How to Apply Emotional Intelligence to Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

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Conflicts aren’t always a bad thing – they’re inevitable. It’s how you handle it that’s important. Getting this wrong can lower productivity, cause tension and have a damaging effect on team morale.

But it’s also worth remembering that not every disagreement will require the involvement of a team leader. Giving your team the space to work out conflicts on their own can help them develop their emotional intelligence which improves motivation, social skills, productivity and communication, not to mention minimising the number of conflicts.

What is conflict and what are the different types?

A conflict is where two or more people don’t agree on something – it can mean an argument or simply a matter of incompatible thoughts, feelings or actions.

They can be caused by many things, like different opinions, morals, interests and miscommunication. The consequences can vary from a minor tiff to a full on argument and other negative behaviour.

There are three main types of conflict in the workplace: task, relationship and value. Let’s take a look at the definition of each and some examples.

Task conflict

Task conflicts are usually directly related to the work a person is doing. It can include differences of opinion on who does what, how to go about a task and how to manage expectations.

They may seem pretty simple to resolve, but there can be deeper causes

For example, if two of your teammates disagree on who’s idea to implement this could be because they feel a sense of competition with each other, or perhaps one of their ideas was passed over for the other person’s in a previous project so there’s lingering resentment.

The involvement of a team leader or project manager can help to mediate task conflicts, as a neutral third party who can get to the root of the issue, help with brainstorming solutions and bring the discussion back to the task at hand. Getting the employees involved in the conflict to work on finding a compromise together can help to improve their relationship and can mean they have an easier time working together in the future.

Relationship conflict

Relationship conflicts can be due to clashes in taste, personality, style and even conflict over how the other person handles conflict. When you put a bunch of people together who might not normally socialise, it’s no surprise that there will be conflicts in the workplace.

An example of a relationship conflict could be if you and a colleague have different lifestyles and had a disagreement about a hobby you enjoy, which is causing tension in your team. You could try extending an olive branch by asking them to sit with you at lunch to get to know each other a bit more and find out what you do have in common.

Finding out that you grew up in nearby towns or that you share the same views on an organisational process can improve your relationship and make working together more enjoyable.

When you’re more comfortable with each other, you could raise the topic that caused tension and really listen to what each other is saying without getting defensive. Being empathetic and calm means your teammate will probably act that way too, which can help dissolve any lingering tension. If not, you can always ask your manager or team leader for help.

Value conflict

Value conflict refers to disagreements on politics, religion, ethics and other core beliefs. This is generally why most organisations prefer you not to talk about highly divided topics, but sometimes these core values get involved whether we want them to or not.

Value conflicts tend to be the most emotional, as people tend to feel very strongly about their values that they’re willing to disrupt or reject something that would benefit them in other ways. There’s not usually an easy resolution for this type of conflict, and instead solutions should focus on understanding each other’s point of view and finding a neutral ground.

For example, one of your prospective clients has ties to a certain political party, and a few of your team members are against working with them. You have one-to-one chats with each team member to give them the opportunity to privately air their objections.

You raise some of the benefits of working with this client which you know will appeal to your co-workers and bring everyone together. This focus on universal benefits rather than political differences helps the team get back on track and has led to a deeper understanding between you.

How can conflict impact a workplace?

Conflicts can linger long after the discussion or argument has ended. Unresolved conflicts can cause a lack of productivity and collaboration, as well as reducing creativity and even loss of skilled employees.

Here are a few more things that conflict in the workplace can cause:

  • Lowers morale
  • Increases absenteeism
  • Raises stress levels
  • Higher likelihood of mental health struggles
  • Worsens employee wellbeing
  • Creates an unhealthy culture
  • Higher chance of aggression, theft, malicious damage and sabotage

Ignoring conflicts can have far-reaching results and lead to the breakdown of team relationships.

As a leader, it’s essential you have the tools to help you identify and reduce harmful conflict, while distinguishing this from healthy conflict, which can lead to various expressions of creativity and problem solving.

How can leaders use emotional intelligence to resolve conflict?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to understand and manage your own and other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions. This is a key skill for strong leaders, as it requires a high level of empathy, compassion, self-awareness and kindness – all these abilities can greatly help with conflict resolution. Using emotional intelligence can help turn a negative situation into a positive resolution – but how?

The key to using EI to get ahead of conflict is to know your team well – you’ll get an idea of their personalities, traits and values which can give you a heads up regarding potential conflicts.

Keep in mind that most people will default to labelling emotions generically when in a disagreement. Remember to encourage them to draw on their own emotional intelligence to pinpoint the issue that’s causing that feeling.

For example, instead of “I’m angry” they could say “I felt rejected when you were picked to present instead of me”. This can help you understand the problem and work towards a solution.

3 steps to take when managing conflict using emotional intelligence

#1. Create a favourable environment

Make sure you address conflict calmly and in private, as this is the best way to help the parties involved practice active listening. Airing all your team’s dirty laundry can be embarrassing for those involved, and it can also hurt morale and productivity.

Having a neutral, calm space will help those involved get back in control of their emotions so they’re able to focus on trying to resolve the conflict.

#2. Foster good communication

By taking the conflict somewhere private and giving the parties involved a chance to calm down, you’re making it easier for them to talk to each other.

Make sure everyone involved practices active listening in order to fully understand the situation – make sure they know they’re free to ask questions, request clarity and encourage them to repeat back what they’ve heard to check if it’s been understood. Simply allowing each person to be heard might resolve the conflict.

#3. Employ self-regulation

No matter what you might hear, it’s important that you control your own thoughts and feelings to avoid escalating the situation. Having good emotional intelligence means you’re self-aware, so you will be able to remain calm yourself and make sure your posture is relaxed so that your body language doesn’t encourage more conflict – it’s likely those involved will mimic you, which will make communication easier.

Be respectful, authentic and show integrity. This makes you more relatable and trustworthy, so those involved will be more willing to accept the solutions put forward.

Once everyone has had the opportunity to be heard and you’ve agreed upon a solution, your involvement doesn’t end there. Use your EI skills to check in with those involved to make sure they’re doing okay, that they haven’t returned to old habits and that the agreed upon actions are being carried out.

It’s important that if any further issues come to light in the meantime, that you don’t let them build up – address them as they appear, and stick to a positive management plan, like the one above.

⏰Key point: It’s also worth noting that there might not be an easy way through every single conflict. Some people have difficult personality traits or low emotional intelligence that makes this an extra challenge, for example those who are passive-aggressive or narcissistic may be difficult to talk to or not be willing to acknowledge that the conflict is equally their fault.

Why is using emotional intelligence important for conflict resolution?

It’s important to use EI to resolve conflict because it allows you to have a good judgement about what the problem is and how it can be resolved.

You’ll be better able to determine what to do in various conflict scenarios, for example:

  • Tension in your team: Talk to each individual while being empathetic to their perspective, so you can work out how best to mediate
  • You disagree with a member of your team: You recognise you might not be able to resolve it on your own, so ask a neutral third party to step in
  • You’re worried about someone’s well being: You’ll be able to judge how best to encourage them to talk to their manager or another suitable person
  • Spot a performance issue that’s causing tension? Work with your team member to set SMART goals and follow any required processes to help them get back on track
  • You notice a knowledge gap that’s causing frustration: Find out what resources and training is available which can boost productivity and morale while reducing tension

Emotional intelligence can also help you recognise yours and other people’s emotions, which can give you a deeper understanding of everyone’s individuality.

Having a high level of EI can also mean that you’re able to think better of others by practising empathy and employing your social skills to see you through a variety of scenarios in the workplace.

⏰Key point: The self-regulation aspect of emotional intelligence is also handy when dealing with conflict as it makes you less likely to have a win-or-lose mindset. If you can control your need to prove your intelligence, dominance or worth then you’ll be less likely to trigger conflict situations.

How can you encourage others to develop their emotional intelligence so that conflicts occur less often?

First check whether it’s something you can facilitate – can you get somebudget for training if there’s enough interest?

Whether it’s something your organisation is willing to put spend behind or not, you could start off by introducing the concept of emotional intelligence in a one-to-one meeting with each of your team members. This can help you gauge what your team already knows about it and feel out the level of interest.

You could talk about your own experiences with emotional intelligence and how it has helped your career to provide encouragement and reassurance. You could even suggest they take an emotional intelligence test, so they can see which areas of EI they would benefit from developing.

Once you’ve chatted to your team, you can start looking for a good emotional intelligence training course. Some courses (like ours) may include an EI assessment, and extra materials to guide you even after the course has finished.

💡Discover our “Master Emotional Intelligence Course”💡

A choice of doors to go through on better than the others

Our carefully designed Emotional Intelligence Training Course is tailored to provide you with practical, real-world skills that will elevate your personal and professional life. 

Dive deep into the core components of Emotional Intelligence and uncover how they directly relate to your success (available virtually or in-house).

Alongside a training course or if anyone prefers self-learning, there are a few things you can integrate into your daily life to improve your emotional intelligence, which will also help in conflict situations.7-*

  • Stop and take a few breaths in difficult situations
  • Ask questions to better understand how others think and feel
  • Be receptive to change and differences
  • Give and receive feedback and constructive criticism
  • Make an effort to apologise when in the wrong
  • Practise active listening

Here are some additional resources to improve emotional intelligence and manage conflict:

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Matthew Channell
Matthew is TSW Training’s Commercial Director. He writes about performance focussed learning, leadership, and management approaches that have real-world, sustainable impact.
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