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There are two questions I read that I have a hard time answering:

When was a time when you had to persuade someone to do something?

and

Describe a conflict you had with someone and how you resolved it.

What if I've spent most of my life in academia, and rarely had to deal with these? And what qualifies as a "conflict"? For example, one time I noticed that a office-mate was too messy with food, and thus fruit-flies came. So I politely called him to tell him the problem. Afterward I explained to him how to prevent this, but I usually avoid being overtly critical. But that's not a real conflict is it?

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    So in academia, everybody just does whatever you request of them and you never have to persuade anybody?! What school do you go to? ;-) – maple_shaft May 24 '12 at 18:49
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    @maple_shaft - touche – Adel May 24 '12 at 19:01
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    Your fruit fly story could be a good example of how you took a potentially confrontational situation and resolved it without anyone feeling hurt or offended (assuming it really did work out OK). – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner May 25 '12 at 14:55
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    I'm surprised that there aren't more questions concerning behavioral interviews. That's a very hot topic as far as hiring is concerned and one that stumps a lot of interviewees. – Angelo May 29 '12 at 20:43
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    I've actually got the, "When was a time when you had to persuade someone to do something" question. Answer: "Right now." If the don't catch on right away, "I'm trying to persuade you to hire me". It's always good to make them laugh. – candied_orange May 31 '15 at 9:05
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+200

These kinds of questions are a little scary, because getting them right usually makes no difference. I've hired people myself, and advised clients who are hiring people, and nobody ever says "let's go with Chris, I loved that persuading answer." But you can really really get them wrong and it can be the no-hire reason. Some ways to get them wrong:

  • Say you've never faced that situation. Come on. Everyone has to persuade people - even your parents to let you stay up later or your professor to give you an extension. Everyone has had a conflict. The only people who've never faced those situations are minor princes or the super rich who everyone obeys without pushback. More likely, you're just not very self observant, and employers want you to know a little about yourself. So it's good that you're thinking about that now.
  • Describe using nothing but external authority ("mum put me in charge, so you have to" or "I'll have my dad call the dean if you don't") to get your problem resolved
  • Describe wildly disproportionate responses - violence, suing, the police, mean practical jokes, getting someone fired, burning all someone's clothes - to get your own way
  • Describe a pattern of not getting your own way or resolving your problem, but just putting your head in the sand and hoping it will end
  • Describe a pattern of "tattling" to authorities and making them solve it for you

You know the grownup way to solve conflicts and persuade others. Try to find one really good, true example of when you handled it well. The closer the situation is to the job you're applying for, the better - if it happened at a job (even pizza delivery), it's better than if it happened at university, but the university story is better than something with a sibling or romantic partner. It must be true. We can actually tell when it's what you think you would do. And if you lie in the interview, you're a no-hire.

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    +1 for "getting them right usually makes no difference" -- so true! Besides all of your fine points and examples on how to get the question wrong, I'd also point out that many people (myself included) consider how the question was handled more than any actual answer. – jcmeloni May 23 '12 at 18:52
  • I disagree about getting them right not making a difference. I think that depends on what type of position you are hiring for. If you want a writer and the person can write, sure, getting it right wont improve their chances. But if it's a management, team lead, or facilitator position or similar, success in the role depends on one's ability to resolve conflict and to lead. And if it's a company seeking top talent, evidence that you always seek to improve yourself, your team, and your environment will go a long way. – Tech Lover in NYC Jun 1 '12 at 23:26
  • I've often toyed with the idea of saying "I try not to dwell on conflicts once they're past, so I'm afraid I don't have a ready list of old conflicts to discuss." – Amy Blankenship Apr 22 '13 at 23:06
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    @TechLoverinNYC my point is that everyone who gets them right is back on the same level footing. They don't offer a chance to really soar above other applicants. But you have to get them right: once asked, if you get them wrong you're a no-hire. Compare to "what did you do in your last job?" where there's an opportunity to make a spectacular impression. – Kate Gregory Apr 23 '13 at 12:20
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As someone who interviews, honesty never hurts, and if you really have never been in that situation just say so. (Though, honestly, I would be surprised if you had missed either of those over the course of your life.)

The purpose of the two questions is reasonably simple:

For the first, I would want to understand how you approach the problem of needing to get consensus about the solution to a problem, and how you motivate other people to solve it.

If you really don't have anything that comes close to that at work, go back to a group project you were involved in in college and talk about that instead. It isn't as good as real work - and you should tell me why - but it is a way to answer the underlying question.

For the second, I would want to understand how you handle disagreement, and especially strong disagreement, in the workplace.

Look for something where you and a colleague didn't agree about the best way to solve a problem. It doesn't have to be fancy, or super important, or angry or anything.

Talk about how you approach the disagreement: how do you find common ground, how do you handle someone who is passionate (but wrong) about their approach, how do you compromise?

Again, if you really don't have an experience like that in work, go back to college, or that time you volunteered to coach the softball team and someone told you how to do it better, or whatever.

The goal is to try and understand how you will approach those situations if you work for this company. Think about how, if you asked someone that, they could make their actions clear to you.

(As an aside, talking about - and asking about - concrete incidents, not just hypotheticals is a sign of a good interview, because what you did rather than what you think you would do is a better indicator of the next time around.)

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    "honesty never hurts" - Excellent answer, not just for this question, for for most of the interview related questions we have here! – Jim In Texas May 23 '12 at 15:35
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    Honesty can hurt. But if it does it's the kind of place I wouldn't want to work in anyway. – dreza May 28 '12 at 21:07
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There really is no "right answer" to behavioral questions. You just have to answer in a way that is authentic and that displays that you're a reasonable person with some level of integrity. Behavioral interviews are intended to gauge whether or not you are tolerable to work with.

It is TOTALLY possible to draw a blank when asked a behavioral question like "tell me about a time when X,Y,Z ?" If you can't think of anything, just say "Nothing comes to mind at the moment, let's go on to the next question and I will come back to this if I think of something." You can punt on an answer once or twice on a behavioral interview as there are typically a pool of questions that the interviewer draws from. As others have stated, it is not your specific answers that count as much as how you answer them. If nothing comes to mind, you're better off passing on the question than trying to improvise a forced response on the fly.

Many people, myself included, have found behavioral interviews to be excruciatingly difficult. Not everyone frames their work-experience as a series of easily re-callable "short-stories" that illustrate positive traits or themes. YMMV, but I have found that the only effective way to deal with behavioral interviews is to practice. There are not an infinite number of behavioral questions. You CAN prepare for these by googling long lists of behavioral questions and practicing your answers. The best advice is to answer with some kind of easily digestible conclusive narrative. In the literature this is called a "S.T.A.R." response: describe a Situation or Task you were faced with, the Action you took, and the end Result.

Good luck. Practice and prepare as much as you can. Don't worry if you choke on a question or two (most people do).

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    +1 - It would make a negative impression on me if someone didn't prepare for such common kinds of questions. Almost every big company has those in their standard question list. With that said, their answer probably wouldn't impress me other than in negative ways. So whether those questions have any value is another matter entirely other than to weed out those people who didn't make any effort to prepare for an interview. – Dunk May 29 '12 at 20:55
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Given the bureaucracy of academia I'll bet you can think of conflicts in trying to 'get things done' if you think about it more.

For persuasion, have you ever had a good, new or novel idea that you introduced to anyone in an organization? You don't just say "here is x" you have to explain what it is and why and that counts. If this really isn't true... change it today. For instance (and just as an example) are folks using google hangouts for multiple remote user windows? If not introduce it (or something else 'new) and persuade people to use it to give you the experience.

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