The ‘Conflict Resolution’ Interview Question

One question that comes up quite often in interviews has to do with the issue of conflict. More accurately it’s not so much about conflict but rather conflict resolution. Like any question asked of you in an interview, the key is to figure out what’s behind the question and how to direct your answer to the needs of the interviewer who is assessing you and determining your fit with the organization in the position.

So if the interviewer said, “Give me an example of a time you experienced conflict on the job and walk me through the steps you took to resolve the situation”, how would you reply?

I’ve worked with many people over the years and that means I’ve heard a wide variety of responses; some great, some good and some mediocre at best all the way to just plain poor. I’d have to say the worst thing an applicant could do with this question is declare that they’ve never experienced conflict on the job and leave the answer there. No conflict on the job? None at all? No interviewer is going to buy that. Furthermore, even if it were true, you’d be expecting to be rated highly by the interviewer against other applicants by essentially skipping the question with an answer like that. This is just not a good strategy.

THE key place to start when you break down the question is to determine what conflict is. For some, conflict means an outright physical fight. Seeing as 1) physical fights don’t typically break out in the workplace and 2) to share that you have been involved in one with a co-worker, management or a customer would be suicidal, so viewing conflict as a physical altercation might not be the best approach.

Conflict if not a physical confrontation then, has to occur in some other way. It could be where the customer wants one thing and the policy of a store is something different; as in a full refund demanded but an item was purchased as a final sale. Conflict could also be where two employees have very different working styles and frequently work in shared environments. Perhaps receiving conflicting directives from two different Managers leads an employee to experience stress and there is no immediately clear way to satisfy both their expectations. Any of these represent conflict in the workplace.

If you re-read the question above posed by the interviewer, you can break it down into 4 pieces, all of which need to be addressed in your answer.

  1. A specific example of conflict
  2. The example has to be job-related
  3. Steps taken must be illustrated
  4. The example used must be resolved

By breaking down the question into these 4 components, you can better answer the question, and as you mentally check off each item as you address it, your own self-confidence rises. These beats ‘winging it’; where you ramble along and hope that somewhere in your answer you give the interviewer what they are looking for. The problem with this kind of answer is that not only does it seldom answer the question fully; you as the applicant are left wondering if you’ve said enough or too much.

Now before you get to the interview, you should include as part of your preparation a review of the job requirements. If the job posting specifically mentions conflict resolution, being able to prioritize tasks, resolve situations, problem solve etc., you’d be smart to have several examples prepared ahead of time that demonstrate your conflict resolution skills. Keep in mind that the interview is listening for HOW you went about resolving the situation and assessing your answer compared to how they want people to resolve conflict in their workplace. So how you solved problems and dealt with conflict elsewhere is likely how you’ll approach problems and conflict working with them if hired.

Everyone experiences conflict. You should never attempt to sell an interviewer the line that you’ve never experienced conflict of any kind in the workplace. You may unintentionally come across as dishonest, hiding something, not really knowing yourself, or perhaps how you’ve dealt with conflict resulted badly. None of these are what you want to leave the interviewer thinking.

What you do want to leave the interview with is the impression that you deal with conflict proactively and responsibly; resolving conflict before it escalates and does irreparable harm to the organization. Conflict never resolves itself, and if the job you are applying for is one working with other people, then it’s your interpersonal skills that are going to play a big part of your answer. How did you approach that customer or co-worker? Did you listen as well as talk to gain their perspective? Did you exercise patience, empathy and consider your options? Did you actually think of alternatives and resolutions or just quote a policy and keep repeating it over and over, further annoying the client to the point where they are now sharing their terrible experience with not just you but the company as a whole?

Conflict resolution is a skill just like any other. While some take conflict with a customer over a policy very personally, others see the conflict for what it is – a problem with a policy. They don’t ‘own’ the conflict even though they are the person on the receiving end as the company representative.

So, can you come up with an example of conflict resolution?



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