What was the Most Difficult Problem you Faced?

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February 23, 2021
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min read

It's a common interview question but not the easiest to answer. Anyone preparing for a job interview will anticipate a few key questions coming up, and this is one of them.

Answering the question can prove challenging if you don't go in with an idea of an answer already in your head. Thinking on the spot and trying to come up with relevant examples is a tough task when you're under pressure and want to impress the interviewer.

The following article will hopefully ease your nerves over this potentially difficult situation and give you some pointers on how you can go about constructing an answer to this interview question. By describing a time when you faced a difficult problem and coming up with a sample answer, you'll be ready to fire away if this problem-solving question comes your way on the big day.

Think of an Appropriate Example

The time to wrack your brain for a difficult situation you faced is now, not during the job interview in front of the hiring manager when your mind goes blank. Preparing for questions in advance will give you time to properly think with a clear head and pick an excellent example to answer the question and make you look like a good candidate to employers in the process.

A good answer will be detailed, show you in a good light, and ideally be closely related to the job that the employers have open. You want to pick something that is understandably a difficult situation, preferably a challenge that isn't easily solved with a clear solution. Pick a situation where the odds were stacked against you but you turned them around and used your initiative to come up with a solution.

The situation doesn't have to be directly related to the job or role you're applying for. If it isn't, find a way to relate it to the work environment you'll face if the employers hire you. Point out any parallels between the issue you faced and issues you could face in the job.

This will illustrate your aptitude for the role to the hiring manager. Make it easy for them to see the connection by using your communication skills.

Give Plenty of Details

For interviewers, it's all about the details. When you're explaining the problem, be detailed. Specifics will help them visualize and understand the situation and get a better idea of how you are as a problem solver in the workplace.

This doesn't mean to pack your story with unnecessary details about the time of day or what clothes you were wearing, and other random actions. You still want to stick to the point. If you're discussing the "difficult task you had to delegate" give a brief explanation of the task.

If you're explaining how a colleague was "being difficult to work alongside" explain how (without being rude). If you were "struggling with an important presentation" explain how and why. Consider using the star technique to make note of all of the key decisions and challenges involved and how your approach helped the team members or others involved.

Highlight the Skills You Used to Overcome it

This is really what the interviewer is looking for. They want to know what problem solving skills you have that enabled you to overcome the difficult situation. They aren't going to ask you that in plain English though, so make sure to read between the lines and bring the answer around to how you might solve the problem next time.

They understand that you're not a job search expert, but you will be expected to know how to break down your points. You want to explicitly reveal what skills you have that were used then and can be used in the future as a member of their team. If you overcame a difficult personal issue, speak about your focus, drive, and resilience to solve the problem or situation.

If you overcame a tight deadline, talk about your time-management, delegation, and decision-making skills. If you solved a disagreement among employees, point out your interpersonal, communication, and problem-solving skills. Answering this question well will help the interviewer see that you can handle difficult situations.

Whatever the situation, consider the attributes you needed to have to solve it and discuss them when you answer this question. However, there's a fine line between being confident and arrogant. Have a degree of humility when you're discussing this.

If a team member or former employer praised you on one of these skills, mention that. Confirmation from others, even a stranger, validates your point and lessens the risk of sounding too self-congratulatory.

The Bottom Line

As always, for anything interview-related or otherwise, come prepared. Preparation is absolutely key, and the more you plan and thinking about questions such as these, the better you'll be at answering them when they are asked in a job interview situation. Prepare to talk about a difficult situation and you'll have one fewer interview question to worry about.

In short, job seekers and candidates should consider their work history and comes up with some challenges or issues they faced to discuss at length in job interviews. Candidates should create sample answers to answer this question that demonstrates their problem solving skills well.

Frequently Asked Questions

How should I structure my response to "What was the most difficult problem you have solved" in an interview?

When responding to this question, use the STAR method: Situation, Task, Action, and Result. Briefly describe the context of the problem (Situation), outline the responsibilities or goals you had (Task), detail the specific actions you took to address the problem (Action), and conclude with the outcome achieved (Result). This structured approach helps you deliver a clear and concise answer that showcases your problem-solving skills effectively.

Can I talk about a personal challenge when asked about a difficult problem I've faced, or should it be work-related?

It's best to focus on a work-related problem, as interviewers are looking to understand how you handle professional challenges. However, if a personal challenge is relevant to the job and demonstrates key skills or qualities required for the role, it can be appropriate to share. Ensure that your example conveys your problem-solving abilities and how they can be applied in the workplace.

What if the most difficult problem I faced did not have a successful outcome?

It's okay to discuss a problem that didn't have a successful outcome as long as you can show what you learned from the experience. Highlight the steps you took to try to solve the problem and reflect on why they didn't work, what you learned, and how you would approach a similar problem differently in the future. This shows your capacity for growth and resilience.

Dave Fano

Founder and CEO of Teal, Dave is a serial entrepreneur with 20+ years of experience building products & services to help people leverage technology and achieve more with less.

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