Interview questions about difficult people

Interview panels are fond of asking questions about dealing with difficult people. This question could be left vague, could specify what people they are interested in [colleagues, clients, customers, stakeholders], or could specify the nature of the difficulty [complaints, an emotional response, conflict, or unethical behaviour].

Some roles deal with difficult situations on a regular basis [health professionals, law enforcement professionals, shop-front staff, complaint handlers]. Other roles may encounter difficult situations only occasionally, or even not at all.

Regardless of the role and situations experienced, part of preparing for an interview is to anticipate such questions.

There are several documents that can help with responding to these questions, regardless of role and experience. These documents include:

While many people may not deal with complaints, the Victorian Ombudsman’s guide for dealing with challenging behaviour offers some useful information for responding to questions about difficult people.

The guide encourages public sector organisations to recognise that people present with a range of behaviours for a range of reasons. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

It recommends a graduated response:

  • preventing challenging behaviour where possible through good complaint handling
  • de-escalating challenging behaviour in the first instance
  • managing behaviour where it raises health, safety, resource or equity issues
  • limiting access only as a last resort, in a way that is lawful, fair and transparent.

Know your ‘triggers’

People find different situations challenging. Responses differ as to whether people shout, get angry, start crying, ignore advice, repeatedly raise the same issues, question competence. So a starting point is to know your triggers, meaning what behaviours you will respond to as challenging. When describing a situation that you found challenging, part of your response is to nominate what the behaviour was.

Don’t make assumptions about motives

The guide points out that people can engage in behaviour you find challenging for different reasons. Challenging behaviour can also arise from:

  • The person’s frustration, anxiety or distress about their complaint.
  • Previous bad experiences dealing with your organisation or government.
  • Resentment about having to deal with your organisation in the first place, if this is not the person’s choice. This might be an issue, for example if your organisation is involved in enforcing the law, or collecting fees and taxes.
  • Stressful personal situations such as significant caring responsibilities or chronic pain.
  • Drug or alcohol use.
  • Cultural differences. Different cultures can have different ways of communicating problems or showing honesty and respect.

In most cases, the guide points out, you will never know why the person is acting the way they are. Your job as the complaint handler is to deal with the complaint, not diagnose or stereotype the person.

‘Good complaint handlers observe people for signs of behaviour that need to be addressed, but recognise challenging behaviour is not usually personal. They keep an open mind about the person and their complaint.’

Distinguish between different types of behaviour

The guide suggests that different types of challenging behaviour warrant a different level of response. You can deal with most challenging behaviour using good complaint handling and defusing strategies. It is only when behaviour is or becomes truly unreasonable that you need to think about management strategies or limiting access to your services. So how do you tell when the behaviour has reached this point?

This guide states that behaviour becomes unreasonable when, ‘because of its nature or frequency, it raises health, safety, resource or equity issues for the parties to the complaint. The parties to the complaint can include you, the complainant, your organisation, the subject of the complaint and the other people who use your services.’

This guide highlights the key steps to help prevent challenging behaviour.

Stage 1 Prevent

  • Welcome complaints
  • Be accessible
  • Respond promptly
  • Treat people with respect

You can demonstrate respect by:

  • ‘giving the person a fair opportunity to present their position
  • using active listening skills to show you are listening and taking their concerns seriously
  • giving the person an opportunity to discuss or comment on your preliminary findings before you close the complaint
  • taking the time to explain your decision, how you reached it, and your reasons.’


  • Talk like a human being

‘People usually respond better if you come across as a real person rather than a ‘faceless bureaucrat’. You can do this by:

  • taking time to introduce yourself and offering your name and contact details if the person has questions
  • speaking or meeting with the person in person
  • showing empathy
  • explaining legal or bureaucratic terms in plain English
  • giving common sense rather than bureaucratic explanations eg ‘We ask people to do X because it helps Y’ instead of ‘It’s our policy’.

The guide points out that ‘the best communicators listen to the way people speak and adapt their own language accordingly. The way they speak with a lawyer might be very different to the way they speak with someone with limited English.’

Good communicators listen to what a person says and extend some understanding for the other person’s position. What I have found on several occasions is that when I express dissatisfaction with service, the person I’m sharing this information with typically ignores what I say, and expresses their viewpoint quickly, as though their point is more important than mine. The result is that no progress is made, even at the most basic level of feeling that I’ve been heard.

  • Manage expectations
  • Don’t avoid difficult conversations
  • Reflect and learn

Stage 2 Respond

  • Defusing emotion
  • Stay professional
  • Listen to the person
  • Acknowledge and emphathise
  • Refocus the discussion
  • Start problem solving
  • Check your language and tone
  • Review and adjust if needed

Stage 3 Manage

Managing challenging behaviour includes knowing when conduct is unreasonable. The guide refers to the Managing Unreasonable Conduct by Complainants Practice Manual  which lists five categories of what it calls ‘unreasonable conduct by complainants’:

  • unreasonable persistence
  • unreasonable demands
  • unreasonable lack of cooperation
  • unreasonable arguments
  • unreasonable behaviours.

Stage 4 Limit –  a last resort

This section explores what type of limitations can be placed on unreasonable behaviour.

The guide also includes sections on:

  • Looking after yourself – advice for complaint handlers
  • Looking after your staff – advice for managers

Looking after your staff includes:

  • Providing clear guidance to staff so they know how your organisation expects them to deal with challenging behaviour.
  • Training and supporting your staff
  • Modelling good behaviour
  • Only changing decisions with good reason

This material helps you to think through the specific details of how you responded to challenging behaviour and what role you play in helping staff to deal with such behaviour.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.