Your interview is going along nicely when the hiring manager asks, "How do you handle conflict?"
This can be a tricky one to answer, but it's important to have a response — this is a behavioral interview question that employers often use to assess candidates.
"Just about every job nowadays involves collaborating with colleagues to stay the course day-to-day and to cross the finish line," says Roy Cohen, career counselor and author of "The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide." "It's likely that disagreements will arise when people work together — on projects and in sharing important information. If you don't know how to play nicely in the sandbox, you will alienate the people with whom you work and projects are likely to hit roadblocks."
Heather MacArthur, consultant with The Executive Advisory and author of "Low Man on the Totem Pole: Stop Begging for a Promotion, Start Selling Your Genius," agrees.
"Employers ask this because one of the most costly, [and] difficult, issues to solve is the drama and loss of productivity that comes from a person who can't work well with a wide range of styles, backgrounds and viewpoints," says MacArthur.
Ready to construct a solid response to the question, "How do you handle conflict?" Consider these suggestions:
Don't try to take the "easy" way out
Resist the temptation to claim you've never experienced work-related conflict. The interviewer will doubt your sincerity. Rather, embrace the opportunity to show your peace-making skills in action.
"Conflict is inevitable, and it is likely that you have dealt with it in the past — successfully and with a few failures, too," says Cohen. "When you offer up illustrations, you show that you've learned from your experiences and are well-equipped to manage conflict when it occurs. How you deal with conflict should demonstrate maturity, good judgement and a satisfactory resolution."
Select a real-case scenario
As you think about examples of conflict from your past, watch that your focus remains on self-awareness and growth. Avoid pointing fingers or throwing others under the bus. However, make it clear that you weren't the reason for the conflict and that you don't frequently stir the pot by inciting your colleagues.
Choose an example that demonstrates your interpersonal skills and problem-solving abilities. You'll leave a vivid picture in the interviewer's mind.
For example, Cohen offers the following response one of his client's used:
"I was asked to oversee a group project and one of the team members was always disagreeing with everyone else on the team from the outset — so often that we were delayed in getting the project off the ground on a timely basis. Rather than confront him publicly before the group and potentially alienate him further, I reached out to him to discuss his concerns. It turned out that he was taking medication for a medical matter, one that we did not discuss, and that he was actually unaware of the behavior; behavior which was, in fact, a side effect of the medication. He spoke to his doctor with this feedback, and his dosage was adjusted. That changed both his mood and approach to participation so much so that he became a valued member of the team."
Such a story speaks volumes about this employee: tackling a conflict rather than ignoring it, handling the matter privately and tactfully, and holding a discussion rather than accusing or lecturing. The interviewer sees her competency in action and can infer how she'd act in similar situations at a new company.
Present a thoughtful philosophy
In place of (or in addition to) an actual example, a candidate could answer in a way that demonstrates he's pondered the subject of conflict and has definite ideas.
MacArthur says a good response might be something like, "Most employees seek to 'fix' the other person as opposed to realizing the power is always in how they respond versus how the other person does. The goal should be to learn to be the thermostat."
Or, MacArthur notes an interviewee might try, "I think the biggest aspect to handling conflict well is embracing it as the best way to generate innovation. But to do that you have to take the ego out, be willing to have a true dialogue and avoid the fight aspects of conflict while embracing the debate aspects of it."
Things to avoid
Finally, never respond to the question, "How do you handle conflict?" with anything that resembles physical intimidation or verbal abuse. Don't for a second think you're being clever by saying something about settling disagreements the old-fashioned way in the office parking lot or letting a jerk know loud and clear who's in charge. Nobody wants to hire a bully or spark a lawsuit.
Before you get the opportunity to answer commonly asked interview questions, you need to make it to that stage. LiveCareer's Cover Letter Builder and Resume Builder can assist candidates with crafting documents that make hiring managers want to know you better.