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When an interviewer asks you to talk about dealing with difficult people, it’s not a trick question or an invitation to vent about your awful former co-workers. Employers ask this question to learn more about how you manage conflict with co-workers, and to get a sense of your personality and how well you handle challenges. They want to know that you are adaptable, easy to get along with and willing to solve problems in a professional manner. Your answer should focus less on what another person did wrong, and more on what you did to make the situation better.
Focus on Common Issues
Although you might be tempted to answer a question about difficult people by stating that you rarely or never get annoyed by others, the interviewer isn’t likely to believe you. Everyone gets annoyed or frustrated at times. With that in mind, the best answer to a question about a difficult person focuses on a legitimate issue that others are likely to share, such as someone else taking credit for your work or a co-worker missing deadlines. Providing such an example shows that you take your work seriously and that your frustrations stem from behaviors that affect team dynamics, productivity or the success of a project – not petty annoyances that can make you appear high-maintenance or hard to work with.
Explain Your Solution
When answering a "difficult-people" question, begin by briefly explaining the problem. For example, you might say, “I once had a colleague who consistently missed deadlines, which caused delays to other tasks being completed. This was frustrating because it was unfair to the other team members who made their deadlines, and put the entire project in jeopardy of being late.” Then focus on your solution. Employers want to know that you are able to address challenges in a healthy, productive manner. You might say something like, “I spoke with my co-worker about the missed deadlines and expressed my concerns, and helped her brainstorm some ways to get the work done as quickly as possible.” Again, highlight that you communicated the issue to the person and sought a resolution to the problem.
Show Willingness to Get Along
There may be times when the only example of a difficult person you can supply involves one in which the problem wasn’t solved with a simple discussion. Perhaps you had a co-worker or leader who was regularly rude or abusive, or who consistently made your job more difficult despite your attempts to solve the issue. Again, your best answer is one that briefly summarizes the issue and then focuses on how you communicated with the other person and tried to solve the problem, even if that meant talking with a leader or leaving your job. Emphasize that you prefer to handle problems quickly and honestly, rather than let them fester, and that you work hard to find common ground and get along with others.
A question about difficult people may seem like an opportunity to go on a rant about how awful your former co-workers were, but resist that temptation. Not only does badmouthing others make you look bad and harm your professional reputation, but you’re also sending a red flag to the interviewer that you may someday say bad things about her or your colleagues at the company. You may also create the perception that you are a complainer, and easily irritated by everyone and everything – and no one wants to work with someone like that. Always focus more on the positive than the negative, and on your actions and how you behaved professionally.
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An adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, Kristen Hamlin is also a freelance writer and editor, specializing in careers, business, education, and lifestyle topics. The author of Graduate! Everything You Need to Succeed After College (Capital Books), which covers everything from career and financial advice to furnishing your first apartment, her work has also appeared in Young Money, Lewiston Auburn Magazine, USA Today, and a variety of online outlets. She's also been quoted as a career expert in many newspapers and magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Parade. She has a B.A. in Communication from Stonehill College, and a Master of Liberal Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Denver.