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In the past year I had interviews with a couple of US-based IT companies for a technical role at their European offices. The interviews were eerily similar: phone from HR, coding interviews over video call, then on site interviews: coding, architecture design and "behavioral" interviews. In each behavioral interview I received a question:

Tell me about a time you had a conflict at work

The thing is, in my 20 years of work I don't remember ever having had a conflict with anyone. This is what I told the interviewers and they didn't seem to be satisfied with this answer. I've been married for 10 years, never had a row with my wife (I also told this to one interviewer). I don't know what to make from this question - I understand they want to know my conflict resolution skills, but I honestly don't remember I needed these.

Maybe it's a cultural thing, in US-based companies conflicts are more common than in the European companies I worked so far? Also, I'm fairly introvert, maybe that's why conflicts and me are avoiding each other. Anyway, I looked up some examples on Google for this question, but they don't seem to apply to me (for example I never had people reporting to me; no manager ever "blew up" on me).

Even if I'd face a conflict, I can't imagine any other solution that to "talk with the other person and if we still disagree, go to our manager". How should I answer a question like this?

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    You have never disagreed with anyone about anything? A dissatisfied customer? A request that was unrealistic? A problem that had no one obvious solution? Conflict does not have to be shouting in the halls or a screaming match with your spouse. TBH I don't think answering "none, never" would reflect well in an interview. It would show a lack of something- insight, initiative, interest. – Damila Apr 17 at 13:53
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    Would it help if you replace the word "conflict" with "disagreement"? – Steve Melnikoff Apr 18 at 12:14
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    @Damila Conflict is not just a synonym for disagreement. It connotes significant, serious disagreement which extends over a period of time. When countries have conflicts, people die. – barbecue Apr 18 at 18:10
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    @barbecue it is absolutely not that narrowly defined and can absolutely be used to represent disagreements. Any dictionary I've looked at will show this: while it can be used as a synonym for war it is not the only usage. More to the point of the op question, in an interview situation they are asking for times you resolved a difference of opinion. – eps Apr 18 at 20:18
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    @barbecue In this context, that is not what the word connotes. The interviewer is looking for exactly the type of situations Damila lists off, and is not expecting the interview subject to have engaged in some kind of Killing Eve scenario with a manager or coworker. – tbrookside Apr 19 at 12:39

10 Answers 10

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You might be misunderstanding the question. Conflict doesn't necessarily mean "having a row", actually it should never mean that, especially at work.

It's hard to believe you've never:

  • had a different opinion on the priorities/ course of action/ risks involved in something or anything else than your boss
  • disagreed on how to tackle something with your colleague
  • wanted something your boss didn't want to provide you
  • disagreed with any element of the company's strategy/ decision

...and that nobody ever disagreed with your ideas.

These situations are so omnipresent that saying "I've never had any conflict" just means you don't notice them. Or you are a yea-sayer, not able to voice a different opinion, which can be problematic if the company expects its employees to be innovative or signal risks for example.

No one expects an answer to this question to be super creative. It's a question about how you deal with what is a normal, daily situation. Searching for the best solution together is normally considered good, as is convincing someone. Just withdrawing/ giving in or aggression isn't.

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    I had a (housing renovation) contractor claim that he had been in the business 14 years and never had a single unhappy customer. That simply could not be true, there is no way he interacted with hundreds of customers and houses, each with its own quirks, and never had a single problem with any of them. All it told me that he was a liar, or delusional, or something like that. – stannius Apr 17 at 22:32
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    The problem is that such minor differences of opinion are both so common and so trivial that I would never remember them off the top of my head. – jamesqf Apr 18 at 1:07
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    That the answer is, “take such an absurdly broad definition of ‘conflict’ that anything other than 1000% instantaneous agreement applies” is depressing, yet typical when it comes to interview questions. – BSMP Apr 18 at 3:03
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    @jamesqf that may be the case, but when it's a common interview question, it's worth it to try to note some down when they happen or be prepared to speak about some before an interview. – A N Apr 18 at 4:27
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    @BSMP I'm sure you've been in plenty of situations where you had a civil but meaningful conflict with someone else. Not everyone is able to deal with normal conflicts, which is why this is a common question. – Kat Apr 18 at 17:09
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Introspect. The fact that you have not had obvious conflicts at work or at home doesn't mean there were never any reasons for conflict; it means you had managed to resolve them before they became obvious and explicit. So ask yourself how you did it. Listened to others? Adjusted your expectations? Offered compromise? Proved your point in a more agreeable way?

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    There is another possibility, which is that there were reasons for conflict (for example someone asked OP to do something they disagreed with, or OP proposed something that someone else disagreed with) but the OP 'solved' the conflict by just doing what the other person wanted. This tells the interviewers that OP is very passive. – DJClayworth Apr 17 at 13:01
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    I'm not sure I understand your comment; that's exactly what I said: "doesn't mean there were never any reasons for conflict", which, put in another way, means "there may have been reasons for conflict". – mustaccio Apr 18 at 19:18
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    My point was that while some resolve conflict before it becomes obvious and explicit (which is healthy and good), others avoid conflict by capitulating at the first sign of disagreement (which is not). – DJClayworth Apr 19 at 3:15
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Firstly, ask exactly what the interviewer considers to be a 'conflict'. It could mean a blazing row, or a difference of opinion, with all stops in between.

Once the definition is clear, it's much easier to answer.

'I don't have 'conflicts' as I prepare for any such occasions, and am ready to discuss amicably anything which has the remotest possibility to escalate thus. There's a point in being part of a team where working together is better than having arguments. Discussions are a completely different thing, and in my book aren't conflicts, nor should lead to them'.

Reminds me of the question - 'and when did you stop beating your wife?'

The answer of course is 'Well, sometimes I let her win the game...'

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    This is the pragmatic approach. If the interviewer (incorrectly IMO) thinks a minor disagreement about how to perform some trivial task counts as a conflict, they're misusing the word, so you need to understand what they're really asking about. – barbecue Apr 18 at 18:12
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    This is the real answer. The definition of 'conflict' is absolutely what is at issue here. You can finess this also with 'well I avoid emotional arguments when I have different opinions, I try to see the other persons point of view, ask them more questions, blah, blah, etc. But start with the question "Please can you tell me a bit more about what you are thinking when you say "conflict". An argument that left bad feeling afterwords? Is that what they mean? – Michael Durrant Apr 18 at 21:00
  • +1 for the different perspective, but I think there's a caveat here in that (my experience bears this out) generally there's a sort of implied consensus about what "conflict" means when it comes up in this interview question, which is frequent. As such depending on how it's presented, asking about the definition of conflict 'might' come off as nit picking, someone who will challenge the semantics of everything without really getting to the substance, etc. IMO the definition of conflict is what's at issue for the OP, but not as a frame challenge in the interview. – seventyeightist Apr 23 at 18:30
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The current top answer from BigMadAndy has some solid points but approaches this entirely from the negative direction, which I don't feel is as helpful.

How should I answer a question like this?

By pivoting your perspective.

Under your concept of conflict, you've never had "a conflict". That's fine. But to succeed at interview situations, you need to consider both what an interviewer/interview process is seeking to uncover, and how you can use that to show something of yourself to your own best advantage.

It's easy to get stuck in a mode where every interview question is a possible trap or pitfall. But remember, ideally an employer is looking to learn more about you, who is a nearly complete unknown to them. This is your one chance to make a first impression by talking about yourself, and every question is an opportunity where simply replying "I don't" has wasted that opportunity (even before we get into the more negative possible interpretations of saying "I don't" to a question like this one).

So take a second and consider: "how does this question allow me to show myself in a positive light"? and you will have the core answer to your question here.

What could your handling of "a conflict" reveal that's positive to you?

So, you've never had what you consider to be a "conflict" at work. But does answering that way really help you (ignoring, for the moment, whether it potentially hurts you in the eyes of the interviewer)?

If you expand your definition of conflict to "lesser" conflicts than what you define one as, are their opportunities to underscore your interpersonal skills?

I would say that there are. Managing disagreement and arguing positions productively are incredibly important skills, and this question your opportunity to showcase your own related abilities. What situations have you been in where multiple people disagreed (maybe you were even a neutral party!), and you helped arrive at a positive solution?

Pivot and reframe the question by answering it in a way that suits you

There is still plenty of room for you to open with "Well I've never been in what I would consider a 'conflict' at work, but certainly there are times where it requires some persuasion to reach an agreement, and there's one time in particular that comes to mind: ...", if you want to underscore that you haven't had any severe arguments or rows at work.

A word of caution: when pivoting by changing the framing of your answer, you need to consider the contextual intents of the original question. This works because disagreements are, from a certain point of context, still "conflicts". You need to give the interviewer the opportunity to say you answered the question well, not "interviewee went off on unrelated tangent and failed to answer the question" (been there, had to write that). There's an art by degrees to reading between the lines of what's being asked for how far you can push re-contextualizing your answer while still effectively answering to the intent behind the original question's wording. Pay attention to the interviewer's body language, if you're not going to express your choice in reframing as a possible question (lilting the end of the premised reframe, with a pause for interjection before proceeding).

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    In fact that example in the last paragraph is the start of a perfect answer (IMO) – Asteroids With Wings Apr 20 at 17:40
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Resolving conflicts is a very important part of the job in tech companies, as software development is full conflicting constraints and different roles often represent different constraints. E.g. a product manager often advocates for quick delivery, as they see the business context, while a software developers understand the complexity of the technology and advocate for software quality. A 'conflict' doesn't mean that you and colleague are calling each other names, it means that you advocating different interests.

If I am the interviewer and you say to me that you haven't had any conflicts in 20 years of working it let's me believe on of two things: a.) You don't form an opinion on the things that are happening and just do what you are being told or b.) You do form opinions but you are avoiding conflicts

Either way you are less useful as a hire, as the value of tech workers is in their experience and different view they bring to the table.

Try to think about situations in which you and coworker initially held different opinions and then came to a common ground and you could convince your coworker at least partially to adopt your ideas. This shows the interviewer that you are able to deal with opposing opinions and are having most possible impact with your technical skills.

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If you really believe you've never had any past conflict at work, answer honestly and say that you never have.

Be prepared, however, to give an answer to how you would respond to a work conflict in the event that you do encounter some friction.

More than likely, as other answers have suggested, you have had some 'conflict' at work, and either handled it very peacefully or have a different word for it ('disagreement', 'discussion', 'design meeting').

Be prepared to think carefully about any time you might've disagreed on even very minor details - and if you've never openly disagreed with anyone before...consider giving your own opinions more credit in the future.

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How should I answer a question like this?

Honestly

I'm going to just take you at your word that you've never had conflicts. It's always best to be honest insofar as you understand a question. I think you're placing to much emphasis on this question in an interview. Realistically it's just one of many, and probably they're just wondering what to write in their notes rather than drawing red flags all over your resume.

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I'd answer honestly, but I'd also ask your interviewer for clarification as to what he or she means by "conflict."

You could give an example from a previous job where you and your boss had a difference of opinion as to how to proceed on a particular project, perhaps. Your solution might have been based on a past experience you had and your reasons for going in that direction. Likewise, your boss might have had a different example to draw from. Or you could have taken the opportunity to explain why you thought as you did based on your training. In any case, it would show the interviewer how you handled that conflict and what the result was - if your boss accepted your viewpoint or whether he or she wanted you to go with his or her direction. This situation, by the way, was something that happened to me quite a few times with my boss.

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You should answer it honestly. You did right.


If you look at atoms only you may miss molecules.

("What do you mean there's water? I only know about hydrogen and oxygen!")

Conflict is a way of viewing the world.

Presumably people have wants. When those wants contradict that's called conflict.

What happens when you want to do something and your spouse wants to do something else? Who caters to who?

They may be asking "what do you do when you don't get what you want?"

Or "how do you manage what your boss wants when that contradicts what other people in the organization want?"

Or "how do you manage what your boss wants when that contradicts their boss?"

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Before it make sense to discuss group related conflicts let us focus on a situation in which somebody is working alone. Suppose, an individual has to solve a mathematical test. For example, its about the area of a circle with the formula A=pi*r^2. Solving this task alone won't produce any conflicts, because its an abstract problem. it can be solved by thinking about the issue and there is no need to negotiate about the answer.

In a real life situation the typical workmode is not to solve a task alone, but in a group. What companies are doing is to distribute work items to different individuals. The individuals have to interact with each other to combine their skills into a surplus value. The logical consequence of group oriented work distribution is the existing of conflicts. Working in a group and dealing with conflicts is the same.

Companies have installed a hierarchy to manage group related conflicts. The conflicts can't be avoided because each individual in the social hierarchy has a different role model. A role model is a formalized behavior which defines allows the individual to reach their goals.

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    In a big team, finding a good solution often means finding one that is wrong, but people don't have a conflict over it. In your case finding an area of a rectangle instead of circle. It's close to a circle anyway. Witnessed many times. It happens because some people do not understand what pi is, but they are technical leads on a project. – Neolisk Apr 19 at 12:16
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    While your post addresses why companies ask about conflict, it does not in any way answer OP's question of how to respond to "Tell me about a time you had a conflict at work". You may want to edit your answer to more directly address OP's question. – V2Blast Apr 20 at 3:30
  • The question is not if my post contains the answer or not, but the question is about group related conflicts which can be analyzed from a theoretical perspective. Addressing the sender of a message instead of arguing on a content level makes only sense in opinion based online forums. – Manuel Rodriguez Apr 21 at 12:20

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