The key to coming up with a realistic and meaningful answer to the “how did you handle a difficult situation” interview question is to first understand the interviewer isn’t looking for a “perfect ending.”
In a way, any outcome you end your answer with is simply a byproduct of how well you did those 2 things ⬆️.
Starting with the ability to hold your tongue and hear everyone else out. This is important because any hiring manager knows workplace conflict is inevitable and in many cases, necessary, to a healthy team dynamic. You can check out a study published in the Harvard Business Review on that topic.
And this is where the famous quote from Nelson Mandela comes in:
Be the last one to speak.
In a professional context, especially one where conflict is involved, good managers know that letting the other person feel heard is half the battle, even if that person’s idea is rejected in the end.
So a core part of your answer to “tell me a time you dealt with conflict on the job” should include some version of you asking the other party to expand on the reasons as to why they believe they are correct.
Then, you show you have fully understood their point of view by paraphrasing their answer and repeating it back to them. This shows the interviewer you genuinely tried to put yourself in their shoes.
This part of your answer should fall under the “ACTION” category of your overall structure, which we’ll come back to in a little bit.
Moving onto putting the needs of the business above your own. This part is more self-explanatory, the hiring manager needs to know that they are hiring a team player who is willing to put aside personal differences for the sake of the organization.
To put it bluntly, are you willing to let your pride take a hit to show that you can take the high road and be a professional?
To convey this point effectively you pinpoint the exact moment where all parties involved are at the most risk of losing face. Then, show how you de-escalated the situation by providing a platform for everyone to step down on.
Common best practices here include suggesting a cool off period and revisiting the situation the day after or even acknowledging the other direction or idea has more merits than your own and could potentially be a better solution.
This part of your answer should be under the “RESULT” category of your overall structure and should clearly show how the broader team or business benefited as a result of your actions.
At this point many of my regular viewers will know the answer structure I’m referring to: CARL (Context, Action, Result and Learnings).
While CONTEXT and LEARNINGS play a complementary role for this specific question compared to the more important ACTION and RESULT pillars, there are several pro tips I can share here as well.
The CONTEXT part of your answer should mention a relevant conflict that you might realistically face in the new role you’re applying for.
For the LEARNINGS part, this is simply an opportunity for you to recap what you did, why it was the correct course of action in that instance, and what you would do in a similar situation next time.
Putting all this together, here’s a sample answer you can reference. Hopefully you’d be able to see that even though the result was less-than-perfect, it makes for a very convincing and meaningful answer.
So Jeff, could you please tell me about a difficult work situation and how you handled it?
So a few weeks ago, a colleague on another team approached me asking for my help. She had just developed a new training program for her clients and she wanted to leverage some of the content my team had created. Usually this wouldn’t be a problem, but we found out very quickly that because she had her own program landing page and we had ours, having the same content on both our platforms would have caused confusion for our users.
Because there were clearly some synergies between our projects, we decided to sit down and have a brainstorming session on how we can achieve her goals without completely changing our existing infrastructure. Over the course of 2 days I asked her a series of questions that helped us map out the user journey for her clients and mine. She was actually surprised I took the time to do this because usually other team members would just tell her yes or no based on her initial proposal. Unfortunately, even after 2 days, we were not able to figure out a good solution without having to deprecate one of our landing pages, so we agreed to consult a manager who had experience in this area.
The manager acknowledged this was a tricky situation and after referencing a similar project she’s worked on in the past, she gave us a solution that involved directing some of my existing users to my colleague’s platform that will only host more advanced content. While this meant less traffic to my colleague and myself in the short term, this was clearly beneficial to the end user and we kept the same content from showing up on two different platforms.
Looking back, while we did need to consult a manager for this particular situation, I was pretty proud of how we exhausted all our options before exploring alternatives. We learned a lot from that user mapping exercise and we actually came up with new ideas during the brainstorming sessions. It also taught me that next time, it’s perhaps smart to involve a third party with experience in that area right from the beginning to be more efficient!
As you can see, the candidate did a good job on both 1 and 2. He first showed that he was open to hearing new perspectives even if it meant extra work and then was willing to suffer a short-term loss for the benefit of the client and business.
Get ready for your next interview with my Common Interview Questions and Answers playlist!