Hesitate before asking about conflict

Selection panels are fond of asking questions about how applicants deal with negative behaviours, such as conflict. For example:

Tell me about a time when you had to manage conflict between two people. What was the conflict about? How did you manage this? What was the outcome?

Applicants worry that they haven’t experienced conflict and therefore are unable to answer this question. This concern is understandable as conflict is a strong behaviour meaning battle, clash, collision, context, antagonism, hostility, fight. Most of us try to avoid such behaviour and may have little if any, direct experience of it.

To gain useful evidence, panels need to be clear about why they are asking about conflict and what they mean by it.

Here are three questions panel members can ask themselves before they inflict a conflict question on an applicant.

1. Is conflict typical in the context of the job? If not, why raise it?

2. How serious is the conflict? Are we talking about common misunderstandings, competing priorities, disagreements? Or are talking serious struggle between people, clashing viewpoints and personalities? If the former, reword the question.

Most workplace ‘conflict’ is not of the serious kind. Minor misunderstandings, misinterpretations, competing priorities and differences of opinion are part of the daily wallpaper of interaction. If this is what is meant then a panel should say so in the interests of clarity and honesty.

3. Who is the conflict with? Team members, clients, colleagues, stakeholders?

This should be specified as the context will make a difference to the response. The skills used to deal with team members will be subtly different from those used to deal with clients.

If panels choose to use a generic question about conflict (like the one above) then at least be prepared to answer clarifying questions from applicants who wish to understand what they are actually being asked.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.