How to Answer “How Do You Handle Working With Difficult People?”

How to Answer "How Do You Handle Working With Difficult People?"

No matter what kind of job you have (or are looking for) and no matter where you work, conflict is inevitable. And that’s OK. You won’t see eye to eye with your teammates, boss, or even CEO on every issue. That’s part of being human!

What also matters is how you handle the situation. Do you rant and yell and scream until you get your way? Or, do you agree with everyone and everything to avoid uncomfortable situations? Employers are likely to ask interview questions that get at the heart of how you handle workplace conflict. Here’s how to prepare and answer the question with grace.

Why Do Employers Ask How You Handle Workplace Conflict?

When an employer asks you how you handle conflict at work, they’re trying to understand which soft skills you possess and how you use them. They’re also assessing how you may or may not fit in with the company’s culture and the rest of the team.

How do you deal with sticky situations? Do you leave your ego behind and work with others to find a mutually acceptable solution? Or, does your preferred communication style cause team members to shut down and not want to work with you?

Likewise, the employer is evaluating how much of a team player you are. Not everyone always gets along or agrees, but how do you navigate the situation? What happens if the final resolution is something you don’t like or disagree with? Will you fight and push back on every little decision? Do you let things go because that’s what was decided? Or, do you run away from conflict, preferring to “go with the flow” instead of pointing out when a decision may not be the right one?

Your answer will give the employer insight into how you handle all kinds of situations on the job and how you may approach difficult scenarios with coworkers, bosses, clients, and outside vendors.

Variations on a Theme

You may encounter several variations of the “how do you handle conflict” question. And while your answer needs to “fit” the situation, they’re all getting at the same thing: what are your conflict-resolution skills, and how do you use them? Be prepared to answer any or all of these questions in an interview:

  • Tell me about a time when you had to work with someone difficult. How did you handle it?
  • Have you ever disagreed with your manager? Why? What was the outcome?
  • What is the best way to handle conflict at work?
  • How do you deal with a client/customer that’s being belligerent or demanding?
  • How do you work with difficult coworkers?

How to Answer “How Do You Handle Workplace Conflict?”

Your answer should address the specifics of the situation. For example, how you handle conflict with your boss likely isn’t the same way you handle conflict with a client. Keep the specific question in mind as you craft your response.

That said, use these three tips no matter the situation to help you answer the question like a pro.

1. Speak Objectively and Without Blaming

Use neutral language to describe the situation and parties involved. Instead of saying, “My coworker kept dropping the ball,” you could say, “My coworker was having trouble meeting deadlines, which put the project timeline at risk.” This clearly explains the situation without pointing fingers. Even if the situation was someone else’s fault, this is not the time to discuss it!

The exception to this rule is when you’re taking ownership of your errors that contributed to the conflict. For example, you could say, “I was increasingly frustrated with my coworker’s inability to meet deadlines, and I snapped at them a few times.”

Don’t worry about looking bad in this case. You’re acknowledging your behavior and will explain how you’ve changed since this incident.

2. How Did You Resolve Things?

Then, discuss how you resolved the situation. Did you apologize to your teammates for your terse responses? Did you help your colleague set up better task management so they didn’t fall behind? Did the whole team get together and brainstorm solutions?

Be as specific as you want without taking credit for the entire situation or blaming anyone else. Saying you single-handedly solved the crisis could come across as unrealistic or egotistical. Likewise, blaming other people could seem defensive.

3. What Did You Learn?

Finally, talk about what you learned from the situation. Did you discover that you take over tasks when you’re frustrated? Are you learning how to step back and let others do their thing? After reflection, maybe you realize your verbal communication isn’t as crisp as it could be, so you’re working on that.

It’s OK if you haven’t figured it all out yet. The point is to stress that you learned from the situation and are growing and improving.

What If You’ve Never Had a Job?

You’ve likely encountered many conflicts in your life, even if you didn’t recognize it. That means you probably possess the conflict-resolution skills you need to succeed at work.

Talk about that time you were involved in a group project, and no one could agree on what direction to take. How did you help the team come together and collaborate on a plan? How have you handled a teacher you didn’t get along with? Or, flip the script and talk about how you were an upset customer dealing with a cashier.

Getting Along

While it would be fantastic if everyone at work got along all of the time, the reality is that there will be some conflict. What matters, though, is how you resolve it. And employers are looking for applicants that consider a problem from all sides and work together as professionals to figure things out!

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