reactions; to say you’ve never worked with a difficult person, or to reach for the particularly annoying person that brings out the worst in you.

Both tactics are unlikely to impress.

Opting for the first could make you appear dishonest. After all, even people with short work histories will have worked with at least one difficult person – even if it was at school or university.

And the second? Not only could it show that you haven’t prepared in advance, it could also taint your answer with negative emotions – ones that could lead the interviewer to question whether you really can work with people you don’t like.

Instead, be honest. Just because some people are tough to work with, it doesn’t mean it’s an obstacle that’s impossible to overcome.


Step 2: Choose your example wisely

It’s vital to put some time into consciously choosing your difficult person anecdote.

Unless the interviewer specifies it should be a customer, colleague, or boss, a safe option is to recall an encounter with someone whose job it is to give you grief.

For example, someone from a rival firm, an agent for the client, a certified inspector, a journalist, or someone from local government may all give you a hard time (to some extent) – meaning you (and they) can’t be blamed for their difficult nature. It comes with the territory.

But no matter who you choose – always demonstrate that you were the bigger person.

The interviewer isn’t looking to trade war stories, nor are they asking you to shift blame onto someone else.


Step 3: Talk about yourself

Aside from setting the scene with the STAR technique, your answer should primarily focus on how you handled the situation.

After all, your interviewer already knows difficult people exist; so there’s nothing to prove there. But people who can handle them professionally? They’re harder to come by.

Bearing this in mind, it’s a good idea to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did you listen to the other person?
  • Could you have changed the situation?
  • Could you have been reasonably been expected to put up with it – and if not, how did you stand your ground?
  • Did you keep your cool?

And remember: always follow with how you eventually resolved the situation. Without a positive ending, you’ll only end up giving the recruiter more questions about your character than answers.


Example answer

When I was an Assistant Manager at my local leisure centre, a woman came in very upset, demanding a refund for her daughter’s swimming lessons.

I could see the counter assistant was getting flustered, so I stepped in and calmly asked the woman what was wrong. Apparently, after several lessons her daughter was still terrified of the water. I apologised that her little girl hadn’t made any progress, and said I could see why she was disappointed. It was against our policy to offer refunds – although, to be honest, I think it’s better to have a satisfied customer – so I explained that children respond differently to different teaching styles and offered to switch her daughter to a another class.

 She agreed to that, and after a week I saw her again and she said her daughter loved her new teacher and was doing great. In fact, she signed her up for the next set of lessons then and there.


Need more interview questions?

Unfortunately, we can’t help you predict exactly which interview questions will come up on the big day. However, we can help you prepare for every eventuality and avoid any interview nightmares.

Buy James Reed’s new book: Why You? 101 Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again to find out how.

Five interview questions you should stop being scared of


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