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September 14, 2018

How to Answer Interview Questions about Conflicts

Some of the most common interview questions are about conflict management. For example:

  • “How do you deal with conflict?”
  • “Tell me about a time when you had an issue with a co-worker.”
  • “Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your boss.”
  • “How do you deal with conflicts when working on a team?”

There are two reasons why conflict questions like these are so common.

  1. Because they test for crucial skills employers seek.
  2. Because they can reveal negative attitudes or difficulty in getting along with others.

Let’s look at each of these two reasons to see what it tells us about handling these questions effectively.

Demonstrate Skill.

The interviewer may be trying to get a sense of your emotional intelligence and your ability to work through issues constructively.

Many of us have demonstrated good conflict management on the job, but we aren’t necessarily good at explaining how we did it. That may be because we handled it intuitively, without consciously thinking about it.

Try this: Read up on how to resolve conflicts. Then think of a time when you handled things in the recommended way. Just don’t pretend you’ve done so if you haven’t! It won’t sound sincere and you’ll have a hard time answering follow-up questions if the interviewer decides to dig deeper.

Practice telling the story by describing the Problem, the Actions you took and the Results. The results are the best part, so don’t be vague there. Good results might include:

  • The issue was resolved. (What did this look like?)
  • You understood each other better than before. (In what ways?)
  • The tension was eased. (Describe what you saw or heard that indicates that.)
  • The team became more productive. (Quantify that if possible.)
  • Others thanked you or complimented your handling of the situation. (Quote them, if what they said makes a good sound bite.)

Avoid Red Flags.

To show a positive attitude, observe these Do’s and Don’ts in your answer:

Don’t linger in the Problem part of the story – even if the interviewer offers a very sympathetic ear. Do move on quickly to your constructive Actions and the positive Results.

Don’t damage anyone’s reputation. Do be discreet. If your story reflects poorly on another person, be sure to protect their anonymity, which may take more care than just not mentioning their name.

Don’t use judgmental, absolute language like “The employee was always slacking.” Do be factual and specific instead: “He was behind on his deadlines more often than anyone else on the team.”

Don’t ridicule. Do be respectful, even though that person is not in the room and has not been identified.

Don’t say things like “We had issues all the time,” or “I had a terrible time with this person.” The first statement could reflect poorly on your company; the second, on yourself. Do consider talking about a specific case rather than global dysfunction.

Don’t radiate irritation, resentment or other negative emotions in your body language, tone of voice or choice of words. Do tell the story in a calm and pleasant tone. If you’re still upset about what happened, pick a different example that won’t get you riled up.

Answer the Right Question.

Demonstrate good communication skills by paying attention to the wording of the question and answering accordingly.

  • “How do you deal with conflict?” asks you to explain your general approach. Adding an example/story is optional but probably a good idea.
  • “Tell me about a time when you had an issue with a co-worker” is a behavioral interview question, meaning it requires a story. Generalities won’t cut it here.
  • “Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your manager” doesn’t necessarily ask for an example of an emotionally charged conflict, so why go there? Your story could simply be about differing viewpoints.
  • “How do you deal with conflicts when working on a team?” doesn’t necessarily mean a conflict between you and a teammate. A story about mediating between two other team members might be even better.

Plan your answers with these tips in mind, and an interview question about conflict can become a great opportunity to show you’re the kind of team member they’re looking for.

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