How To Treat The Conflict Question


It’s almost inevitable that during the course of a job interview you will be asked some version of a question that asks you to share how you deal with conflict. This might take the form of a problem with a customer, a co-worker or Management, maybe even all three!

Here’s the good news: if you look at the job postings you are applying to, it’s likely you can predict the questions in advance of the interview, as they are most certainly going to ask you to highlight your experience with whatever requirements the job entails.

Like all interview questions, first assess the purpose behind the question asked. If you can determine this, you can frame your answer in relation to the job you are applying for with confidence. As I say, read the job posting. If problem-solving, conflict resolution, responding to customer concerns and teamwork are on the posting, be confident some version of the conflict question will arise. Frame the problem as a challenge.

The worst thing you could possibly say is that you’ve never had any conflict with anyone. Don’t misinterpret conflict to mean a yelling or shoving match. You can have conflict with someone in many ways. You might have a conflict over how to proceed with a project; as in two divergent opinions on how to start. You could share a desk and have a conflict because you’re neat and orderly and the other person works differently or eats at their desk leaving you to clean it up before you get to work. You could also have a customer who is annoyed with a product or service they have received from the organization or company, and you’re the one they are dealing with.

The purpose of the question isn’t really about if you’ve had conflict in your past – they take this as a given because we all have conflict in our jobs to some degree. No the question is really about how you respond to conflict; the steps you take to resolve it when it does come up.

There are some key things the interviewer is listening for. They want to hear you give a specific example from your past and then walk them through the steps you took to arrive at some resolution. The STAR interview format is excellent as a way to frame your answer here, helping you know when you’ve said enough without saying too much. So tell the interviewer the situation you were in, what the problem was, the action you took to resolve it and finish with the positive outcome. STAR = Situation, Task, Action, Result.

Your example should be how you handled a situation, not how you would handle a situation. The one is proof from your past, the other is hypothetical; you’re likely telling them what you think they want to hear whether you would act that way in truth or not. Be very specific in your answer; paint a picture so the interviewer can visualize you in that situation.

A key thing in your answer is to label your skills as you talk. Here’s an example:

An example of my conflict resolution skills comes from my time with Smith, Johnson and Cable. I was a Law Clerk there, and a client came to the office in a rage; he was angry that he wasn’t being seen by his lawyer immediately upon arrival, but he was 15 minutes late and the lawyer had taken a client ahead of him. I offered him a cup of tea and advised him that the lawyer was now aware he was present and would see him shortly. I engaged him in conversation about the news of the day, listening attentively so he had my focus, and observed him to ensure he calmed down. In so doing, I was able to de-escalate the situation, the waiting room returned to normal and other clients thanked me as he had made them feel very uncomfortable when he first arrived. When hired, I’ll use my listening skills, take initiative and diffuse similar situations of conflict should they arise.

Can you picture the person in that role, having the conflict thrust upon them even though they themselves didn’t initiate it? The situation could have easily got out of control but, the skills of listening and engaging the person fully, distracting them while they waited brought the situation to a successful conclusion. If the role you were applying to had similar responsibilities, the steps taken might be just what the interviewer is looking for. Note too how the final sentence uses the word, “When” instead of, “If”. Proactive, confident language in action.

What you are really attempting to do in response to this question is show the interview by way of your example if you can take responsibility for a situation involving conflict and deal with it effectively. At some point you might even mention notifying a co-worker, or advising a Supervisor if that process is the appropriate procedure where you were working.

Anticipating the questions to be asked, preparing a few examples ahead of time and ensuring the skills you highlight in your answer match those skills most desired by the employer will increase your odds of a solid positive answer. This increases your comfort level and your confidence in the interview, while lowering your stress.

All the best.

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