“How Do You Handle Conflict” Interview Question (+ Sample Answers)

By Mike Simpson

Quick question for you: how do you handle conflict?

    • Are you someone who avoids conflict at all costs?
    • Are you someone who pretends it’s not there and just ignores it?
    • Maybe you’re someone who is more “go with the flow” and more accommodating?
    • Perhaps you’re someone who uses conflict as a way to jumpstart compromise and collaboration?

Regardless of what your favorite method is, there’s no doubt that life is full of conflict.

From trying to figure out where you want to eat lunch with friends (half of you want tacos. Half of you want burgers.), to having to deal with the grumpy old lady in your apartment complex who simply can’t seem to figure out that the parking space with your apartment number on it is your space!

Now, how do you handle conflict in the workplace?

More importantly, if a hiring manager asked you “How do you handle conflict,” how would you respond?

Of course, how you answer that interview question is directly related to why that questions is even being asked in the first place.

Hiring managers are looking for someone they know will be able to rise to the occasion and do their job regardless of what’s going on around them, and a big part of that is how you handle conflict in the workspace.

They’re also looking to see how well you’ll fit into the culture of the company and how well you’ll mesh with your fellow employees.

But be aware, this is one of those trick questions that really has no absolutely right answer and what a hiring manager is looking for can vary wildly between jobs.

Some hiring managers want someone who is willing to voice their opinion and stand up for what they think is right. Others want an employee who is more geared towards quick conflict resolution and compromise. Regardless of what the employer is looking for, what’s truly important is how you answer the question.

Now before we teach you how NOT to answer this conflict question, we wanted to let you know that we’ve designed a free cheat sheet that will not only help you answer this question, but will also give you word-for-word answers for some of the toughest interview questions you are going to face in your upcoming interview.

Click below to get it right now:

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FREE BONUS PDF CHEAT SHEET: Get our "Job Interview Questions & Answers PDF Cheat Sheet" that gives you "word-word sample answers to the most common job interview questions you'll face at your next interview.


How Not To Answer “How Do You Handle Conflict?”

Let’s start with how NOT to answer the question “how do you handle conflict?”

“I’m not a huge fan of conflict. To me conflict equals stress and I definitely don’t put up with stress well. The best way for me to handle conflict and stress is to just isolate myself. In my last job there was so much conflict between my coworkers that I ended up moving my desk to the basement next to the boiler. It was hot, but at least it was finally quiet.”

While this is an extreme example, it does bring up a good point. Avoiding conflict all together by completely removing yourself from the situation probably isn’t going to win you points with any hiring manager…especially if they have to hunt you down in the basement to talk to you.

A hiring manager can tell a lot about your personality based on how you answer this question, which is why you want to avoid any responses that align with any of these ‘problem’ people:

Confrontational Carl: While standing up for what you think is right is a noble trait, fighting tooth and nail because you’re unwilling to compromise or admit you may not be right isn’t, especially if your default is to become angry and lash out. Confrontational Carl can’t admit he’s wrong and will stubbornly argue his point, becoming increasingly angry.

Dissin’ Debbie: Never make work conflict personal. Turning a disagreement about a professional situation into a personal attack is never the right way to handle any conflict. Keep in mind you want to always focus on the situation, not on personalities.

Dissin’ Debbie is just the opposite. She’s the kind of person who can take a simple disagreement about what type of toner the printer takes and turn it into a brutal dissection of your fashion sense, your taste in men, and your relationship with your parents.

Wallbuilder Wally: This isn’t just about leaving the confrontation physically, but mentally as well. Keeping an open mind and clearly listening to both sides is the mark of a true leader. You never know, you might just learn something or (gasp!) change your mind!

Wallbuilder Wally might be standing in front of you, but you can tell just by looking in his eyes, that he’s a million miles away. He might as well have his fingers in his ears.

Festering Frank: While dealing with conflict can be difficult, it’s much better to handle it as soon as it arises rather than letting it sit and fester.

Festering Frank is just the opposite and this personality type has the potential to be the most dangerous. Festering Frank takes any sort of conflict and internalizes it, holding onto it like a precious little seed of anger. He feeds and waters it, letting it grow and grow.

From the outside, Festering Frank looks fine, but inside, he’s a seething mass of anger ready to boil over at a moment’s notice, and often triggered by something completely unrelated.

Playground Pete: I’m sure this is something that you’re probably already aware of, and I truly hope I’m preaching to the choir when I say this but regardless of the conflict, violence is never the answer. Never, ever, ever, ever.

Playground Pete never got that memo so his answer to any conflict is “Let’s take this outside and solve it man-to-man.” Not only is this individual absolutely not a candidate any hiring manager would want working for them, but he’s also a huge potential liability. Threats that amount to assault and battery are a really quick way to end just about any interview.

So, how do you answer this question? Let’s take a look.

5 Tips for answering “How do you handle conflict?”

  1. Pick a relevant example: Just like all our answers during interviews, you want to make sure that you’re not only telling the hiring manager how you would do something, but backing that up with a concrete, targeted example. Pull a story from your professional work past that has a positive result for all parties and can be summed up quickly and easily.
  2. Emphasize communication: While this might seem like a no-brainer, you’d be amazed at how many confrontations escalate wildly out of control just because the parties involved refuse to talk to one another. A hiring manager is going to want an employee who is willing to work through a conflict.
  3. Discuss the steps you took: Make sure your example includes the steps you took to resolve the conflict. A hiring manager is going to want to know how you’d handle future situations and being able to walk them through past conflicts is a quick and easy way to showcase that.
  4. Be honest: If you realized during the conflict that your point of view was wrong, or the position you had first taken was not the right one, be honest about it! Use it as an opportunity to demonstrate your willingness to learn, to remain open minded, and to learn.
  5. Emphasize the results: What happened once the conflict was resolved? Did it change how you approached things? Did it impact the work environment overall? Were there improvements made as a result?

Mike's Tip: Going back to tip #1, you may feel like you're unsure of how to use concrete examples to help support your answers to interview questions. This is why we developed our Tailoring Method, which provides you with a step-by-step method for answering any interview question. To learn how to use this technique, check out this blog article.

Now let’s take a look at three possible ways to answer this question.

3 Example Answers

Use these examples as guides to help you build your own response to the question “How do you handle conflict?”

Entry-Level Position:

My senior year of college I took a class that required me to take part in a group project. Everyone was assigned a specific task with the idea that we would work on them independently and then all get together ahead of the deadline and combine our efforts into our final project. Everything was going along until we got to the day we were supposed to meet to combine our efforts. While the majority of us completed our tasks there was one guy in our group who had neglected to do anything on his end. With the way the project was structured, if one student failed, we all failed. Understandably the rest of the group was very upset and express their displeasure quite vocally. The student retaliated in kind and the entire situation devolved into a shouting match. Rather than get involved in the blame game, I pulled the student aside and asked him what had gone wrong. When he realized I was actually looking for answers and wasn’t just going to yell at him, he broke down and told me things at his home had been hard lately. His father had left and his mother worked full time, leaving him to take care of his siblings. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to do the project, he’d just completely run out of time. He confessed that he felt horrible and had wanted to explain but when the rest of the group started yelling, he’d switched into defensive mode. I calmed down the rest of the group and we all sat down to figure out how to fix the problem. While we weren’t going to do the work for him, we made it possible for him to carve out a little extra time every day by offering to take turns meeting with him at the park after school. We’d keep an eye on his siblings while they played and he took that time to work on his part of the project. Not only did he get the project done, but we all got an A in the class!

Mid-Level Position

I was working as a manager at a local grocery store when I had an elderly woman come in wanting to exchange an item for a different color. Normally this would be an easy problem for me to handle, but not only did she not have a receipt, but the item she wanted to exchange wasn’t an item we even carried. I let her know that we would be unable to process the exchange as it wasn’t from our store and she immediately became angry with me. I remained calm and explained to her that the item was not from our store but that I recognized where it had come from, Store B. I told her I would be happy to see if I could give that store a call and talk to them for her. She then demanded to know why store B carried her product, but we didn’t. I explained again, calmly, that she was in store A. She grabbed her product and stormed out, still muttering about our horrible customer service.
A few hours later a young woman came in and asked for me. She explained that she was the daughter of our earlier customer and that she was so sorry for the confusion. She said her mother came home absolutely furious at us but after being told (again) by her daughter that she was at the wrong store, she finally realized her mistake and was mortified. The daughter told me how grateful she was that I had been patient with her mother and calm. I told her it was fine and that I had gone through similar situations with my own mother.
Both mother and daughter still come into my store and now come directly to my cash register whenever they’re in just to say hello and made a point to tell my manager how pleased they were with my customer service.

Executive-Level Position

Dealing with conflict is never easy but making sure you tackle it head on quickly is the key to success. A few months ago, I was leading a big team of developers who had been tasked with solving a bug in some software we were designing for a client. Another software team was working on a parallel program that was intended to eventually intertwine with our program. At one point, one of the senior members of the second team sent an email out accusing my team of intentionally sabotaging his program so they could have extra time to finish their work. Rather than send a retaliatory email out and escalate the conflict further, I invited him out for lunch. We sat down and talked about our two programs we were developing, and I had him walk me through his project and how it worked. I then showed him what we were doing and how the two programs would eventually overlap. During this process we realized that our work had set his team back, but that it was simply a result of the testing process we were doing. Once he realized it was an accident and in no way malicious, he relaxed, and we set about coming up with a schedule that would allow us to test our end without stalling out work on his end. Now when we work on parallel programs, I make it a point to seek out the other senior managers and discuss game plans before we start programming.

Putting It All Together

Well, there you have it, how to answer “how do you handle conflict” as well as why it’s asked, a few good tips on what not to do, a few great tips on what to to and three solid example answers you can use to come up with your own response.

Good luck!


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About The Author

Mike Simpson

Co-Founder and CEO of TheInterviewGuys.com. Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at TheInterviewGuys.com. His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.