Conflicts arise in every workplace, just as they do elsewhere. They’re stressful at the time, great anecdote material for the pub, and horrible to talk about at an interview. However, being asked to talk about how you handle disagreements at work is a common occurrence during interviews.
Talking about such a tricky subject when you’re trying to secure a job offer isn’t fun, but if you prepare carefully in advance, it’s a question you can really impress your interviewer by answering well. Here are our tips on how to give a great answer, and to avoid some traps that are easy to fall into.
First and foremost, the interviewer will genuinely be trying to get some insight into your interpersonal skills and how you deal with conflict in the workplace. Candidates who can’t produce any examples might come across as a walkover or lacking situational awareness, while claiming to ‘love conflict’ can also be a warning. Your interviewer is likely to be someone you’ll be working closely alongside; they want to know what that will be like.
However, they are also testing your willingness to talk about a situation that didn’t go smoothly for you. It’s not an attempt to trip you up by asking you something negative; everyone encounters conflicts at work, and they won’t expect you to have a perfect, confrontation-free history. This question assesses whether you accept that, and are willing to learn from past mistakes.
If you refuse to discuss the issue, you might look like you’re trying to hide something, or come across as hostile. You don’t have to pretend you enjoy answering the question, but focus on giving a sincere answer.
The interviewer might ask you about your general approach to conflict, or ask you to describe a particular situation, but in either case having specific examples up your sleeves will be helpful. This is particularly true given that it’s a sensitive issue; being unprepared could leave you feeling wrong-footed or cause you to approach your answer the wrong way.
So put your thinking cap on and try to come up with two or three examples of situations where you’ve been involved in or managed a conflict at work. Focus on examples that you can summarise quickly, and which came to a successful conclusion. It’s also best to choose a situation that you had an active part in resolving, rather than one that was immediately escalated to your boss to fix.
Finally, steer clear of lying. If you make something up, it’s likely that you’ll get caught out by your interviewer. They might well ask you follow up questions to try and delve more deeply into your story, and you’ll speak more clearly and more convincingly if you’re drawing on a real example.
The goal when answering this question is to come across as calm and professional, but also to sound genuine. Therefore, it’s best not to talk about something unless you have some distance from it.
Say you pick an example about a time when you got into an argument with your boss, and you’re still angry about how things turned out. If your frustration or annoyance shines through – particularly if you insult your boss – then you could really put off your interviewer.
On the other hand, you don’t want to sound like you swallowed a textbook about proper workplace behaviour. There are a lot of buzzwords you’ll be tempted to throw into your answer, like rational, objective, calm, de-escalate, diffuse, and mutually-agreeable solution.
None of these are bad. But if you spout a clearly pre-prepared answer peppered with these words, you’ll sound robotic. Interviewers want to get a sense of your character, so while it’s best to prepare, don’t feel you have to memorise a perfect answer word for word.
When answering any competency question, especially if you’re unused to interviews, is to use the STAR approach. This refers to the Situation you’re talking about, the Task you faced, the Action you took, and the Results these actions had. While it’s really important to set out the situation and task clearly and concisely to give the interviewer context for your example, the majority of your answer should focus on your actions and the result.
Start by laying out the bones of the conflict: the people involved, the goal you were working towards, and how the problem arose. Then move swiftly on to how you got to the root of the problem and what you to did to resolve it.
You could also add in a brief comment on what you learnt from the situation, and how you’ll use that knowledge in the future, either by preventing a disagreement from escalating into a serious problem, or by approaching a conflict in a different way.
Claire Kilroy is a content writer for the UK’s leading graduate recruitment agency, Inspiring Interns. Check out their website for listing of internships and graduate jobs London, or head to their blog for more graduate careers advice.
Back to Candidate blogs