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How to Effectively Answer Job Interview Questions About Conflict

Hopefully any conflict you had in the workplace didn't lead to a fist fight.

Hopefully any conflict you had in the workplace didn't lead to a fist fight.

Conflict in the Workplace

No matter what kind of job you work in, whether it be a fast food job, government work, or in a corporation, there is always conflict in the workplace. On most interviews you will be asked how you have resolved a situation where there has been conflict between you and another person. This question demonstrates a lot, as it will indicate how you reason, how you handle tense situations, and how you got out of those situations.

There are multiple types of conflict that can be used to answer this question, which depends on how the question is asked. This article will cover the multiple ways you can be asked this question and how you should answer.

Author's Experience

I have conducted many job interviews where I have asked questions about conflict in the workplace.

Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.

— Ronald Reagan

Types of Conflict

There are multiple types of conflict you can use to respond to this question. You can have conflict with:

  • Co-workers.
  • Supervisors.
  • Subordinates.
  • Customers.

Experience in Conflict

There are multiple ways to effectively answer job interview questions about conflict you have experienced. Before getting to that, I will offer one piece of advice:

Do not say you have never experienced conflict.

So many times have I seen people answer this question saying, "I've never experienced any conflict in the workplace". That isn't true. No matter your profession, you would have experienced some sort of conflict in the workplace. Either with your co-workers, supervisors, subordinates, or customers. No one is that perfect in a job. This is a question that you must prepare for during an interview. If you answer it stating you have never experienced any conflict, it will seem like you are avoiding the question, and that will definitely stick out in the interviewer's mind.

You will have conflicts with your co-workers.  So don't say you haven't during a job interview.

You will have conflicts with your co-workers. So don't say you haven't during a job interview.

Conflict with Your Co-Workers

Conflict with your co-workers will be the most common question asked during the interview process. You are with your co-workers more than your boss or any subordinates, so this should be the easiest question you could answer. The below tips should be used when answering this question:

  • Don't blame the co-worker you are speaking about. It doesn't matter if you are right or wrong, don't place the blame on your co-worker when explaining about the situation. Instead, explain how it was resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved.
  • Don't leave out any information. If you are in the middle of explaining your story and it turns out that it made you look bad, finish telling the story. At the end you can explain what you learned when dealing with this situation with your co-worker. Showing that you learned something from a difficult situation can make you look good. The one exception is that you can leave out information if you are legally required to do so.
  • State your relationship with your co-worker after the conflict. If the conflict was resolved amicably, then state that you interacted with this co-worker positively after the situation was resolved. This will demonstrate that you don't hold grudges.
  • Include that you went to a supervisor to resolve the situation. This will demonstrate that you know when you need to go to your supervisor to resolve a dispute. Be very careful though. If it's a conflict that your interviewers think you should have handled yourself, then they may think you can't resolve minor problems on your own.

A Good Response to a Question About Conflict

Conflict with Your Supervisors

Conflict with your supervisor will demonstrate how you handle tense situations with those above you and if you can follow orders when necessary. Stories like this can be few, but can give your interviewers key insight on how you work with supervisors. Answer this question with the following tips in mind:

  • Don't make any negative remarks about your supervisor. Even if you were the correct person in the conflict, don't state that you knew your supervisor was wrong. Instead, explain the situation and how it was resolved to the satisfaction of all of those involved.
  • Explain why you felt you were correct in the conflict. This isn't the same as making negative remarks. Just don't simply state your supervisor wasn't following policy. Explain what you felt the ramifications were and why you felt the need to bring it up.
  • If your supervisor ordered you to do something, even if it was incorrect, explain the situation fully. This will demonstrate you will follow orders even if you knew your supervisor was incorrect. If you went to someone above your supervisor, explain that as well to show you took the necessary steps to ensure the task was done correctly.

A Bad Response to a Question About Conflict

Conflict with Your Subordinates

As a supervisor you will always find yourself in conflict with your employees, it's a natural reaction. How you handle the situation will tell a lot about your supervisory skills to those who are interviewing you. Use the following tips when answering questions about conflicts with your subordinates:

  • If you over-ruled your employee, explain why. Don't just say you did it because you are the boss or because you didn't like the employee. State why you felt your decision was necessary, how you explained it to your staff member, if the employee accepted the response, etc.
  • Talk about the employee briefly. If this was a stellar employee bringing up a good point, state that. If this was one of your problem employees, state that as well. This will give the interviewer insight on how you deal with conflict based on the type of employee.
  • If your employee was right during the conflict, explain what happened as a result of that. For example, an employee approaches you to advise a policy is incorrect and needs to be fixed. You dismiss the employee and assure it is correct, but the employee insists it's wrong. You check and find that the policy is wrong. Reveal this information as it shows you are humble in admitting you are wrong when faced with conflict with a subordinate.
Explain conflicts with subordinates so you don't make your former employee sound bad, as that is a reflection on you.

Explain conflicts with subordinates so you don't make your former employee sound bad, as that is a reflection on you.

Conflict with Customers

You can have a different type of conflict with customers. There are times you were right, but that wasn't good enough for the customer. There could be times you were rude and that caused a conflict as well. Here is how you can handle this situation in an interview:

  • Don't point out that the customer was wrong. Even if they were wrong, don't place the blame on the customer. You can state what the situation was, why you couldn't do what the customer wanted, and what you did to rectify the situation.
  • If you were rude, own up to it. Come clean and state you were rude, why it happened, and why you won't do it again. What matters is that you own up to it and you tried to make it up to the customer.
  • Balance the rules with the customer's needs. Primarily, you need to focus on preventing conflict with a customer while also following the rules set forth by the organization. It's a balancing act, and you need to demonstrate you can balance the needs of the customer with the rules of the organization.

A Horrible Response to a Question About Conflict

Other Tips

Here are some more things to consider when you are asked about conflict while being interviewed:

  • Always provide a real story. Never claim how you think you would handle conflict if it were to come up. Provide a real world story. If you really don't have one though, then state what you would do if a conflict were to come up.
  • Watch your expressions. Don't sneer, gloat, or be sarcastic. Just stick to the facts and don't sink in too many emotions in your response.
  • Prepare for surprise questions. You may be asked about how you handle conflict with your family, friends, or the public. So have stories in mind for those situations as well. Also, be prepared for follow-up questions regarding the experience you shared!
  • Always make it sound like a learning experience. You interviewers will want to hear that you learned something from the conflict you experienced.
  • Offer multiple stories. Before you start in on the stories, preface by stating you have multiple situations to talk about. Don't do more than two or three though, depending on length.
  • End your explanation with a positive note. The last thing you shouldn't say at the end of your story is something like, "And I received a write-up for how I handled the conflict." Instead, you should say, "I received a write-up for how I handled the conflicted, and learned how I should handle such situations in the future."

How do you Deal with Conflict?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2012 David Livermore


nelle on February 16, 2016:

Hmmm... 61 years old, and I've never experienced conflict at work. I've had someone in a different department (marketing) challenge an underwriting decision, but that was not conflict in the personality sense.

The correct response is to be truthful, not embellish stories because someone out here cannot wrap their minds around people actually getting along at work.

Sarah on August 21, 2014:

"So many times have I seen people answer this question saying, 'I've never experienced any conflict in the workplace'."

I've heard this during the interview process as well. Big no no! I'm glad this was your first point of advice. Another question that seems to get people is the dreaded weakness question. "My biggest weakness is that I too often take my work home with me" or "I don't really have a weakness in the workplace" is expected from the same candidate that told me that they've never experienced conflict in the workplace.

I so appreciate an informative and helpful article such as this one and do hope that job-seekers stumble across it and pause for the read.

Riche on December 21, 2013:

I've certainly learned from this post. Thank you.

Leah Wells-Marshburn from West Virginia on July 06, 2013:

This is a very relevant hub. I have been asked about a conflict situation in nearly every job interview I've ever had. The first time I was asked the question, I really didn't understand what the interviewer was looking for (I was young and silly :) Now that I have been the interviewer multiple times, I have gained so much insight into what are bad answers. You are right--saying you've never experienced conflict in the workplace only works if you've never had a job before. Even in that scenario, a candidate could explain conflict with a teacher or a classmate and how that was handled. The candidate should always consider what does the interviewer want to know about me by asking this or any other question. What are they looking for? Putting a positive spin on a bad situation is a good way to handle most questions of this sort. If the scenario described comes out with a negative outcome or even a negative vibe, it leaves (obviously) a negative impression.

I'm so glad you posted this. I think it has the potential to help many people with the interview process, which is terribly daunting in our current economy.

Jim Laughlin from Connecticut on June 05, 2013:

Great hub with good advice. We can all use it now and again.

David Livermore (author) from Bakersfield, California, United States on February 18, 2013:

Hope it helps you in the future. Thanks for the comment!

vijaya kumar from Chennai, India on February 18, 2013:

I was totally driven towards your hub awesome article.Now i learnt some information regarding the Job Interview Questions About Conflict.

Thank you,

Have a great day a head.