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Work involves other people. No matter how hard you try, avoiding workplace conflict is impossible. It's natural for conflict to happen in relationships, so it's essential to know how to manage it.
When employers ask, "How do you handle conflict?" in a job interview, they want you to share specific examples from your past where you've successfully handled a challenging workplace conflict.
Being a good co-worker relies on more than having the right qualifications and experience. You need to find common ground with stakeholders who have different opinions.
This article outlines why interviewers ask this question, how to answer it and provides example answers, tips, and mistakes to avoid.
Why interviewers ask, "How do you handle conflict?"
Interviewers ask, "How do you handle conflict?" to assess your conflict management skills and whether you can handle issues without hurting other people's feelings.
Your response to a conflict can increase or decrease the severity of the problem, so employers need to know you can provide an objective point-of-view and listen actively during a conflict.
Employers want to hear that you can separate the person from the problem and solve the conflict.
How to answer "How do you handle conflict?"
"How do you handle conflict?" is a behavioral interview question. Behavioral questions assess how you react to conflict situations and solve problems in the workplace.
When interviewers ask behavioral interview questions, they aren't looking for a "yes" or "no" answer. Instead, they want you to provide specific examples of your conflict resolution skills from a previous role or project.
The best way to ensure you answer well is to leverage the STAR method, a structured approach to answering behavioral interview questions.
STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result:
- Situation: Describe the conflict situation as it forms the basis for the rest of your answer.
- Task: Outline your goals or the problems you were solving.
- Action: Describe the steps you took to solve the problems or achieve your goals.
- Result: Explain the impact of your actions and how you contributed to the resolution of the conflict. If possible, quantify your impact.
Constructing a compelling answer using the STAR method involves four steps. Following the steps below will ensure that you provide an effective and memorable response that will help you stand out from other job seekers.
1. Describe the situation
The first step is to provide context about a situation when you successfully handled a conflict. It's also a good idea to include information about your role and responsibilities:
"In my former role, I was the Head of Engineering and responsible for a 9-person team who all reported to me. I was directly responsible for solving any employee conflict that came up. One situation that springs to mind is when two of my front-end engineers were arguing about whether we should use React or Vue on a new project."
2. Outline your tasks
It's time to highlight your role in the specific situation. If you can, try to weave in any skills or traits that are relevant to the position:
"As a manager, I prefer to empower my team and let them make technology choices. They're closer to the problem and can make a more informed choice. However, in this particular situation, both employees came to me and asked me to step in and mediate."
3. Explain the actions you took
Now it's time to describe your actions to address the conflict. Emphasize your conflict resolution skills and calm personality:
"I sat down with both parties separately to understand their needs. It turned out that the person wanting to use Vue was really excited about Vue 3 and wanted to learn how to use it in a production environment while the person advocating for React wanted to use it because the company had used before.
While the React advocate was right, we had used it before, the Vue advocate was really excited and I didn't want to discourage him as he was a key contributor and a great person. So I told him to spend two weeks spiking a potential use of Vue while the team continued to use React."
4. Share the results
The final step is to share the results of the actions you took, which should emphasize conflict management skills:
"He agreed and was happy with the compromise. After the two-week spike was over, the Vue advocate was happy to 'disagree and commit' but reiterated his desire to learn Vue. I told him that I was happy for him to spend half a day a week learning Vue on the job for internally-facing projects and offered to have the company pay for a Vue course if he could find one he wanted to do.
He was happy with this compromise, and we ended up using Vue for a lot of internal tooling, which gave him ample opportunity to use it on the job. Even though many people might see this as a waste of time, I think it was valuable as it helped me maintain employee morale and retain a key employee."
Example of the best answers to "How do you handle conflict?"
Sample answer #1: Conflict with colleagues
In my previous product manager role, I worked closely with our design and engineering teams. As a PM, I was directly responsible for ensuring new features and enhancements shipped on time and to do that I needed to ensure design and engineering were working well together.
The issue was that the design team felt like the engineering team didn't value their work, and therefore couldn't be bothered to implement their designs properly. At the same time, the engineering team felt as though the design team wasn't accounting for implementation difficulties.
I called a meeting between the two teams and we discussed the key issues. The crux of it came down to the fact that the engineering team didn't consult the designers if something was hard to implement and would instead implement their own design. The toher key issue was that the design team hadn't built relationships with their engineering counterparts so they didn't feel comfortable raising issues with them.
I suggested to the engineering team that htey contact the design team when something was too difficult to implement and ask them if there was an alternative solution. Nine out of ten times this solved the issue going forward.
For situations where this couldn't be resolved, it was up to me as the PM to be the tiebreaker and decide whether we'd forgo the proposed design or push back the release to get it in.
Why it works: Employers want to know if you can manage workplace conflict between colleagues, and this candidate has shown they can. They'll be sure to stand out because they emphasize how they can help others collaborate and professionally resolve problems.
Sample answer #2: Conflict with a customer
I've been working in customer success for my entire career, so I've had my fair share of disagreements with customers.
One example that comes to mind was a customer where I was the primary point of contact. The customer forgot about our scheduled meetings for three months in a row, so I reached out by email and told them I would be cancelling them for now and they could email me to reschedule a time when they were ready to start them again.
The customer emailed back and said that they weren't happy with that and that they shouldn't have to turn up to meetings if they were paying us. I listened to them, talked about how these meetings were free for them, and that I'd be happy to start them again if they wanted.
The customer apologized for their initial reaction and said that they would like to continue the meetings and would do their best to attend or let me know ahead of time if they weren't able to attend.
The result of this was that the customer attended the meetings going forward and became one of our biggest evangelists.
Why it works: The candidate highlighted a specific situation, handled the conflict, and the positive result. The best part of this answer is that they didn't need to badmouth the customer despite tensions.
Sample answer #3: Conflict with a manager or boss
In my previous role as a product designer, I had quite a few disagreements with my manager about the tradeoff between quality and speed.
I wanted to slow down our release cadence a bit, so we could improve the user experience of our platform to be more inline with best-in-class software. She felt like it was better to compete on having more features rather than fewer, more robust features.
She also pointed out that the feedback we'd received from customers and the organization was that the platform was easy-to-use when compared to competitors. I argued that while we were better than competitors there was still a long way to go when compared to modern software.
My manager thanked me for being honest and we ended up meeting in the middle by dedicating one day per week to improving the UX and UI of the platform. After three months of this work, we were winning far more deals and prospects and customers were telling us how much the platform had improved in such a short time.
Why it works: The best co-workers can argue their case respectfully and handle disagreements without taking things to heart. This candidate has shown how they can argue their case to their manager without damaging the relationship. It's also great to see that they were able to talk about the argument's impact.
Tips for answering "How do you handle conflict?"
- Learn to use the STAR method: Using the STAR method is the best way to ensure your answer is compelling, memorable, and concise.
- Practice your delivery: Having an answer prepared before your interview is half the battle, but it's equally important to practice it aloud. Ideally, ask a friend or family member to conduct a mock interview so you can get used to being in an interview setting.
- Highlight your empathy and soft skills: Interviewers want to hire candidates with empathy and strong soft skills. How you answer this question can help them understand if you can see things from another person's point of view and solve problems.
- Stay calm and show positive body language: Many interviewers will look at how you answer the question and how you look when answering. Help them see how good you are under pressure by sitting tall, smiling, and maintaining eye contact.
- Be succinct: Keep your answer between 60 and 90 seconds.
Mistakes to avoid when answering "How do you handle conflict?"
- Mentioning you don't handle conflict well: No one likes conflict at work, but disagreements between colleagues are inevitable. You need to show your prospective employer that you're well versed in conflict resolution.
- Saying you've never experienced conflict at work: Avoiding conflict at work is impossible, no matter how easy-going you are. If you say you never argue with anyone, you'll disqualify yourself as a candidate.
- Providing a vague answer: The interviewer doesn't want to hear a generic line like "I keep people calm." They want to listen to a specific situation when you used your conflict resolution skills to deescalate a situation.
- Focusing on the conflict and not the resolution: Make sure you explain the conflict situation, then spend most of your time explaining how you resolved the issue.
- Lying: It's easy to get caught up in the moment and tell a fake story to impress the interviewer, but don't do it. Your answer must be genuine, as the interviewer will likely ask a follow-up question.
- Dodging the question: Don't try to change the subject. The hiring manager wants to hear about how you handle difficult situations. That's why it's crucial to have an actual example from your past ready to share.
- Getting confrontational: It's natural to feel tense when talking about a disagreement, especially if you think the interviewer is judging you or asking tough follow-up questions. Take a deep breath, remember that the hiring manager is just doing their job, and answer their questions. Don't let your feelings get in the way of a job offer.
How to manage conflict in the workplace
Employers prioritize candidates with emotional intelligence, strong soft skills, and conflict resolution abilities. Try to cultivate the following habits to manage conflict in the workplace:
- Develop relationships with your colleagues: You need to develop radical candor. You need to care personally and challenge directly. As Kim Scott says, "When you challenge without caring it's obnoxious aggression; when you care without challenging it's ruinous empathy. When you do neither it's manipulative insincerity."
- Communicate: Lack of communication causes most issues in the workplace. If someone is bothering you, tell them. Don't let it fester and create resentment.
- Actively listen: There's a difference between hearing someone talk and actively listening to them. Try to repeat back what you're hearing and then ask your colleague, "Am I getting that right?" If you do this, your co-workers will notice that you're actively listening and be more receptive to your input.
- Be objective and logical: It's easy to get caught up in the moment and become emotional, but try to focus on the situation at hand and avoid blaming people. Use facts, logic, and data to decide rather than your emotions.
- Identify recurring conflict situations: If the same problems occur repeatedly, try to find the crux of the issue and solve it.
- Focus on behaviors and actions, not personalities: An excellent way to do this is to change your language from "When you do ..." to "When this happens ..." This adds a bit of separation and reduces the risk of employee conflict.
- Disagree and commit: Everyone is allowed to disagree while a decision is being made, but once a decision has been made, everyone must commit.
- Be calm: Your response to a conflict can increase or decrease its severity. Always aim to be fair, objective, and neutral.
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