Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Exterminating Bad Answers to the Interview Question: Tell Me About a Time When You Worked With A Difficult Person




As a graduate assistant at the career center, I’ve conducted many practice interview sessions. I’ve heard good, bad, and ugly answers to everything from “Tell me about yourself” to “What questions do you have for us?” Although students prepare for different positions and bring unique experience to their interview sessions, I’ve noticed patterns in responding. Some questions seem relatively stress-free for most students, and some particular questions seem to creep into otherwise confident answers, eating away at the foundation of a solid interview. One such question is the devious “Tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult person.” A tricky little bugger that requires organization, tact, honesty, and a dash of confidence, the perfect answer to this question is elusive. Rather than attempt to craft the best answer possible, the wise course of action may be to exterminate common negative responses. 

Here are the garden-variety bad answers I work to exterminate on a daily basis, and some DIY pest control tips as you craft your own response.


Pest #1- The Rambler: This answer seems to go on and on without a particularly good stopping point, and ends off trailing into the distance…and leaving you in the dust. Your interviewer is familiar with The Rambler, and knows that this train to nowhere really means you have no idea what to say, maybe because you’re worried about becoming a Negative Nancy (see below), haven’t prepared ahead of time, or are just plain nervous.


To eliminate The Rambler, put that answer back on track! Use the STAR acronym to guide answers not only for the difficult person question, but also for any question that begins with “Tell me about a time when…”

  • S & T: Situation/Task- Briefly describe the situation or the task at hand. You’re setting up the background of your story, and you want to do it quickly so your listener doesn’t lose focus and you have time to expand on the good stuff (action and result).
  • A: Action- What did you specifically do in the situation to facilitate a positive outcome?
  • R: Result- What happened as a result of your action? Remember, the interviewer is trying to figure out if you’ll be a good person to work with, and if you’ll be a positive contributor. They want to know what you’ve accomplished in the past, because, as many of us know, past behavior predicts future behavior.


Pest #2- The Negative Nancy: Sometimes, when a job candidate hears this question, her eyes are kindled with past flames of bitterness and a hopeful, vengeful smile comes to her lips. Finally! The moment when she is able to fully process the trauma of her last group project! When she can at last, with full permission, rip every shred of dignity from the name of her worst supervisor! But this type of catharsis is best saved for your mom or roommate. The interviewer will interpret your willingness to “bad-mouth” your co-worker as a sign that you, not your deserving co-worker, are unprofessional at best, and difficult to work with at worst. Because he has a healthy stack of resumes in the wings, the interviewer will likely not take the chance that you’ll be a problem child in his organization by hiring you.


Negative Nancy becomes Tactful Tina when answers are, first of all, centered on the positive actions and results that you implemented in the difficult situation. This means that any descriptors of the difficult person are mostly contained in the brief situation/task portion of the answer, cutting back on potential for negative talk. Additionally, try to discuss the situation as a misunderstanding, difference in communication or work styles, or conflicting interests. Showing you can “put yourself in another’s shoes” communicates both interpersonal sensitivity as well as strong critical thinking skills. Lastly, I recommend practicing your answer with another person to ensure you’re avoiding sounding condescending, rude, or just old mean.  


Pest #3- The Ghost: In this haunting answer, the job candidate does whatever he can to drift right through the heart of the question, stating “Well, I’ve never had to deal with a difficult person” or “I just leave the situation as soon as I can.” Maybe you’re hoping to convey that you’re such a lovely spirit that those around can’t help but surrender their difficult-ness, or that breezing charged situations is a positive characteristic, but you’re leaving the interviewer with
chills. These answers convey avoidance: not only of the challenge of fully answering the question, but also interpersonally. We’ve all had those roommates and co-workers who have ignored conflict, resulting in problems becoming even worse. The atmosphere becomes tense and uncomfortable, and guess what-- that person who avoided the difficult situation at all costs? They’re now the subject of the answer to other people’s difficult person interview questions. 


It’s time to send that avoidance back to the grave, folks. If you truly do not confront difficult individuals with honestly, respectfulness, and assertiveness, it’s time to try out that skill before you enter the workplace. Not only will such experiences give you material for this question, but you’ll be a better, more capable co-worker as a result.


As with many interview questions, the possibilities for answers to “tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult person” are endless and not every answer can be discussed here. For the best possible feedback, call or visit the Auburn University Career Center and schedule a practice interview with a career counselor, or drop by during walk-in hours to discuss brief questions. 



Written by Shari Black
Graduate Assistant in the Career Center
pursuing PhD in Counseling Psychology
Bachelor of Arts in Theater and English

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