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How to Answer "Tell Me About a Difficult Person You've Worked With" During an Interview

by Neil Kokemuller

In an interview for a position that requires regular interpersonal communication with co-workers or customers, a hiring manager might ask you to describe a relationship with someone difficult to work with. Most people with significant work experience have had the experience of working with a difficult or challenging co-worker. Understanding the interviewer's motives and planning a response in advance can help you delivering a good answer.

Premise

According to The Resume Center, a hiring manager uses this interview question to gauge your approach to dealing with challenging people. In particular, people generally take one of three paths. You can clash or experience regular conflict, apply strategies to effectively work with them or avoid them altogether. Since regular conflict and avoidance don't work well in routine interactions with co-workers or customers, the hiring manager typically wants to see that you have a way to work well with others.

What Not to Say

Before preparing what to say in response to this question, it helps to understand the things you definitely want to avoid saying. For instance, you shouldn't say "I've never had to deal with a difficult person," or "All people are great underneath." You may have an especially positive attitude that helps in dealing with people, but you should emphasize this point instead of sounding disingenuous. The hiring manager would more likely view these responses as symptomatic of an avoidance technique. Additionally, "I simply avoid dealing with difficult people as much as I can" or "I just assert my opinion aggressively," both sound like conflict-generating attitudes.

Emphasize Strategies

In your response, you want to show one or more clear strategies you use. Doing so reveals a strength in this area as opposed to a "what happens happens" mentality. You might start with "In general, appreciating differences and valuing alternative perspectives helps you avoid getting personal in conflicts. I've often found that I can build mutual respect with people others have found difficult to work with simply by engaging them personally and listening." This answer definitely shows a sincere desire to get along with co-workers, colleagues and customers rather than fight them or avoid them.

Provide Examples

You also want to provide one or more concrete examples of dealing with difficult people that relates to your potential job. When applying for a retail management position you might say, "In my retail experience, part of my job is routinely dealing with upset customers. Some of their concerns are valid. Other times, customers are simply difficult to please. Regardless, I take an active listening approach to sincerely understand where a given customer is coming from. I then convey a solution to match."

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