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How Your Interview Answers Really Sound, Part 2: Talk about a Challenge You Overcame

Interview questions and answers - talk about a challenge - blog header

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Your answers to interview questions might mean different things to different people. Where you think you’re being witty, your interviewer might think you’re coming off arrogant or not taking the interview seriously. Where you think you’re being up front and transparent, your interviewer might think you’ve just revealed a fatal weakness. 

 

The long and short of it: Think not just about what you say, but also about how you’re interviewer will interpret it.

 

Here are some common answers to a common interview question, how they might sound, and what you could say instead. Check out our previous post about common interview questions and answers, and look out for more coming soon to the Betts Blog.

 

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The interview question: “Tell me about a time when you overcame a challenge at work.”

Common answer:

“Well, there was this one guy at my last job who I really didn’t get along with.”

How it might sound:

“I don’t work well with others.”

What you could say instead:

“One example comes to mind is a time when I had to overcome differences in working styles between myself and a coworker.”

 

If your story involves others, you probably want to shy away from making it personal – at least if you’re saying something negative about them. If the challenge involves a clash with a coworker, try to frame it as a difference in professional style, not just personality. 

“Working amicably with people you don’t personally care for is a good skill. But an even better one is the ability to overcome differences in professional style.”

To be sure, working amicably with people you don’t personally care for is a good skill. But an even better one is the ability to overcome differences in professional style. This has a more direct effect on the work at hand, and is thus a more relevant answer to this interview question.

Common answer:

“I just finished school, so I don’t really have enough work history to answer that question.”

How it might sound:

“I’m afraid to answer this question, so I’m just going to avoid it.”

What you could say instead:

“As a recent grad, I’ve got more experience as a student than as a professional. Let me give you an example from my education, if that’s alright.”

 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with going into an interview with limited work experience, having just finished school. We all start somewhere, and everyone was a beginner at some point. 

“Try to find something in your academic experience that will work. What’s an example of a time when you were working on a project and hit an obstacle, and how did you handle it?”

But that doesn’t give you a pass on answering this interview question. Try to find something in your academic experience that will work. What’s an example of a time when you were working on a project and hit an obstacle, and how did you handle it? It might be smart to focus on group projects, as this will show your ability to work well and solve problems with others. And make sure it’s a recent example – your interviewer probably won’t be impressed by a story from middle school.

 

It doesn’t have to be something from your student life. If you have volunteer experience, for example, that could be a good source of an answer to this question as well. Basically, any organized situation in which you were responsible for solving a challenge is fair game.

Common answer:

“One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced was my first time firing someone.”

How it might sound:

“Having to fire someone wasn’t emotionally troubling to me at all – I just didn’t know how to do it properly.”

What you could say instead:

“One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced was the first time I had to let someone go.”

 

In a job interview, when you’re dealing with a subject as sensitive as firing someone, there’s nothing wrong with euphemisms. Shy away from terms like “fired” or “got rid of” in favor of the softer term “let someone go.” And try to emphasize that this was something you had to do. The “had to” part is key here – you don’t want to convey to your interviewer that firing someone is a perfectly pleasant experience for you, and that you don’t find it all uncomfortable. Instead, you want to convey the sense that you dislike the experience of firing people, and only do it when it’s necessary. This is an important part of bringing humanity to your interview.

 

If you can approach this answer with the necessary sensitivity, then it’s a great answer to go with. It shows you have the ability to make uncomfortable but necessary decisions, and that you have leadership experience. 

 

The next time you’re practicing your answers to the questions you expect to hear in your next interview, be sure to put yourself in your interviewer’s shoes for a moment. How would these answers sound if someone gave them to you? Would you want to hire that person? The content of your answers is fundamental, of course, but specific word choice matters, too.