Interview Tips: How to Answer Tough Interview Questions

Addressing tough questions is probably the most difficult part of an interview process. It is hard to predict what the precise questions might be but, because most people who are interviewing these days are well trained, you can safely assume that the questions will inevitably be challenging and designed to obtain the fullest possible picture of your capabilities. 

If you consider it from an interviewers’ perspective, questioning is really the only significant verbal tool that they have in an interview to find out what you are really like, what you can do and how you might fit into their organisation.  So your answers to the tough questions will be a critical part of deciding who is best suited for the role from a range of candidates.

However, as with all parts of interviews, it is possible (and of course highly desirable) to prepare fully for the types of challenging questions you are likely to get from a well-trained interviewer. Here some general tips that might help:

  • Probably the most important factor is selecting the best examples to use when describing your specific capabilities and achievements in an interview.  Most interviewers will have been well trained to look for evidence of particular competencies that are most relevant to the job vacancy. So they will need from you very good, crunchy examples of what you have done, what you have achieved and how you did it as strong evidence that you meet the core job requirements
  • Your examples need to be carefully chosen so that they reflect the particular competencies that the interviewer is looking for.  This is all part of the broader pre-work that you should do before an interview, to identify the key competencies that the recruiting organisation is looking for.  For each competency choose a number of examples that you can select from in the moment and use to illustrate your ability to achieve a good standard in these specific areas.
  • Usually an interviewer will be very structured in their approach and so will have maybe two or three pre-prepared questions for each significant competency.  So you need to be ready to answer several questions exploring each competency from different angles
  • Answers to challenging questions should be succinct, highly relevant to the question and very concrete (i.e. giving brief examples of actual situations and challenges that you have faced).  In particular your answers need to address three distinct points for each chosen example i.e.:
    • what you personally did to positively deal with and influence the situation
    • what outcome was achieved
    • what did you learn

The last point is particularly important to show that you have the capacity to reflect on experience, learn from it and improve what you do.

  • Questions should be addressed as honestly as you can. So for example if you found a specific situation challenging or difficult, be honest about this but focus most upon what you did to handle the difficulty and improve next time. 
  • It is also very important when being questioned at interview that you fully understand the question being asked. If you are unclear, ask a question back to the interviewer to clarify what they mean.  This in itself will show your ability to listen and respond accurately.
  • You will typically face three main types of question in an interview. 
    • An open question: i.e. one that requires more than a yes/no answer. A general open question will typically identify an area of strength or limitation and get you to talk about it (you can see some examples below).
    • A probing question: these normally follow on from a broad open question and are used to gain much more specific information from you about the situation or example you have given.  Probing questions in an interview normally follow on from broader open questions.
    • A closed question: these are also called checking questions – and are questions that typically require a simple one word or yes/no answer to confirm a course of action or check on something that you did or did not do. 

So let’s look at some typical tough questions you may get in interviews. These are ones that you can use to practice your selection of good examples and types of responses and are drawn from a number of common competencies in many key roles:

Competency 1 – Your successes/achievements

Q. In the last 3 months, what was your most successful day at work and why? What made it so successful and what was your contribution?

Competency 2 – Dealing with setbacks

Q. Give me two recent and contrasting examples in your life where you have overcome significant setbacks.  What did you do to deal with the situation and turn it around? What did you learn?

Competency 3 – Giving Feedback

Q. Please tell me about a recent situation where you have had to give someone difficult feedback.  How did you go about it?  What was the outcome?  What would you do differently next time?

Competency 4 – Leading teams

Q. Give me an example of your most outstanding success at leading a team and an example of your least successful attempt to lead a team.  What did you do differently in each scenario that led to the contrasting outcomes?

Competency 5 - Managing upwards

Q. Please give me an example of when you strongly disagreed with an important decision made by your immediate manager.  How did you confront, respond to and deal with this?

Competency 6 – Teamwork

Q. Give me two examples where your contribution to a business team made a real difference.  What precisely did you do to make that difference?

Competency 7 – Communications

Q. When you are communicating important tasks to colleagues, seeking their help and input, how do you assure yourself that the recipient has understood what you have asked for. Give me an example of where this has worked particularly well for you.

Competency 8 – Innovation

Q. Give me an example of one new and significant change you have personally devised and implemented at work.  Tell me how you went about doing this and what the outcome was?

Competency 9 - Influence

Q. Give me an example of the most complex or difficult situation you have had to positively influence in the last 3 months.  How did you go about this?  What did you do? What were the obstacles you had to overcome?

Competency 10 – Decisions

Q. Please give me an example of a really tough decision you have had to make in the last 12 months.  What factors did you consider when reaching your decision?  How did you decide between different courses of action? How did you go about communicating the decision?  What difficulties did you have to overcome?

You will see in each of the examples above there is typically an opening general question, followed by one or two probing questions to gain further information. 

At Brosna Career Consulting, when we are preparing individuals for important interviews, we rigorously practice and re-practice individuals’ responses to tough questions using video playback.  Individuals tell us that this is often the most important part of their preparation in successfully securing bigger and better jobs.

If you need more immediate help, get in touch with us at 

Brosna Career Consulting