how to answer tricky interview questions about handling conflict

'How do you deal with conflict?' Tricky graduate interview question

Here's how to answer questions about handling conflict and tension, and convince your interviewer you could resolve differences constructively.

This type of question is difficult precisely because dealing with conflict is tricky. You don’t want to come across as someone who will avoid conflict at work at all costs; nor would you want to be the person who instigates it. Navigating the sensible middle ground when dealing with workplace conflict takes experience, and you might not have much of that, but you can still explain the approach you would take. What you need to do is to demonstrate a grasp of some common sense principles for reducing the risk of conflict, handling it when it happens, and then taking steps to ensure it doesn’t break out again.

Why do recruiters want to know about your approach to conflict? There are three tricky Ps in the workplace: People, Problems and Power. That mix (along with competing ideas and strategies) means that conflict at work happens from time to time. It’s all very well you being a great team worker – but isn’t it interesting for the employer to know how you react when grievances arise?

How not to reply to the interview question ‘How do you deal with conflict?’

‘I’ve never encountered conflict, but I guess I would handle it constructively.’

Why is this answer unlikely to get you the graduate job you want?

There isn’t a person alive who has never encountered conflict so, at worst, this answer comes across as being dishonest, or, more likely, as from the mouth of someone who buries their head in sand and pretends conflict never happens, and ignores it when it does. 

Sometimes letting problems blow away is a sound policy; but it can also be the worst thing you can do, as unresolved issues often return in worse forms. Also, in the answer above, ‘I guess I would handle it constructively’ sounds as if you’re trying hard to say the right thing but are not too sure about it.

What is the graduate recruiter really asking?

There’s a whole range of other questions wrapped up in ‘How do you deal with conflict?’:

  • ‘How constructively will you handle suggestions or evaluations from bosses and colleagues with whom you disagree? Do you take offence easily?'
  • ‘Do you see competition as part of a learning process or a personal threat?’
  • ‘How would you deal with an angry client? Would you retain a professional distance when co-workers quarrel – or would you take sides?’
  • ‘What would you if a colleague was deliberately undermining the success of a project? Or if your leader lacked the courage to make unpopular but necessary decisions?’
  • ‘Can you tolerate unavoidable conflict? Do you see conflict as good, always bad or neither?’
  • ‘Would you pretend that conflict doesn’t exist rather than attempt to address the underlying issues?’
  • ‘Would you perpetuate the conflict rather than address the underlying issues?’

It’s a long list of potential questions: people are complex, and conflict can arise from many sources. The recruiter won’t expect you to supply answers to all of those questions but will want to picture and gauge your likely response to the scenarios they represent.

So how should you tackle the question ‘How do you deal with conflict’?

Demonstrate you have the skill to anticipate conflict and nip it in the bud by taking steps to deal with issues before tempers are lost.

You might say something like, ‘In my experience, where there is conflict it really helps to try and see things through the other person's eyes and to ask them open-minded questions to discover why they feel about things. Once you see the facts from the other’s perspective it’s easier to discuss how to reconcile different positions and make the situation less personal. For example, when I’ve seen people argue about how to spend money, both sides really believe their priorities are correct but they often don’t articulate clearly why they have those priorities. Ask the right questions and you might get to a situation in which people agree more easily to share what funds are available.’

You could also say, ‘Once conflict has passed you need to put in place measures to ensure it doesn’t recur. I noticed this was how things were handled when I worked part-time at store I worked for. The late shift felt that the early shift was not handing work over properly, and the early shift felt the same thing about the late shift. Once the disagreements were out in the open, I could really see how it helped when the store improved the detail on the handover sheets and continued having better meetings.’ You don’t have to pretend to be an expert on defusing tension – just show you know the principles of doing so.