Tell me about a time when you...
November 28, 2014 5:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm preparing for several interviews and I want to figure out a way to finally effectively answer the ONE question that has always been interview-kryptonite to me, which has always been a a variant of: "Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with my coworker and how you resolved it."

I understand why interviewers ask this question and what they're trying to get out of it, but I always sound like a moron when I answer it! I'm always worried that my conflict example isn't "dramatic" enough, my resolution isn't strong enough, I'm afraid that I'll look "bad" for even having a conflict! (but not having one is, of course, worse), etc.

I find myself babbling on about the problem more than the solution, even though I've prepared my answer with that STAR method people recommend. All that preparation for this ONE question flies out the window, I feel panicked and worry about every detail of my answer when I'm asked that. is there a better method to effectively answer this question? How can I not get so panicked about it?

I've never had any particularly bad conflicts with coworkers, but I can never "choose" which one is the "best" for this type of question.
posted by modesty.blaise to Work & Money (10 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've definitely had conflicts with coworkers that, in retrospect, were caused by a breakdown or lapse in the organizational systems or methods of communication in our department. Once the cause was discovered, it became much easier to avoid those conflicts in the future (supposedly). So, the positive spin comes when you discover the root issue, present it to the appropriate parties, and then everybody works together to keep it from ever happening again.

If you can figure out just one of those instances, it can be your go-to for those questions in the future.
posted by redsparkler at 5:55 PM on November 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am not an expert in interviewing, but when asked that question in the past I have said something along the lines of, "I've never had a serious conflict with a coworker; I aim to be proactive in managing any challenging situations and prefer to resolve any difficulties as they occur. That said, if a conflict were to arise, I'd handle it similarly - by looking for my own 'fault' in the situation, communicating openly and factually, and working toward a mutually-satisfactory resolution. We are, after all, a team. We don't necessarily share the same personalities or experiences, but we're working toward a common goal and that needs to remain the focus."
posted by VioletU at 6:00 PM on November 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

One thing I like about the strategy i discussed is that nobody involved on the conflict is necessarily doing anything "wrong", so you're not disparaging any coworkers.
posted by redsparkler at 6:01 PM on November 28, 2014

Best answer: STAR works as well for this as it does for anything, but it sounds more like your issue is with the question than the answer.

Remember that "conflict" doesn't have to mean "This one guy I worked with a racist, sexist, homophobic asshole, so I had to take him back to the loading dock and kick his ass." It can be as simple as "I wanted to use the Library of Congress classification system, and Stu wanted to use Dewey Decimal, so we sat down and talked about the relative benefits of each method, and I convinced Stu that the LoC system was more applicable to our library because of X and Y."

Depending on the job you're interviewing for, not having a sufficiently dramatic answer might not be a knock on you at all. If I were hiring a tech writer, I'd be happy to get someone with a Dewey-LoC level conflict. If I were hiring a countersniper, then yeah, probably I'd want something more near the loading-dock level. (Yes, I've hired each of those.)
posted by Etrigan at 6:01 PM on November 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not going to claim that I'm brilliant at interviewing (or even that I know what I'm doing), but my answer to this question was about the TAs for a course disagreeing about how we should grade the exams. The thing I liked about it was that it was a situation with no right answer, so I didn't have to find a way to avoid badmouthing people. The outcome is also obvious: unless you have a totally dysfunctional group of TAs, we compromised and the exams got graded. For that particular course, we picked one approach for the first exam that was less than perfect, so we tweaked it for the second exam, so I could go on about how we compromised and then adapted our solution when it turned out the people who "won" the first time around weren't entirely right.
posted by hoyland at 6:21 PM on November 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was going to say what Etrigan said--don't approach this as a "how well do you get along socially with coworkers who may be assholes or who may think you're an asshole" question; approach it as a "how do you handle it when you and a co-worker have a different and conflicting approach to a project you must work on together" question.

Surely you and a co-worker have disagreed on the best way to get something done. Talk about how you presented your case; how you listened to your co-worker's approach and how the two of you compromised (or how you knew it was time to get the client or your boss or whomever) to choose which of your approaches was the preferred one.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:44 PM on November 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I think that you're right Etrigan! When I hear the word "conflict" I always imagine a really big argument (or something) versus a difference of opinion. Even though both are conflicts, I don't tend to classify "disagreements" as "conflicts" in my brain. I think broadening what a conflict actually is in my mind will make it easier for me to answer the question.
posted by modesty.blaise at 6:44 PM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been doing a lot of interviewing recently, and I've had the privilege of interviewing with people I know at work who have given me feedback on that specific question after I didn't get the job...

One manager told me that me never having a real conflict was actually a BAD thing, because they were looking to find out how assertive I am by asking that question, whether I would be able to stand up to pushy colleagues, and whether I can handle myself under pressure. My answer was somewhere along the intensity of the Dewey Decimal example and the "if I had a conflict I would handle it this way" (basically, I have never had a real "conflict") and that was not enough for them to know how I would handle myself in a heated situation. They suggested I find controversial initiatives to work on to build my conflict resolution skills.

My friend who recently interviewed and got the job offer was given the feedback that they liked that in her example of conflict it was her who went to her manager and asked to be coached in how to perform better in that specific situation.... so it doesn't hurt to show some kind of initiative and to be willing to learn.. but like you said, her conflict wasn't a big argument like you imagined, it was just a scenario where she didn't like how a co-worker treated her work... so a conflict doesn't have to be a big dramatic thing.

Obviously, what kind of answer the hiring manager is looking for really depends on the job description, and it's hard to please many different managers with just one answer that you've prepared. It's really almost about getting lucky and saying the right thing to the right person. Some people might like one type of answer, other people might be looking for a different answer, and you'll never know what it is. If you can try to find out a bit about the culture of the group at the beginning of your interview, you might learn whether they would prefer a more assertive answer or not. But I think no matter what answer your give, you have to show that you are the one showing initiative on how to solve the disagreement, problem, fight, etc.
posted by at 9:05 PM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've only gone on a few job interviews - I've been lucky to have found my position quickly and have stayed at my school for a long time - but I approached those questions by redefining "conflict" as a barrier to working effectively rather than personal incompatibility . I've had my share of personality clashes - all completely, totally, the other persons fault - really honestly, usually, maybe not - but I'm not telling anyone about those. Instead, I'll talk about trying to do a project through email with someone who had dumped all her attribute stats into "Passive Aggression" and "Flakiness" instead of, say, "Grammar" or "Quick Turnaround." Eventually we both realized that we need to do most of our planning during face-to-face meetings, in part to get away from the ambiguity of the written language, in part to stare expectantly at her until she wrote down specific dates in her calendar. Suddenly, shit got done!

Run this through a Professional/Grownup translator, exicising the pettiness and exasperation, and you've got a good story about effect use of time-management skills and learning to accommodate multiple work habits. The conflict was becomes one of circumstances, not personalities, and you work together to overcome these external conditions. To paraphrase Middle School English, make the plot "Man vs. Environment" instead of "Man vs Man," and explain what you did to build the damn fire right this time so your dog doesn't leave your frozen corpse in the snow.

I honestly think this question is the only legal way they can come right out and ask "Are you going to be a nightmare to work with?" And as long as I have my handy mental translator/filter, the answer is "no." Just don't tell any stories where you were frustrated by/clashed with your co-workers. Your new job doesn't want to import the nastiness of your old job
posted by bibliowench at 11:56 PM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Great advice here already - I just wanted to add that I often find the answer to this question helps me get an idea of an interviewee's self awareness - if someone tells me that they never have conflicts with co-workers, I start to wonder if they're unaware of the everyday impact of their work on other people, as nearly everyone who works with other people meets some kind of resistance or pressure along the way. In that answer, I'm looking for someone who recognises their impact on others and is mindful of maintaining those everyday links.
posted by ukdanae at 1:38 AM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

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