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Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Handling Conflict

Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Handling Conflict

Part of our ongoing series to help you answer common behavioral interview questions.

Hiring managers love to ask behavioral questions — and one of their favorite subjects is conflict. Here are a few examples of conflict-related behavioral questions:

• Tell me about a team project when you had to work with someone difficult.
• Tell me about a time you had a conflict at work.
• Give an example of a time you had to respond to an unhappy manager/customer/colleague.
• Tell me about a time that you disagreed with a rule or approach.

There are many other variations on this theme and it is a very common interview topic. From the interviewer’s perspective, the idea is to find out about the candidate’s conflict management ability and general interpersonal skills.

Recently, I was conducting an interview skills workshop for managers at a large corporation. The subject of “conflict” behavioral questions came up (this big multinational company uses primarily behavioral questions when interviewing candidates).

One manager shared a memorable answer to “How would you handle a conflict at work?” A recent candidate responded: “I’d invite that person to meet me in the parking lot after work and sort it out man-to-man.”

Guess what? He didn’t get the job.

Before we tell you how to answer the question like a champ, here’s a little refresher on answering behavioral interview questions in general.

Behavioral Interviewing Refresher


Most job interviews include behavioral questions (those questions that typically start with “Tell me about a time…” or “Give me an example of…” or similar).

With behavioral questions, interviewers seek examples of how you’ve handled specific situations in the past. The idea is that past job performance will say a lot about how you would handle yourself if hired for the job at hand.

Learn more about behavioral interview questions and some general advice on preparing for and answering them.

Why Interviewers Ask About Conflict

Most jobs require you to get along with different types of people. Some of your coworkers, managers, and/or clients will turn out to be idiots, slackers, and/or weirdos. Disagreements are bound to arise.

To succeed at work, you must be able to deal with conflict professionally. This is particularly true in certain jobs (project management, customer service, law) and in certain company cultures.

Your interviewer wants to get a sense of how you will respond to conflict. Anyone can seem nice and pleasant in a job interview, but what will happen if you’re hired and Gladys in Compliance starts getting in your face?

Conflict questions are common because everybody wants to hire a good “team player.” (It is probably the most common behavioral question subject) Interviewers often ask about your team experiences and they like to ask specifically about one that involved a conflict or “difficult person.”

How to Answer Behavioral Questions About Conflict


This type of question can catch you off-guard. After all, you’ve probably been focusing on how to talk about all of the positive and wonderful bullet points on your resume.

Nobody likes to talk about conflict at work. Most work conflicts are boring. Plus, you’d probably prefer to pretend that you are an absolute delight to work with and that nobody has ever had an unkind word to say about you.

A behavioral question about conflict forces you to talk about a less-than-delightful situation. It can be difficult to come up with a good example on the fly — and even more difficult to describe in concisely in a way that presents you in a favorable light.

This is why it’s important to prepare an example in advance using the S.T.A.R format.

The goal is not to script out an answer word-for-word. The STAR format allows you to structure the general shape of your response by jotting down bullets for each of the key aspects of the story. Check out Big Interview for more guidance on structuring great STAR stories — and an Answer Builder tool that you can use to make the process much easier.

Sample Answer — “Tell Me About a Time You Had a Conflict on a Team Project.”

Here’s an overview of how to use the STAR format specifically to present a conflict experience:

S/T (Situation/Task)

— Briefly describe the context for the conflict that arose. Provide just enough background information for context.

Example Situation/Task Bullets

• I was managing the creation of our new corporate brochure and we were on a very tight deadline because we had to have brochures printed in time for a big upcoming trade show.

• I was in charge of delivering on time and I had to manage team members from Marketing, Sales, Graphic Design, and Product Management.

• The designer that was assigned to the project was very talented, but unfortunately missed a deadline that I assigned. When I approached him about it, he blew up at me.

Why We Like Them

These bullets provide good context — it was an important and complex project with a tight deadline. The designer not only missed a deadline, but threw a fit when called on it. This is a real conflict that could have led to disaster if handled poorly.

Tip: Don’t get too caught up in unnecessary details. The interviewer doesn’t need to know about the color scheme of the brochure, the history of the trade show, or the designer’s weird wardrobe choices.

A (Approach)

— Talk about the key actions that you took. In the case of a conflict story, the focus should be on how resolved the disagreement in a professional and productive way.

Example Approach Bullets

• I was taken aback by his response, but I remained calm. I acknowledged that the deadlines were tight and explained again the reasoning and the importance of having the brochure ready for the trade show.

• He relaxed a little when he saw that I wasn’t attacking him. He told me about all of his other competing projects and how overwhelmed he was. I asked him if there was any way that I could help him come up with a solution.

• Eventually, we agreed that it would help if his manager had a better understanding of how important and time-consuming this project was. We decided we would speak with her together.

• She ended up assigning some of his other projects to another designer, which took some of the pressure off of him.

Why We Like Them

This candidate walks through the actions taken and why. He shows that he stayed calm under pressure, tackled the issue head-on, and was able to persuade others (the designer and his manager) to his point of view.

Tip: Again, stick to the actions that are most relevant and that show your conflict-management prowess.

R (Results)

— Every good interview story includes a happy ending. End your response with a description of the positive outcome(s) of your action. These results can be quantifiable (increased sales 20%, saved the company $25K) or anecdotal (The client was thrilled and sent my manager an email, my manager loved my approach and gave me a promotion).

Example Results Bullets

• As a result, the designer was able to focus on the brochure and meet the deadlines.

• He apologized for his blow-up and thanked me for my help.

• We successfully completed the brochure in time for the trade show and received numerous compliments from both our own sales reps and potential customers.

• Our trade show presence led to $300,000 in new sales leads and I believe the new brochure played a key role in that.

Why We Like Them

This is a nice, concise happy ending. The candidate describes the resolution of the conflict, the positive effect on the relationship with the designer, and the business outcome.

Tip: The bottom-line results ($$$) make it even more impressive. This is not possible with every conflict-resolution story, but you should always pick the example with the most significant results.

More Tips for Handling Behavioral Questions About Work Conflicts


1. Pick a Good Example:

• Choose an example that shows you taking an active approach to resolving an important conflict.

• Be specific. Don’t give a general answer like, “I deal with conflicts all the time and have learned to stay calm and that communication is key.” It’s boring and it doesn’t answer the question.

• Don’t choose a minor disagreement (“He didn’t want Italian for lunch”) or a conflict that was resolved by someone else or just went away without direct action. The idea here is to show off your interpersonal skills and problem-solving ability.

• Avoid examples that could make you look bad. For example, don’t share a time when your mistake or miscommunication CAUSED a conflict.

2. Get Specific About Your Actions

• The most memorable and compelling stories include enough detail to paint a picture. Show why this conflict was important and that you handled it capably.

• However, you must make an effort to keep the story concise. It’s very easy to go off on tangents (especially if you haven’t prepared in advance). Keep it focused.

• Stick to bullet points. Don’t try to memorize a script.

3. Practice

Take the time to practice telling your story. This is especially important when telling a story about a conflict.

Conflicts often lead to arguments, problems, and damaged/broken professional relationships. You want to feel confident discussing the sensitive details in a way that gets your points across.

Funny example of Adam Sandler NOT handling conflict well.

About the Author

Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase.She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York.She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.

Connect with Pamela

31 Comment to Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Handling Conflict

  • Trevor

    Great article. Very hard to explain that your manager was a sociopath without sounding bitter. Must “tread lightly”

  • Yoon SG

    Not too long ago this type of question was asked of me, and I feel like I came off a bit weak. I now see the value in the star approach, and see what I could have done differently with my answer. I did not really explain the results properly. Very informative, I need to change some things.

  • Comprehensive advice for answering a common interview question. Great article. Thanks

  • Dave Potts

    A new variation on the S.T.A.R. format for answering questions is S.O.A.R.L.
    Situation; Objective; Action; Results; Learning.

    It is part of a basic (interview) answer formula or format.

    A job seeker would be well served to have 6 or 8 behavioral or situational stories on hand to offer up in that format.

  • Anonymous

    I believe it is very important you discuss and add the below facts.

    For one, even though you answer well to very well, interviews are always highly subjective, and it really comes down to the panel’s biases and opinions. After MANY interviews during my career, it comes down to whether they like you are not; your body language, your looks, AND also the way you speak / answer questions.

    If you can walk away knowing you 1) did your best, 2) are confident you answered the questions well to very well. That is the MOST important part of interviewing in my opinion, and gives you confidence overcoming not getting the job and quickly moving forward with the search.

    I’ve had many interviews where I too made honestly stupid mistakes because I have repeated them over and over; talked too much, was not prepared well, etc. Then there is the bias where I had ZERO control. I am now 53 and had THREE interviews where age discrimination was BLATANTLY said and displayed. “Our team is very young…” were two of them, to which I replied, “I get along great with all people regardless of age”. The third was a very sarcastic 50-something woman, who hypocritically said, “Wellll… I seeee you did not put allll of your experience on your resume….”, again said in a condescending manner and insulting look. It caught me off guard and was embarrassing and humiliating. I shyly answered something like “that’s correct” and did my best. However I immediately knew that interview was over, and when I left I was angry and in despair for awhile.

    So know this; interviews are highly subjective and biased. No matter how well you perform, you will at times be overlooked because of your skin color, age, looks, etc. Accepting this harsh reality as sadly normal will help you persevere.

  • Anonymous

    PS: I will add I’ve read several other articles and they use generalized answers as you described. I agree with you, being specific, brief with bullet points, is the best way.

    I have interviewed others as well. Confidence in them is important, as is a calm, friendly deamenor. I am asking myself right now, “If I was on the panel, what would I like to hear from myself as the candidate?” I think that might help others.

  • I had a interview last week, but didn’t know how to answer this question. I am hoping you can help. Tell me about a time that a situation that happened that was not connected in the end, ended up being connected?

    Thanks!!!!!

  • Brino

    This conflict at work has never really happened to me, and most people I work with would say similar, yet this is not what you should say at interview. Instead when asked to “describe a time when”, you create a scinario and go through SAR,” I would approach the person first” etc. Its all a bit contrived and dishonest, unless you have actually experienced the conflict/ co worker not pulling weight or whatever situation, wouldn’t it be better if you were given a scenario and asked how you would deal with it?

  • Xaad Tayyab

    please I want answer of this question.
    Do you handle conflict well?

  • job seeker

    I am in disagreement with author. I made lots of mistakes trying to tell “conflict” stories with happy end (we all have them and the end in actually never happy, let be honest). The truth is that you are the best candidate if you are conflict-free person, unless you are applying for law enforcement position and got all necessary training. Do not tell them about aggressive and abusive coworkers because in eyes of HR personal you are and that person are equally responsible for the conflict situation if any. They just do not want to hear that you were involved in any conflict, they want you to be unrealistically perfect in this case. Make them happy and you will get the job.

  • raplimo@yahoo.com

    really you give this example?”One manager shared a memorable answer to “How would you handle a conflict at work?” A recent candidate responded: “I’d invite that person to meet me in the parking lot after work and sort it out man-to-man.”
    so lame. so unrealistic! totally gives no credence to the rest of the article

  • Bill

    Teresa,
    That is an odd question that I wouldn’t know how to answer either.

    In an interview never let an ‘asked question’ be simply left unanswered. It would be better to take the opportunity to showcase how you handle situations where the instructions are unclear. Ask for clarification before proceeding down the wrong path. Maybe that’s exactly what they were trying to deduce with that strange question.

    Unless you really do react to ambiguity by inaction. 🙂

  • ShonBoi

    I completely agree with you. People tend to think that just because they have the best qualifications, that they’re going to get the job. The interviewer(s) don’t 100% care about how well you would do at the job, they care about how you look and sound. And what’s worse, if they have a different opinion than you, they obviously will disagree with your answers to their questions and dislike you even more.

  • ShonBoi

    I completely agree with you. People tend to think that just because they have the best qualifications, that they’re going to get the job. The interviewer(s) don’t 100% care about how well you would do at the job, they care about how you look and sound. And what’s worse, if they have a different opinion than you, they obviously will disagree with your answers to their questions and dislike you even more.

  • ShonBoi

    I completely agree with you. People tend to think that just because they have the best qualifications, that they’re going to get the job. The interviewer(s) don’t 100% care about how well you would do at the job, they care about how you look and sound. And what’s worse, if they have a different opinion than you, they obviously will disagree with your answers to their questions and dislike you even more.

  • ShonBoi

    I completely agree with you. People tend to think that just because they have the best qualifications, that they’re going to get the job. The interviewer(s) don’t 100% care about how well you would do at the job, they care about how you look and sound. And what’s worse, if they have a different opinion than you, they obviously will disagree with your answers to their questions and dislike you even more.

  • Bruce Wayne

    LOL!

  • Bruce Wayne

    LOL!

  • Bruce Wayne

    LOL!

  • Bruce Wayne

    LOL!

  • Bruce Wayne

    LOL!

  • Anonymous

    Behavioral question is all about how good are you on bullshiting, cause most of the times you have to create a success story that never exist and the
    interviewer is unable to know if is real or not.

  • Anonymous

    Behavioral question is all about how good are you on bullshiting, cause most of the times you have to create a success story that never exist and the
    interviewer is unable to know if is real or not.

  • Anonymous

    Behavioral question is all about how good are you on bullshiting, cause most of the times you have to create a success story that never exist and the
    interviewer is unable to know if is real or not.

  • Anonymous

    Behavioral question is all about how good are you on bullshiting, cause most of the times you have to create a success story that never exist and the
    interviewer is unable to know if is real or not.

  • Anonymous

    Behavioral question is all about how good are you on bullshiting, cause most of the times you have to create a success story that never exist and the
    interviewer is unable to know if is real or not.

  • Anonymous

    Behavioral question is all about how good are you on bullshiting, cause most of the times you have to create a success story that never exist and the
    interviewer is unable to know if is real or not.

  • John Ten

    I got a version on weakness working for “government” agency who as you know loves to follow policy and procedures.

    One of my biggest weakness is I follow orders and never question procedures and status quo. Although this has its merits but in order to improve, we must be open to change in the face of changing Information Technology trends and better and more efficient ways to leverage the latest available Best Practices to keep up with the times.

    Some might think it’s a strength – who knows – depending on who you work for.

  • Param

    Agreed 100% what you said about the age and other factors. My recent interview experience with a real estate went very well (that’s what I thought). Called the interviewer back after the rejection letter and asked her advise that how I can improve better in future interviews. She said that I have lot more experience than what they are looking for and thought I might get bored (they are paying a 6 digit salary for that job, how can I get bored 🙂 and the other feedback was, one of the interviewer didn’t like my accent ……(i know how you feel?)

  • Param

    You are so true. Just to get a job and survive, you have to lie and move forward – how sad it is? I am living in a world,I don’t know what’s going on and where it’s going?….

  • I enjoyed reading this article. That’s Really Nice and helpful.