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Talent - Remote Work - Tue Nov 29 2022

How to Describe a Difficult Work Situation

“Tell me about a time you handled a difficult situation…”

During your next software developer interview, you may be faced with discussing challenging scenarios in the workplace. Though you may have experienced your share of tough situations –whether handling a micromanager, a team conflict or an underperforming coworker– it’s important to approach this question with care.

No matter what the problem was, you’ll want to showcase your emotional intelligence in dealing with it in a constructive way. Here are our top tips to describe a difficult work situation in an interview and highlight your soft skills while you’re at it.

Why interviewers ask “tell me about a time you handled a difficult situation”


Everybody runs into issues in the workplace at some point. But keep in mind that the interviewer is asking about these difficult situations to understand how you reacted and handled it.

For this reason, your answer should focus on what you did to resolve this conflict. In other words, the interviewer is looking for clues about your emotional intelligence. Common soft skills you should try to incorporate (if applicable) include:

  • Communication skills
  • Active listening
  • Ability to de-escalate conflict
  • Proactivity
  • Ability to prioritize
  • Ability to handle deadlines and stress
  • Integrity
  • Focus on business needs

Typical workplace conflicts

At the end of the day, workplace conflict is inevitable. It’s how you resolve the situation that matters most to interviewers. If you’re having trouble thinking up conflict scenarios, here are issues that tend to come up often in the workplace:

  • Personality clashes
  • Work style clashes
  • Poor communication
  • Differing opinions about what’s best
  • Project setbacks
  • Project stress, including deadlines, pressures and boredom
  • Issues with manager or direct report

Tips to describe a difficult work situation


As you describe a difficult work situation during your interview, you’ll want to proceed with caution. Handling this question with poise and maturity will help make a strong impression on the interviewer. Let’s explore exactly how.

1. Choose a conflict that’s relevant to the new role

To start, pick the right conflict for a constructive answer. Ideally, the challenge should be relevant to the new role, even if it occurred in a different industry.

Focus on conflicts that showcase the soft skills you think are most relevant to the role. Often, these will be listed in the job description, so re-read it to get ideas for what type of characteristics you may want to concentrate on.

2. Be truthful and avoid “flawless” resolutions

Workplace conflict is rarely resolved perfectly. When answering the question “tell me about a time you handled a difficult situation,” don’t be afraid of choosing a scenario that didn’t have the best outcome.

Ultimately, the question isn’t really about the conflict –it’s about how you weighed your options, acted appropriately and followed up with your team’s best interests at heart. It’s not usually important if the conflict was completely or cleanly resolved, though you can always discuss what you would have done differently to achieve that ideal outcome.

3. Stay positive and avoid bad-mouthing

A job interview isn’t the time or place to bad-mouth your past company, manager or coworkers. Remember that this question doesn’t involve criticizing other people, but simply explaining the conflict and your role in resolving it.

Describe a difficult work situation by staying positive and open. Your interviewer will sense a red flag if you start to complain about what happened and point fingers. Emotionally intelligent professionals are able to see the bigger picture and focus on de-escalating, not dramatizing the issue.

4. Focus on emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence plays a key role in answering the question “tell me about a time you handled a difficult situation.” If you want to make a good impression, you should not only talk about your soft skills but showcase them during the interview.

For example, mature software developers won’t brag about how they “saved” a project, or act superior when talking about past coworkers. Instead, qualities such as listening, communicating, dealing with stress, prioritizing business needs, and staying ethical are the most important to express here.

5. Utilize the CARL method to structure your answer

Last but not least, you can strengthen your response by using the CARL framework. The CARL framework is helpful for structuring and deepening your answer. In essence, it divides your answer into four sections:

  • Content – the essential background information
  • Action – your response to the situation
  • Results – what happened as a result of your actions
  • Learning – key takeaways from this experience

To describe a difficult work situation, it’s essential to focus on your actions, as this is where your soft skills will shine. However, don’t forget to wrap up with your learnings, where you can highlight what you did well and/or what you could improve.

Example answer for “tell me about a time you handled a difficult situation”


Let’s go through an example answer for the question “tell me about a time you handled a difficult situation,” so you get a better grasp on how to apply these tips. In this scenario, a software developer was struggling to make a coding deadline.

“In my last project, I was in charge of coding a key feature for our product. Our proposal had estimated about two weeks to complete it, but when I began to dig into the code, I realized that this feature required some additional research and strategic thinking about how to develop it.

For this reason, I quickly knew that the estimated deadline was unrealistic for the scope of the feature. I first wrapped up my research and then went directly to my manager to express my concern about finishing the feature in time. My manager agreed with my assessment and decided to add another developer to the feature to help speed up the process. We ended up finishing it in three weeks. He was grateful for my initiative, as he was able to communicate the setback to the client before we missed the deadline.

From this challenge, I learned the importance of thoroughly researching the coding approach and honestly communicating any delays so that our team can handle the issue as best as possible.”

Boost your engineer interview skills with Nexton

High five! You now understand how to talk about difficult workplace situations with the emotional intelligence that interviewers are looking for. Incorporate these tips to masterfully respond to “tell me about a time you handled a difficult situation” during your next interview.

Ready to land your dream job? Join our Talent Network at Nexton to connect with amazing remote job opportunities in the U.S. and get even more tips for boosting your engineer interview skills.

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Blog Team
Nexton empowers companies connecting them with the strongest engineering talent in LATAM.

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