How To Answer “Tell Me About A Challenge Or Conflict You’ve Faced At Work” (With Examples)

David Luther
By David Luther
- Jan. 26, 2021
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Conflict is part of life, and unless you’re exceedingly lucky and don’t have to work (why are you reading this?) then it’s also part of your work life. I mean, life is a whole series of conflicts, and how you resolve them says a lot about who you are as a person — which is why interviewers love to ask you about it, usually in one of these forms:

  • Tell me about an assignment 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 customer or coworker.

  • Tell me about a time that you disagreed with a manager.

And I’m sure that if you put your mind to it, you can think about a time you’ve had to deal with a… shall we say, fly in the ointment. Thorn in your side. Pain in your ass. A real turd sandwich.

They ask this question to gain insight into your behavior, interpersonal skills, and your overall ability to manage conflict — not to learn about how much of a jerk your former coworker or customer was.

Why Interviewers Ask “Tell Me About a Challenge or Conflict You’ve Faced at Work”

Hiring managers and recruiters like asking this behavioral interview question because it gives them greater insight into your strengths and qualifications. It’s one of the most common interview questions for a reason.

Interviewers want to assess your problem-solving skills to see how you’d fit into the position you’re interviewing for. Every job comes with challenges and conflicts, so looking at your past accomplishments in this area allows them to predict you might go about decision-making in the future.

How to Answer “Tell Me About A Conflict or Challenge You’ve Faced at Work”

tell-me-about-a-challenge-you've-faced-at-work

Every interview has a unique focus, but some questions are asked so often, it makes sense to do all you can to prepare for them. In order to be successful, you need a strategy — not scripted answers. Your goal should be to emphasize your past experiences that best fit what each interviewer is looking for.

This is an example of a behavioral interview question, which are those questions that typically start with “Tell me about a time…” or “Give me an example of…”

Interviewers use behavioral questions to learn a little bit about you beyond just the words you say, kind of like using third-person characterization in a book. An author can say one of two things:

  • “Larry was a real jackass, he was mean and stingy.”

  • ”Larry was the type of guy who would write, ‘Do a better job’ on the tip line of a restaurant check.”

Instead of taking you for your word when you say “I’m a team player who seeks to resolve conflict,” they 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.

How To Answer The Interview Question “Tell Me About A Challenge Or Conflict You’ve Faced At Work”

Debra Arviso
Career Coach & CEO, Mindful Career Guide

Quickly describe the problem or goal without criticizing others. Focus on the solution and what specific steps you took to collaboratively solve the problem. Your story should communicate how you used your emotional intelligence skills to listen, empathize, compromise, and build the relationship. The employer is looking for evidence that you can work effectively on a team. Make sure that your story shows that you value diverse opinions and that you care about workplace relationships.

Even if you can’t recall a conflict or challenge that you want to talk about, make one up. The employer doesn’t really care if it is true. They want to know how well you communicate, work on a team, and solve problems. Always keep a story like this in your back pocket. This is a very common behavioral interview question.

Be Prepared With Examples

As an interviewee, the best way to be prepared for common interview questions and answers is to come up with compelling stories. Show your strengths, don’t tell them.

What you definitely don’t want to do is spend a lot of time focusing on the problem and not enough time discussing what you did to solve it. This can make you look like a whiner, and one of the focuses of interviewers is to figure out what you’ll be like to work with.

And if it seems like you’re better at identifying problems and talking about them rather than fixing them, then it doesn’t speak well for you. So as part of your interview preparation, think of an example of a conflict and make sure that it speaks to how you solve problems.

Do you avoid conflict or face it? Do you think it through, or are you impulsive? Do you use constructive techniques to resolve the situation?

How To Answer The Interview Question “Tell Me About A Challenge Or Conflict You’ve Faced At Work”

Danny Ghitis
High Performance Coach

It’s important to be solutions-focused, especially for a question about conflicts you’ve faced. This is a great opportunity to highlight how you used your strengths to overcome an obstacle. Think of some go-to examples ahead of time and outline them using the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result). Tell a compelling story, not just a bunch of bullet points–creating an emotional response to a narrative will get the interviewer invested!

Use the STAR method (With Example Answer)

I know, it’s just as grade-school cheesy as most HR acronyms are, but the STAR method a good starting place for deciding how to succinctly describe a conflict and solution.

In fact, the STAR method works perfectly for all behavioral interview questions, so practicing it can help at all stages of the interview process, whether you’re talking about career goals, accomplishments, or weaknesses.

  1. Situation: Give context for the story

    We hired this employee because of her writing quality and experience at a daily newspaper, where we knew she was accustomed to hitting deadlines.

  2. Task: Explain what the task was and where the conflict arose from.

    Her quality was great, but we kept having to shift projects around because we couldn’t rely on her consistently, and when I addressed it she got angry with me first, then began crying.

  3. Action: Talk about how you constructively and professionally acted to remedy the situation.

    I could see that she was taking the criticism personally, so I stepped back and generally explained how missed deadlines affected the performance of the organization, that although the quality of her work was great the lack of consistency was overshadowing that.

    She was taken aback because this was the first time anyone had mentioned the missed deadlines to her, and she wasn’t aware that it was an issue for anyone other than herself, or that she could ask for help. We scheduled regular status update meetings for her to check in each week and let the staff know where she stood on her assignments.

  4. Results: End on a positive note, showing how your actions had a desirable outcome.

    She apologized for losing her cool and thanked me for understanding her emotion. She hasn’t missed a deadline since, and as a result of the successful communication we established with her we implemented status updates for all of our team, which lead for an overall decrease in missed deadlines and better cooperation amongst colleagues.

Remember, give a real example — even if you have to fudge the severity or players in the story. Don’t try to make it all up, because they’ll see through you. Stick to the main points, be concise, and try to avoid blaming others while making sure to take ownership for the success.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Answering “Tell Me About a Challenge or Conflict You’ve Faced at Work”

It stands to reason that the most common interview questions also have some common mistakes. Watch out for these pitfalls as you develop your answer.

  • Practice your delivery, but don’t try to memorize it. Clearly memorized answers (or written down, in the case of phone interviews) will always induce an eye-roll from your recruiter or hiring manager – no matter where you are in the interview process.

  • Don’t spend too much time complaining or shirking responsibility. You might not know your interviewer that well, but you can assume that they’re on your side; don’t spend a ton of time explaining how no one can get along with Janice and how you’d done everything you were supposed to.

  • Avoid stories about putting out your own fires. That is, try not to give an example of a conflict or problem that arose directly as a result of your own doing that you then fixed. This isn’t an opportunity for rigorous honesty in that regard.

  • Don’t ramble on forever. It’s ok if you’re still a little hurt or upset about the situation. But one thing you definitely don’t want to do is spend an inordinate amount of time setting the scene, thereby neglecting to demonstrate your problem-solving skills and how the conflict was resolved.

  • Don’t completely blame someone else or insult them. Your story should be one of triumph and professional development, not a public airing of your dirty laundry with former coworkers. Accomplishments and qualifications win jobs, not smack talk.

  • Don’t give too many details about why it isn’t your fault. If recruiters notice that you’re spending an inordinate amount of time deflecting blame, they’re going to think you were the person to blame after all.

  • Don’t respond in a way that makes you seem combative. You can do this in two ways, by either giving an example of a combative resolution or by responding to the question itself in an aggressive way.

    So, when responding to how you addressed a problem, saying something like, “I’d invite that person to meet me in the parking lot and we’d sort it out man to man” is bad not only because you sound hostile, but also because you’re assuming the gender in this case.

    This isn’t a fun question to answer, and like “What’s your biggest weakness?” people get thrown off by it. Just remember that everyone experiences conflict in some form in the workplace and the question doesn’t signal that the interviewer thinks you’re a combative turd sandwich who can’t get along.

3 Tips for Answering “Tell Me About a Challenge or Conflict You’ve Faced at Work”

That said, don’t try so hard to seem non-combative that you pretend like you’ve never had a workplace conflict. The most common interview questions are common because they lend insight into what you’re like, and they apply broadly to most professions and people.

So don’t get so caught up in trying to be the “perfect candidate” that you fail to answer the question, or come up with a weak example. If you went out to lunch each week as an office, don’t cite the time that you proposed Asian fusion when Ryan chose Mexican but Drew really wanted Thai.

I mean, real talk that’s a good solution, but unless your interviewer takes food as seriously as I do then it’s not likely to reflect upon your conflict resolution skills as effectively as resolving a dispute about the direction of a work project.

In summary, use follow these three tips when answering questions about conflict in the workplace:

  1. Give examples of a positive, quantifiable outcome

  2. Use a specific example, preferably one that is relatable to the interviewer

  3. Explain the resolution, not just the problem

Keep those in mind, and you’ll have a job offer in no time. Or at least you can get on to more fun topics, like your career goals.

Example Answers to “Tell Me About a Challenge or Conflict You’ve Faced at Work”

Time to put all our advice into action with some sample answers. Pay attention to how each answer uses the STAR method to deliver a perfectly coherent response to this behavioral interview question.

  1. At my last job in sales, we had an issue with a client who was extremely unhappy with the specifics of our arragenemnt.

    As her primary point of contact in the company, it was my job to defuse the situation and help him come to a new deal that worked for both our company and his.

    First, I spoke to him about the specifics he was upset with, namely delivery costs and trouble he was having using our software. We rehashed sticking points to the point where he was satisfied with the new arrangement. Additionally, we assigned him a permanent customer success representative to ensure he could take full advantage of our products.

    While at the start, he was close to ending our relationship, by the end he was a happy customer. He later subscribed to our full service package and became one of our top five clients the following year.

  2. Fairly recently, my team had a situation where a new piece of software was causing more delays than it was meant to solve.

    I was managing the programming team at the time, so I stepped in to learn more about the specific problems and how it was affecting each team member’s workflow.

    Some members of the team were a bit upset by this extra workload, but I held a meeting where each employee’s issues could be voiced and heard, so that everyone felt respected throughout the process. By delegating tasks and working extra hard for a week (both me and my team), we were able to successfully troubleshoot the issue without becoming absolutely burnt out by the process.

    In the end, the new piece of software sped up our processes by 19%, so it was a challenge well worth taking on.

Final Thoughts

In all likelihood, your interviewer will be able to relate to your story on some level, and that’s what this is about: forming a rapport and showing how you’re the best fit for the position. Don’t position yourself as a person who always avoids conflict, because a bit of bravery is an admirable quality.

You’re selling yourself, and when you’re selling anything you don’t like to talk about how it’s had problems.

But think of a car: we’d like to think that it has such superior handling that it never gets into accidents. But, sometimes, you or other drivers will cause a problem; and you want to know how it handles bad terrain — sell yourself like an airbag.

Or something, you get the idea.

You are invariably going to have to deal with people who don’t contribute effort, put forth awful opinions, or are just generally terrible people. How you respond to the conflict and unease this question generates is, in a super meta way, indicative of how you’ll handle future conflicts.

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David Luther

Author

David Luther

David Luther was the Content Marketing Editor for the Zippia Advice blog. He developed partnerships with external reporting agencies in addition to generating original research and reporting for the Zippia Career Advice blog. David obtained his BA from UNC Chapel Hill.

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