Managing Conflict with Emotional Intelligence

From small disagreements about the text for a company communique to large differences in priorities for the coming year, leaders at all levels find themselves handling conflict. While the easy assumption might be that “handling conflict” means what you do during a tense confrontation, just as important is what you do long before the conflict surfaces.

Conflict Management shows up on the list of the twelve emotional intelligence competencies that distinguish outstanding leaders from average. But managing conflict draws on several other EI competencies, particularly when it comes to laying the groundwork that helps you handle hot encounters.

How is Conflict Management a Competency of Emotional Intelligence?

Here’s how I describe the Conflict Management Competency in Conflict Management: A Primer: “…the ability to help others through emotional or tense situations, tactfully bringing disagreements into the open, and defining solutions that everyone can endorse. Leaders who take time to understand different perspectives work toward finding a common ground on which everyone can agree. They acknowledge the views of all sides, while redirecting the energy toward a shared ideal or an agreeable resolution.”

Let’s pull that apart. “Helping others through emotional or tense situations” implies first that we can both recognize and manage our own emotions. That takes Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control. “Take time to understand different perspectives” requires Empathy and Adaptability to recognize different viewpoints and to be able to adjust your own outlook to consider alternatives. In many situations, leaders also need strong skills in another competence, Organizational Awareness, to recognize how the specific conflict relates to overall organizational dynamics.

Honing your skill at these five EI competencies may seem a tall order, but it may be essential to be successful as a leader handling conflict. The good news: you can improve your skill with the competencies.

Build Your Capacity for Managing Conflict

First, it helps to have a realistic sense of your current abilities. That’s where a 360-degree assessment tool like the Emotional and Social Competencies Inventory (ESCI)can be very useful. Along with assessing yourself, the ESCI gives you a chance to get feedback from colleagues you trust.

Based on the results of your assessment, you can decide which areas to focus on. Working with a coach can be a very effective way to maximize your learning.

To build Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control, scientific research shows that mindfulness meditation helps enhance your ability both to be aware of your feelings when they happen and hit the pause button between feeling an emotion and how you act. Research also indicates that another form of meditation, called loving kindness, helps build our awareness of the feelings and experience of others – and the inclination to help them if needed.

How adaptable are you? Being able to hear, understand, and respect different viewpoints powers effective conflict management. So does adaptability, being able to change your mind about something you previously thought. To fully grasp an alternative to your own view, you need to have a clear sense of what your view is and why you hold it. “Because it feels right” or “I just know why it is the best” is not good enough. What are the values and beliefs that undergird your view? What assumptions is it based upon? What are the facts and data that support it? What arguments would you use in supporting your viewpoint over others? These are the same questions you can ask to understand different perspectives.

Another key factor is larger than the particular confrontation at hand: the overall organizational dynamic in which it takes place. What power dynamics are at play in the conflict? Is the conflict really about whatever its purported topic is, or is it an arena for acting out a power struggle within the organization? If one person or department “loses” the conflict, how will that impact their status in the organization? Recognizing the subtext behind the conflict empowers a leader to work at managing the conflict in a way that comes to the best outcome for everyone involved.

We can’t always control when or how conflict will show up, but we can control how we show up to help resolve it.

(This blog was originally published on LinkedIn. It has been re-posted here with prior permission from Daniel Goleman.)

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Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman is the Co-Director of Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations....

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