You may have heard that one popular type of job interview questions are called behavioral questions. They are intended to give the interviewer an idea of how you, as a candidate, would behave in a situation quite typical to a workplace. So don’t be surprised if you are asked behavioral questions in a job interview - trust me, you would want to know the same things about your candidate should you be the one doing the hiring.
How do you handle conflict at work? is one of such behavioral questions.
If you think the best answer is to say that you are not a confrontational person and you manage to get along with everyone without conflicts, then you probably either haven’t really been involved with people in a workplace, or you are not completely honest with yourself, or you lack the trait of self-awareness. Conflicts do happen all the time, and they are not necessarily bad as such. It’s how we resolve them that matters.
Traits to demonstrate
Ideally, your answer should reveal to the interviewer that you have any (or all) of the following traits:
- Self-awareness. People who possess this trait are can view themselves from an outside perspective and honestly assess their own behavior and motives.
- Analytical skills. These skills allow you to analyze the situation, quickly assess the facts and reasons, separate facts from emotions, and to draw conclusions and “lessons learned”
- Emotional intelligence. This has been a hot subject in recent years (to learn more about EI, I recommend you check out Travis Bradberry). In the workplace, the presence of EI helps you understand the motives behind your own behavior as well as those of other people, enabling you to mitigate, predict and facilitate progress towards solutions.
- Integrity. Regarding the workplace, I would say integrity means having certain values and abiding by them. For example, one good friend of mine is always polite, and no matter how hot the conversation may become on the other side of the table, she always tries her best to keep calm and never interrupt the other party. The world would be so much more pleasant a place to live if everyone held to this value!
- Adaptability. Are you capable of listening intensely to your counterpart, to quickly assess their reasoning and the situation overall, and to adjust your opinion and approach based on what you hear? Adaptability is extremely important in the current workplace and I suggest you invest more time to learn about it and to make sure you know how to be adaptable. Read this article from HBR if you are interested to learn more about this subject.
- Persuasiveness. If you are certain of your point of view, how capable are you of persuading others, of winning them over? Persuasiveness is a sign of leadership abilities which are also very important in the workplace, regardless of your role.
- Approach or Methodology. A mature person will most likely have a methodology to conflict resolution, although not everyone is ready to acknowledge their own methodology. For example, I know people whose reaction to a conflict is intimidation of the other person, or complaining, or whining, or simply hiding. However, a mature person tends to be fully concious of their behavior, and I assure you that having defined your own approach really helps to handle conflicts.
Of course, you don’t just list all the above qualities in your answer. The best way to demonstrate them is most often to provide an example (a story) from your real experience that will serve as proof just fine. Be concise and relevant with your answer, and do not ramble.
Methodology to conflict resolution
But what if you are not there yet, or if there are other parties in the conflict that lack wisdom, and the conflict still happens? These 5 simple rules should help you stay in control and steer the situation towards your desired outcome.
Rule #1: separate the problem (or situation) from emotions. Negative emotions serve as fuel for conflict, and they do not serve you (or anyone) well at all, never! They can even impact your health. You are wiser than that, right?
In addition, be aware that many people are weak. Instead of facing a problem (and the person who, in their view, is causing the problem) and finding and implementing a solution, they prefer to hide behind walls and silos, to build negativity, to complain, whine and sabotage. Why? Maybe this is the only way they know how to experience life to its fullest.
But we don't know the reasons for sure, so let's not speculate about them and proceed to rule #2. Just remember conflict does not get resolved at the emotional level, so you should never be involved in a conflict emotionally.
Rule #2: separate people from their behaviors. Be compassionate and emphathetic to people but at the same time be firm about the values you hold and your desired outcome (if you are sure this is indeed the best one). Try to understand each personality involved in the conflict; try to see them as just a person, notwithstanding their professional role in the organization. What do they care about? Why? What obstacles do they experience? What is the reason behind their current behavior? What could be the real solution to their problem? Dig deep.
- Rule #3: be patient. People's attitudes are often caused by their own negative experiences that have nothing to do with you. Sometimes it will take a while for them to let off steam. They may even throw all that accumulated negativity on you if you happen to be the trigger. Be patient, they will calm down if you don't add fuel to the fire and you let them vent.
Rule #4: establish the framework. After letting them calm down, when you see they are open to continue the conversation, suggest a framework consisting of the following rules (and what you might say):
- constructive criticism: "You can only complain about someone or something if you have a workable solution to offer. Otherwise, this is called beating the air and we are already past that stage."
- 50/10 allocation: “If you really, REALLY need to engage in emotions, let’s allocate some 10 minutes at the end of our conversation to anything you may want to say to me. But the first 50 minutes of the hour should only include facts and proposed solutions. And maybe constructive criticism.”
This should be enough to lead to the solution.
One last step is to establish rule #5 for handling controversial topics going forward:
Rule #5: structured discussions. Whenever you feel the imminence of a new conflict, proactively have all involved parties in one room for a structured, constructive discussion. Lead the agenda, but let everyone have their say. Make sure that everyone in the room has an equal amount of time to speak. If anyone tries to revive the negatives, do not buy into it. Instead focus on discussing the desired outcome and ways or steps to achieve it. If necessary, remind people of the 50/10 rule. You may notice that some people subconsciously hold the last 10 minutes dearer than the first 50, but when they start seeing the results, they will be positively surprised and will start enjoying new behaviors themselves.
Try this approach!
It may be not so easy to switch to it from your usual mode, but it definitely will bear fruit. Try it, even if just as an experiment, and you will not only see the positive outcome to a particular conflict; you will find yourself - and the group of people you lead - on the path of healing and harmony, which will make your workplace so much nicer a place to operate in.