“How do you handle conflict?”
You have a good chance of encountering this behavioral question because it’s quite common in job interviews. Not to worry, it’s not too hard to answer as long as you have some experiences to draw from.
In this article, we’ll walk you through how to best put your answer together and express it to your interviewer.
Variations of This Question
Employers ask this question in a variety of ways. Here are a few of the most common:
- How do you handle disagreements?
- How would you handle conflict with a coworker?
- How have you managed conflict?
- How do you deal with disagreements?
- Describe a situation where you disagreed with your boss.
- Tell me about a time when you disagreed with a coworker.
What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know
This question is about your ability to manage disagreements in a calm and professional manner.
Interviewers also ask this question to judge your communication and listening skills, and how well you generally get on with others.
How to Answer: “How Do You Handle Conflict?”
We put together a 3-part structure for answering this question. Follow along to build your own answer.
1. Describe Your General Approach to Conflict
Talk about a way (or several ways) you address conflict or disagreements.
This is important because the employer wants to hire someone who takes a measured approach to inevitable conflicts rather than simply reacting in the heat of the moment.
Think of ways you might handle various situations in the workplace, and describe them briefly.
Some general approaches to conflict include:
- Actively working towards a compromise
- Taking the time to actively listen to the other side
- Thinking about what the conflict is really about
- Staying calm and using neutral language
- Agreeing to disagree if the matter allows it
- Keeping the issue between the people involved (not gossipping)
Here’s an example:
“When I’m faced with conflict at work, I first take a deep breath and remind myself to stay calm and collected. I listen carefully to the other person and make sure I understand what they’re saying by repeating back what I’m hearing. Then I suggest brainstorming ways we can compromise.”
2. Share a Professional Conflict You Experienced
Next, describe a time you managed a disagreement or stressful situation at work.
This matters because your interviewer wants to see your strategies in action to show you’ve been able to implement them before.
It should be a conflict you had that led to a positive outcome. We’re just setting the stage here but you’ll need to explain how you resolved it in the next part of your answer.
Think about situations that caused you stress at work or times when you were afraid of how someone (coworker, customer, or boss) would react.
Conflict scenarios at work might stem from:
- Missing an important project deadline
- Missing or showing up late for work
- Unintentionally taking a coworker’s lead or customer
- Being yelled at by a customer
- Being passed over for a promotion you were expecting
- Collaborating with a coworker who didn’t complete their tasks
Here’s an example:
“At my last job, I answered a call from a customer who placed an order. I didn’t know my coworker had already spent time with them, and he thought I intentionally took the commission he’d earned. He was quite upset with me and let me know how he was feeling.”
3. Talk About How You Resolved It
Describe how you handled the situation, keeping it congruent with how you said you handle conflict in the earlier part of your answer.
An interviewer will look for a positive outcome because it shows you not only practice what you preach, but you do so successfully.
Refer back to the approach you described in the first part of your answer, and tell your interviewer the specific actions you took to work with the other person involved.
Make this part of your answer action-oriented; focus on your part of the interaction and not as much on the other person’s actions. You can include the other person’s response, though.
Specific resolutions might include:
- Apologizing even if you don’t feel you should
- Working extra hours to make up for lost time
- Talking through the situation using “I” statements
- Brainstorming strategies to prevent a recurrence
- Suggesting a way to make up for an oversight
- Adjusting your expectations if they are unrealistic
Here’s an example:
“I apologized to my coworker as soon as I realized what happened, and offered him one of my customers who I hadn’t been closed yet to make up for it. I also promised to pay more attention to the contact logs to prevent it from happening again.”
Putting It All Together (Example Answers)
How does this all come together for a complete answer? To demonstrate, we wrote some sample answers using the 3-part structure above.
Example #1: Conflict With a Coworker
“When having a disagreement with a coworker, I ask them questions, then I reiterate what they said to be sure I understand. From there, it’s usually not difficult to think of a way to compromise or collaborate on a solution.
During one busy holiday season, a senior coworker insisted on having the day before and after the holiday off. I really wanted one of the days off, and we argued about what was fair.
When she explained her family was in town from overseas, I was more understanding. The week prior to the holiday, I suggested she give up her day off so I could finish my shopping and, in return, I would work for her both days. We were both happy with this solution.”
Example #2: Conflict With a Manager
“I always try to get to the bottom of a conflict. Often, the problem isn’t what it seems at first glance. Sometimes, frustration that stems from elsewhere can cause someone to become upset over a trivial problem.
When a manager snapped at me over a minor mistake I made on a report, I resisted the temptation to become defensive. Instead, I thought about why he was so angry. It was the end of the quarter, many reports were due, and his boss was putting pressure on him to get everything in on time.
I fixed the mistake and offered to work on another report that wasn’t my responsibility to take some of the pressure off of him. He thanked me, apologized for getting upset, and praised me for being a team player.”
Example #3: Conflict With a Customer
“I always try to handle conflict promptly, without putting it off, if possible. Also, if I can offer an extra service or incentive to make up for the problem, I do so.
Recently, I told a client I’d call them back by the end of the day and then I forgot. I had created a task in our system to return the call, but I accidentally checked it off as completed and forgot about returning the call.
The next day, the client called back, annoyed. I apologized and took full responsibility for my oversight. I was also able to add in an extra month of service at no cost, which satisfied the customer.”
How NOT to Answer
Not so fast, there are still some pitfalls you need to watch out for when answering this job interview question.
Don’t Say You’ve Never Dealt With Conflict
While it’s tempting, don’t say you haven’t had a conflict with anyone at work.
This leads the interviewer to think you’re lying or you avoid dealing with problems. Neither makes for an effective employee.
Instead, think of a situation you can use, and apply the steps above when describing it.
Don’t Describe a Major Breach
When talking about your conflict situation, don’t talk about a scenario where you lost a major account or caused some other damage to your company.
This could be a red flag to the interviewer and you could seem like a risky hire. Employers don’t want to hire someone they perceive as a liability.
Stick to a situation that had a mild effect and a positive resolution.
Don’t Say You Don’t Handle Conflict Well
Even if you don’t think you’re great at managing conflicts, this isn’t a good time to bring up this weakness.
Regardless of what role you’re applying for, there will undoubtedly be conflict or disagreement, so employers won’t hire someone who communicates they can’t handle it.
Instead, look at different ways other people handle conflict and think about how you’ve managed similar situations in the past. Everyone has a story, no matter how scarce.
- Learn the different ways the interviewer might ask the question
- Explain one or more approaches you take
- Share an example of a time you addressed conflict at work
- Describe how you resolved the situation
- Don’t act as though you don’t ever encounter conflict
- Don’t describe a time you harmed your company
- Don’t admit you are poor at handling conflict