This post is part of my IQ How-to series, where we cover how to answer certain interview questions that come up a lot… even the ones that shouldn’t.
How to answer the interview question, “Tell me about a conflict.”
Good interviewers are a treat for any job-seeker, but not everyone feels comfortable on the other side of the table – or the screen. You can help your interviewer learn what they need to know about you, by preparing for some of the more difficult questions you might hear. Those are the ones you might prefer not to answer at all… but how you do so can make all the difference.
If someone asks you, “Tell me about a time you disagreed with someone,” or, “Tell me about a conflict you experienced,” you have a few options.
Well, let’s start with this one. (“Huh?”) I came here today, prepared with relevant questions about the job, the company, and how we can define success together, to find out if we share a common vision. You’ve just asked me an antiquated behavioral question, presumably because you’re not as adept as I am at discerning character from normal interactions.
Why don’t we step back a moment, reboot this into a real conversation, and talk honestly about what you need and how I (or anyone) can help you find it? That’ll take away some of the formality and replace it with a practical human exchange. I’m in for that. Are you?
Obviously that won’t get you very far, unless your interviewer has a terrific sense of humor and is just out of their depth. Let’s look at a different approach.
Disagreed with whom? A supervisor? A colleague? A customer?
- If they answer this during a live interview, just explain that one. If you’re filling in answers online or in a video intro, you can touch on all three of these scenarios if you have the time and space to do so. Each dynamic is different, and you can remind them of that fact, too.
- A customer? Sure. The first thing I always do when faced with an unhappy or a demanding customer is LISTEN. Then, once they’re done venting about whatever is causing them grief at the moment, I start asking questions.
- Is there a problem we can help you solve? Let’s discuss that. I’m good at getting to the root of such issues and not taking stress personally. Or:
- Did we let you down? Is there still time to fix it? Can we rush an order out to you (at our expense, if you requested everything correctly and we just failed)? Can we offer you a discount to help make up for the trouble we unintentionally caused you? If it’s too late to fix it, can we do better next time? If all else fails, I can listen to someone vent about their frustration, again without taking it personally. Sometimes that’s what people need the most, to move past their anger and start working together again.
- A colleague? I don’t disagree with my colleagues very often. Unless maybe, they’re trying to delegate something to me that would best be handled by someone else, or something they should already know how to do.
- The first is an easy fix: we steer it to the right person immediately and move along.
- The second is a golden opportunity, though. When that’s the case, I always prefer to cross-train a teammate once, rather than just doing things for them time and again. Plus, if they needed my help with something anyway, then my time is better spent investing in them while we do it right together, rather than putting off my own priorities without helping them grow professionally.
- A supervisor? As a/an <insert the job title you’re applying for>, it’s my job to do whatever my supervisor needs, as long as it’s legal and ethical. That won’t be a problem here, right? <calmly questioning stare>
Okay, that last one might have just a bit of attitude, but “managing up” is another conversation entirely, so if you can defuse this part swiftly and directly, and move on to a more constructive question, then you’ve answered what they asked AND shown off your diplomacy under pressure. Plus, never be afraid to go a little “off-script” in an interview if you get stuck, because if your true personality shows through and they don’t like what they see, you’ll never be happy working there anyway.
This approach makes up a multi-faceted answer of the type your interviewer is probably looking for, and they’re listed here because these are best practices. Everyone disagrees sometimes. But as Epictetus famously said nearly two thousand years ago, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
Tough questions in an interview give you the chance to shine. While the best answers are honest ones, reading up on some examples can help you start thinking about the best ways to answer them to impress. And that will make every interview more productive, for all of you.