Addressing and Dealing with Conflict Interview Question
How do you deal with conflict?
During our interview preparation/coaching conversations, candidates regularly ask for advice on how to respond to this question during an interview. It is one of the top questions that stumps many interviewees, yet providing a strong answer really communicates to the Interviewer/Hiring Manager key traits such as interpersonal skills, team orientation, problem-solving, conflict management abilities, and other positive traits. Most managers are looking for candidates to not only be a strong technical fit, but also a strong culture fit, and interpersonal and conflict resolution skills are key traits associated with the “team players” Managers want that are reflected in that “culture fit” bucket. That is why thinking through this question and how to answer it, and then practicing your response, should be a priority item on your ‘Interview Prep To-Do List.’
Before diving into example appropriate answers to this question, it is good to highlight some key conflict resolution strategies to keep in your back pocket:
- Always assume positive intent. In a management meeting, one of our peers at Apex always preaches this insight! Remember, it is rarely someone’s intent to create conflict, so keep that thought in mind when you find yourself in a scenario or in communication with someone that becomes frustrating and difficult. Take a step back, and tell yourself internally “it was likely not their intent to have said it that way/done something that created a negative consequence for myself or someone else, etc.”
- Listen to understand. Many times, conflict results when people do not feel heard. It is natural for people to get frustrated when they feel no one is listening to them. If you feel that could be a potential contributor to a conflict, seek out time with the other individual and ask open-ended questions to try to get to the root cause of the issue, and then just let them talk.
- Seek to understand and recognize that people/roles have conflicting priorities. It is hard not to get frustrated when someone owes you something and it is taking longer than expected. Alternatively, when you hear an idea/possible solution that does not makes sense, would not actually solve the problem, or is so far-fetched that it is evident they are unclear on what the problem actually is. When I think about some of the frustrating “people moments” I have had throughout my career, a lot of it boiled down to the realization that I did not recognize that their purpose and priorities differed dramatically from my own. Recognize that key objective/s to you might not be the same for them. As you develop new professional relationships, take the time to understand the roles, priorities and challenges of the main individuals you work with, and then share your own, on the front end. Then, if conflict results, potentially due to conflicting priorities, it will be easier to have a “meeting of the minds” to get on the same page and effectively work towards a resolution.
- Differentiate between relationship/personal conflict and task conflict and have the mindset that task conflict is healthy and productive in generating the best ideas! In an ‘Introduction to Conflict Management’ course, you will probably learn about the differences between Task conflict and Personal/Relationship conflict. Here’s an easy read that breaks down the differences if you’re not familiar – Task Vs. Relationship Conflict. As you come face to face with conflict, determine whether it is task conflict or personal conflict, and then you will be able to better strategize how to handle.
- Do not fall prey to personal conflicts. As a follow up to suggestion three, if it is a personal conflict, you need to remember that as a professional you should remain professional in these circumstances! There will usually be that one person you just do not like or get along with, for whatever reason. Regardless, take the high ground and do not allow yourself to make comments, or other contributions, that will negatively influence the “vibe” or culture.
- Abide by the 24-hour rule. We have all heard the saying “never go to sleep angry.” Apply this to the professional setting by taking a step back and not responding with anger. Instead, give yourself a day to cool off before re-addressing the conflict/problem. If you are not able to wait a day, take another measure to calm yourself down, such as holding your hands high above your head and taking deep breaths for 20-30 seconds.
- Get real with “straight talk.” There are a lot of good reads around “Crucial Conversations” and “Straight Talk,” which tell you to approach issues and constructive feedback in real-time and head on. It will only worsen the problem and your relationship with the person, to beat around the bush and not address the conflict. Letting it fester may also have a negative impact on the team dynamic and culture. Most people avoid conflict, but as a professional, recognize that embracing conflict is necessary sometimes.
- Recognize fault and take ownership. When conflict arises, assess your own behavior, actions, communication, etc. and try to honestly self-assess and determine “did I contribute to this conflict? How? What could I have done differently?” Once you have done this reflection, strategize your approach to the other individual, and take ownership and provide an apology.
- Consult. As with the majority of challenges or tougher scenarios you deal with, take a consultative approach before proceeding. Remove as much personal bias, and the name of the other individual if appropriate, and then summarize the conflict/scenario and ask your Manager or another individual at a your level or higher for their thoughts/recommendations.
- Follow up. A few days after you have address the conflict, hopefully though in-person communication, follow up with the individual. Show that they matter to you by taking this extra personal outreach attempt!
Now that we have highlighted some of our personal approaches and recommendations around conflict resolution (you can find more tips via this Business Journal article on ‘8 Important Tips for Conflict Resolution’), let us revisit how to address that common interview question.
Here are some possible approaches for handling the question “How do you handle conflict?” that may present itself during an interview:
- “My goal is to try to minimize any occurrences of personal conflicts from happening and impacting the workplace in the first place.”
- “Conflict can arise when people feel ignored or disrespected. With that in mind, many conflicts can be avoided or quickly dissolved simply by sitting someone down and letting them talk while you listen intently.”
- “I try to always recognize the difference between task conflict and personal conflict. If personal conflict results with a member of the team or other employer/client, I would address it as tactfully and emotion free as possible, focusing on the end goal of our shared vision and objectives.”
- “There are a few things I always try to keep in mind whenever conflicts rears its ugly head. First, always remember that people’s intent isn’t meant to be negative and abiding by the “always assume positive intent” rule of thumb. Second, when possible, I try not to respond or react with frustration in the heat of the moment, and wait a day to calm down, regain a new perspective, and figure out how to productively address the conflict.”
- “Conflict, while never ideal, does present itself. When it does, it’s always helpful to take a step back, take a long breath, and put yourself in their shoes. Remember that each of our roles is different, and because of that, we may have different priorities and challenges. I never assume to know where someone is coming from, so once I regain my composure, one of my next steps is to understand where they are at, including priorities, challenges, stressors, etc., and that helps me look at the conflict in a new light.”
- “I never want to contribute to any workplace or culture negativity, which is a side effect of a personality conflict. So, I try to avoid any behaviors or communication that might cause personal conflict at all costs. If there is a major clash that should be addressed, however, I’d involve my Manager and fill them in, and also seek their guidance prior to addressing the conflict.”
First, have the mindset that “task conflict” (i.e. disagreement on ideas, priorities, etc.) will be beneficial in generating better ideas and a more fruitful conversation. Also, aim to minimize personal conflict at all costs, which is detrimental to the team/culture, pending work, and your overall “professional brand.
Then, keep these thoughts in mind when determining how to best answer “how do you handle conflict?” in an interview:
- Ask yourself honestly, when conflict arises, what do I do? How do I typically handle those situations?
- Jot down some of your personal practices/protocols.
- Then, based on your own style in how you address and handle conflict, take bits and pieces from the different responses above paired with any other best practices you identify that you practice to construct your own personalized response.
- Validate that your response aligns with your own conflict management practices.
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