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How to Answer, "What Was the Most Difficult Period in Your Life, and How Did You Deal with It?"

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Recruiters love hitting candidates with seemingly random interview questions. The reality, however, is that most of those questions aren’t random at all. They’re designed to elicit a specific type of information without asking you for it directly. The key to answering these tough interview questions is to understand what the recruiter is trying to find out and then crafting a correct answer. Let’s take a look at one of the more common questions: “What was the most difficult period in your life, and how did you deal with it?”

See also: How To Answer: What Is The Most Difficult Decision You’ve Made and How You Came to That Decision?

What the Interviewer Wants – and Doesn’t Want – to Know

The most important thing to remember is that this is an interview, not a therapy session. The interviewer doesn’t want to know about your parents’ divorce or your cheating spouse. Neither does he want to hear your feelings about the difficult period. He wants to know how you overcame the situation: your ability to handle stress, your critical-thinking skills, your problem-solving skills, your ability to lead and work within a team, etc. So choose a work-related problem and avoid dramatic descriptions of why it was so awful. Just stick to the facts.


Tips for answering

Tamp down your emotions

Be calm and matter-of-fact. Describe the facts of the situation, not your emotions.

Demonstrate that You See Difficult Situations as Opportunities

Make it clear that you never doubted that you could resolve the situation. The recruiter is looking for a can-do attitude, not an "I was so stressed!" vent.

Describe Your Analysis of the Situation

Describe your analysis of the situation: What made it so challenging? What were the possible repercussions? What factors added to the difficulty?

Talk Through Your Critical-Thinking Process

The recruiter can’t read your mind, so you have to provide some narration. What solutions did you consider? Which did you discard, and why? What solution did you choose, and why?

Describe any Bumps in the Road

Talk through any new challenges that came up along the way, like resistance from colleagues, procedural restrictions, etc., and enthusiastically explain how you overcame them.

Describe the Outcome

How did you resolve the situation? Were you successful? To what do you attribute your success or failure?

Describe the Lessons you Learned

Would you handle the situation the same way again? If not, why not? What would you do differently? How did the experience change your approach to difficult work situations? Don’t be afraid to talk about an approach that wasn’t 100 percent successful as long as you can describe what you learned.

Want some bonus points? When you answer, include some of the buzzwords recruiters love to hear, things like: led, created, collaborated, garnered support, resolved, analyzed, developed, coached, listened, etc. Just as including the appropriate buzzwords in a resume can help you get through the automated screening systems, including those same buzzwords in your answer can encourage your interviewer to scratch things off his mental checklist.

Answering situational interview questions really isn’t that hard, as long as you give careful thought to what the recruiter wants to know and make sure that your answer delivers. Thinking through these questions ahead of time and crafting good answers will give you a leg up on your competition by giving you a chance to choose the situation that shows you and your abilities in the very best light possible.

Have you answered this question in an interview before? Were you prepared for it or did it catch you off guard? What was the outcome? Your thoughts and comments below please...