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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

3 Ways You’re Messing Up the Answer to, “Tell Me About a Conflict You’ve Faced at Work”

When it comes to the conflicts you face at work, you’d probably be lying if you said that you don’t enjoy venting about them in your free time. I’ve done my fair share of complaining about issues with teammates that I just couldn’t handle for one more day. However, it’s no secret that discussing conflict resolution over drinks and sharing the details of an interpersonal challenge you faced during an interview require completely different approaches.

In one scenario, you might be trying to one-up a friend on who has the worst co-worker ever over drinks; in the other you’re attempting to show that you’re not only good at resolving conflicts professionally, but also that you’re open to learning from tough experiences.

The problem is that sometimes the fine line between these scenarios get confused. So, the next time you’re asked to describe how you resolved a conflict at work, avoid these common interview mistakes:

1. You Focus Too Much on the Conflict, and Not Enough on the Resolution

Hey, I get it. Sometimes work conflicts can get personal in a hurry. And because that’s the case all too often, some issues can be harder to get over than others. However, that’s not a good enough excuse to spend all your energy explaining the conflict during an interview—and omitting the details about how you did (or didn’t) resolve the issue with your colleague.

What to Do Instead

When I was a recruiter, candidates would sometimes be excited about answering this question because they were just ready to do some ranting and get me on their side. But even if the wound’s still fresh, don’t forget that the interviewer is looking for some amount of proof that you can resolve conflicts professionally. So, if you’re still feeling frustrated, go ahead and acknowledge it—but then quickly turn your focus to how you solved the problem with that colleague, and how you might approach the situation differently in the future. (And if you’re still that upset over it, best to choose another example.)

2. You Spend Too Long Trying to Dodge the Question

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is that even the best contenders for a job get too caught up in trying to be the “perfect” candidate. When it comes to conflicts with colleagues, they’d rather have you believe that they’ve never wanted to flip your lid and give that annoying guy across the hall a piece of their mind. And when an interviewer prods for a little honesty about the matter, they spend too much time trying to change the subject—which is a fast way to turn a hiring manager off.

What to Do Instead

For starters, it’s perfectly OK to acknowledge that you’re a little uncomfortable with the question. It’s even more acceptable to talk about how you try your best to resolve issues before they become full-blown conflicts. But it’s also important to have an actual example ready to talk about in detail. You’re not perfect, and I’m sure you’ve let things boil over to the point where something inane became an actual issue. And the best news? Most hiring managers know this too, and very few will expect you to be 100%-turmoil free throughout the course of your career.

3. You’re Getting Confrontational About Follow-up Questions

It’s perfectly natural to get a little tense when an interviewer asks you to describe something you’d rather not, especially when your anecdote could potentially make you look bad. But here’s a hard truth you’re going to have to accept about the interview process: You are going to have to answer some difficult questions. And the worst thing you can do, especially when you’re asked to describe how you resolve conflicts at work, is to take out your frustration about the question on the hiring manager during an interview.

What to Do Instead

First of all, take a deep breath and remember that you’re not the first person who’s ever faced a conflict at work—and you definitely won’t be the last. Once you’ve done that, remember that the interview’s trying to get the proof she needs to make a solid hiring decision about you. The fact that she’s asking the question is not a personal attack against your character. It’s an attempt to see how you approach problems. So don’t be afraid to get into some of the details when answering—just make sure to end on a positive note (a.k.a., what you learned from the experience).

Talking about conflict resolution during an interview is never fun. But it’s something that you’ll often have to tackle if a dream job is on the line. If someone asks you to describe your conflict resolution style at work, don't sweat it. Nobody’s expecting you to have the perfect answer to how you resolved it. In fact, most people who ask are only looking for evidence that you’re willing to face these kinds of issues head-on and make a sincere attempt at coming to a resolution. So don’t be afraid of answering this honestly (but not “happy-hour-honestly”). In all likelihood, your interviewer will be able to relate to your story on some level and you’ll keep moving along in the process.

Photo of job interview courtesy of Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images.