“Tell us about a time when it was difficult to work with someone” is an interview question that you need to be ready for. Your response needs to walk the line between honest and professional, which isn’t always easy!
This guide will help you prepare for this question and deliver an impressive answer.
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The Reason Interviewers Ask This Question
It doesn’t matter what job you want or how much authority you’ll hold. Workplace conflicts will happen. You might find it difficult to work with someone, be it a colleague, manager, or client, at some point in your career.
That’s what happens when you put people with different values, approaches, and perspectives together. People can butt heads, creating a potential source of drama in the office.
Interviewers ask about a time when it was difficult to work with someone in order to learn more about how you approach these situations. It’s an assessment that gives hiring managers more insight into how you navigate workplace conflicts and maintain productivity.
Knowing how to handle conflict is an important skill in any industry and in every job. Showing interviewers that you can easily adapt to the situation and person to maintain professional decorum while still contributing to the company’s bottom line is important.
Employers want people who can put aside their differences with others and find common ground to achieve goals. This question aims to unveil your processes, tell interviewers more about how you communicate, and demonstrate that you can understand where others are coming from. It’s also a way for hiring managers to see how you fit into the already established company culture.
While talking about a time when it was difficult to work with someone seems simple, your answer says a lot about who you are and what type of energy you’ll bring into the office. Your skills and qualifications are crucial, but behavioral questions like this help hiring decision-makers envision you in the workplace, giving them more information about your potential.
How to Answer It
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can answer this question on the spot. It’s a tough question that forces you to talk about a challenging situation in a professional manner. If you don’t take a nuanced approach, you could paint an unflattering picture of yourself in the workplace.
Here are a few tips to help you develop a fantastic answer that benefits you.
1. Pick a Situation That Had a Positive Outcome
Interviewers and hiring managers want to hear a few different things in your response. One of the best ways to check off all the boxes is to discuss a situation that had a positive outcome.
For example, you can talk about a moment when you and your collaborator butted heads on a project before ultimately putting your egos aside to compromise. Alternatively, there might be a period from your past where you had to work under a supervisor you didn’t get along with. But despite your differences, you helped accomplish great things for your company.
Those are the examples that hiring managers love to hear. Workplace conflicts are nothing new, but the most impressive candidates are those who are willing and able to find common ground with those who don’t see eye to eye. You don’t have to be friends with every colleague, but showing that you know how to put differences aside, communicate effectively, and get your work done makes all the difference.
2. Don’t Spend Time Reliving Your Feelings
After you choose a situation to talk about, leave your feelings at the door!
One of the most difficult aspects of answering this question is remaining unbiased. When you talk about an experience that made you angry or frustrated, those feelings can rear their ugly heads! But it’s important to stay objective.
The entire point of this question is to show that you’re mature enough to overcome your differences with others and navigate difficult working relationships to achieve your goals. It doesn’t matter how long ago this situation was. If you resort to bad-mouthing or name-calling, you’ll come off as petty or immature.
Either way, it doesn’t reflect well on you.
Refrain from letting your emotions take hold. Don’t relive those feelings. Instead, approach your response from a position of growth and maturity.
Hopefully, you’ve done a lot since that experience, and you can use this opportunity to talk about how you’ve grown.
3. Show Accountability
Here’s one of the more challenging aspects of this question. It forces you to reflect on situations and take ownership of your actions.
Initially, it can be easy to blame the other party. You might think that they’re unreasonable or unwilling to compromise. But when you start to think about the situation from a more mature angle, you might realize that you hold some blame for why it was so difficult to work with that individual.
Now is your chance to talk about it. Your interview might not seem like the best place to have that “Aha” moment, but it’s a great way to show growth. You don’t have to go into detail about your shortcomings and faults, but recognizing that you could have done better shows impressive maturity and professionalism.
Perhaps you could have done more to avoid conflict. Or, your stubbornness prevented you from empathizing with the other party’s point of view. Whatever the case, take ownership of your behavior. Be accountable and show that you have the self-awareness to grow.
4. Share What You Learned from the Experience
No employer wants to hire someone who is stuck in their ways and resistant to change. They want people who will continue to push for professional and personal development. One of the best ways to answer this question is to lean on that aspect of your experience.
Highlight what you learned and how the experience made you a better employee and colleague.
Think about how the situation ended. Whether you took steps to resolve it or the problem fizzled out naturally because one of you left the company, talk about it. Of course, responses that involve you proactively squashing drama to maintain productivity are always best.
You can discuss moments when you had to put your differences aside to work towards a shared goal. Talk about what you did and lean into the positive outcome. Then, detail what you learned from that experience.
Tell hiring managers how you grew and what that scenario did to shape future issues moving forward. Perhaps it taught you to find common ground with people you don’t get along with. Or, maybe it showed you that you need to empathize with others more.
Highlight those lessons and how they’ve benefited you in your career.
5. Be Concise With Your Answer
Our last tip is to keep things concise. Talking about a time when it was difficult to work with someone can easily bait you into giving a long-winded answer. Also, the more you talk, the greater the chance you’ll say something that interviewers don’t like!
Avoid that nightmare by keeping your answer relatively straightforward. Take no more than two minutes to answer this question, and try to keep the finer details broader.
If the interviewer wants more details, they’ll ask for it. But keep your answer concise out of the gate to leave time for more pressing questions. Cut out the extra details and focus on the core of the question to deliver a straightforward response that packs a punch.
What You Shouldn’t Do When Answering
There are many ways to hit it out of the park with your response. However, there are many things you can say that will rub interviewers the wrong way and give a bad first impression.
Here are a few faux pas you want to avoid with your answer
Stories That Paint You in a Negative Light
Having accountability for your actions takes a lot of self-reflection. While it’s good to identify when you could have acted better, you should avoid situations that put all the blame onto you.
For example, if you found it difficult to work with someone because of their lifestyle or political views, that’s not something you should share. The same goes for any arguments you instigated or moments when you acted out immaturely.
It’s one thing to recognize your faults when navigating difficult scenarios, but it’s totally different when you’re the aggressor or problem-causer! Avoid those stories and focus on moments that paint you more positively.
Bad-Mouthing or Blaming Other
We mentioned earlier that you must leave your feelings at the door and objectively approach your answer. That means no bad-mouthing or trying to blame the other party. It’s easy to push the blame onto the other person. They’re not there to defend themselves!
When you resort to negativity in your answer, it shows a lack of maturity. It defeats the purpose of this question and makes hiring managers worry about your ability to overcome similar situations in the new job.
Examples That Allude to Productivity Issues
Whatever you do, don’t say that your difficulties working with another person prevented you from getting your work done. That’s one of the worst things you can do because it shows that you let drama get the best of you. Employers want people who will overcome those challenges to continue being productive.
Saying that the situation creates so much pressure and drama that you couldn’t focus on your work won’t help you at all.
Situations with No Positive Outcome
Finally, avoid talking about experiences that have no mutually beneficial resolution. For example, moments when the difficulties escalated to the point of requiring supervisor intervention or someone quitting their job.
Always lean on positivity. You want a response that shows you’ve grown and matured. If that experience caused so much drama that it resulted in an unhappy ending, there’s no way to spin it into a learning moment.
Need some inspiration to develop an answer for your next interview? We have a few example answers to guide you in the right direction.
In our first sample, the candidate talks about a project manager with a bold personality. This response works well because it shows self-awareness and accountability while leaning into what they learned from their experience working with that individual.
“In one of my previous jobs, I worked with a project manager who I initially didn’t get along with. The company hired them several years into my tenure, and they overlooked my work. Compared to the previous project manager, this manager was very outspoken.
At first, the dramatic change in workstyle took its toll on me. I decided to take several days to figure out how I wanted to approach it. After giving it much thought, I realized that the major change was her leadership style.
All those little things that I took offense to were not personal. She pointed out my mistakes to help me improve my skills, and her abrupt approach helped push me out of my comfort zone.
Once I realized that I was the one that needed to adjust, things improved. I changed my perspective, and we developed a great professional relationship. She taught me so many things, and her lessons began from day one.
She taught me how to work with different personality types and take criticism in stride.”
Our next example revolves around a difficult client. Challenging clients are common in sales-focused industries. The candidate effectively shows how they keep cool and what positive outcomes come from their behavior.
“When I worked in SAAS sales, I found one particular client challenging to work with. This client was always haggling, asking for additional services, and contacting client support for unrealistic demands. However, they happened to be one of our biggest clients!
We couldn’t afford to lose them, so I chose to take a diplomatic approach when interacting with them. I addressed every concern with a smile, keeping them happy while controlling my emotions.
That client stayed with our company for years. They were still a client when I left. I spent roughly three years serving them. While I found them difficult to get along with, we had a mutual respect that translated to years of satisfied service.”
Our final example is a great inspiration for those interviewing for entry-level positions. The candidate reflects on an experience they had during school. It’s a mature response that shows empathy and the willingness to grow.
“I participated in a capstone project during my final year of college. It gave me and a handful of other students special access to extensive academic resources, including the school’s historical archives.
One of my colleagues was particularly negative about my approach. When asked why, she avoided the question and gave me the cold shoulder.
I decided several days later to invite her to coffee to discuss concerns. I found out that she was planning to use the same resources for her project that I wanted to use. She was worried that a lack of availability would cause issues for her as she completed her work independently.
After realizing that, I took the initiative to create a schedule that benefited both of us. We worked together to ensure equitable access to the relevant archives. Our work naturally overlapped, and we developed a great bond by the end of the program.”
“Tell us about a time you found it difficult to work with someone” doesn’t have to trip you up. In fact, this question is a fantastic opportunity to make a great impression and improve your chance of getting the job!
If you follow our recommendations and spend some time preparing your answer, you’ll be more than ready when it gets asked during your interview.
Hannah Morgan speaks and writes about job search and career strategies. She founded CareerSherpa.net to educate professionals on how to maneuver through today’s job search process. Hannah was nominated as a LinkedIn Top Voice in Job Search and Careers and is a regular contributor to US News & World Report. She has been quoted by media outlets, including Forbes, USA Today, Money Magazine, Huffington Post, as well as many other publications. She is also author of The Infographic Resume and co-author of Social Networking for Business Success.