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How to Navigate Conflict with Emotional Intelligence

Conflict is inevitable—at least for most of us who work, live, or engage with other human beings on a regular basis. Collaborating and engaging with other humans can create meaningful connections and moments of joy, but it can also create division and disagreement. What’s the common denominator for either a positive or negative interaction? Emotions. Conflict doesn’t exist without emotion because in order for conflict to exist, we need to care about the situation. 

Think about something that you don’t care much about. Maybe it’s where you sit during a team meeting or what artwork is displayed in the office. Maybe you have a slight preference, but if a coworker pushes for something different, it probably won’t generate any friction. On the other hand, consider something that you have strong feelings about, like a work-from-home policy or the strategic direction of a product. These strong opinions exist because you care about the outcome, and you’re more likely to feel conflict if others are fighting for something different. The conflicts we encounter are not mere interruptions to our daily workflow; they are reflections of our deeper cares and commitments. Conflict, in this way, can help us understand what we most deeply care about. 

Hence, if we want to understand how to move through conflict more effectively, we need to understand and address our emotions.
Conflict as an Opportunity

Unlike traditional conflict-resolution techniques that often emphasize compromise, emotional intelligence (EI) invites us to turn toward and engage more deeply with conflict. It suggests that the heart of many workplace disputes is not merely a clash of ideas but a complex interplay of emotions and identities.
Employees with high EI are skilled at navigating these nuances because they have a greater awareness of their own emotional landscapes coupled with the ability to empathize and take the perspective of others. This emotional awareness is not just reactive but deeply proactive; it allows individuals to: 

  • Anticipate conflicts before they escalate

  • Understand the emotional triggers involved

  • Tailor their responses according to their internal and external awareness

  • Manage repair after a situation has become too confrontational 

    These individuals see conflict as an opportunity for growth and connection.

    The Power of Emotional Intelligence in Conflict

    Over the years, I’ve had the honor of coaching hundreds of leaders at all levels, across industries and across the globe. Nearly everyone I work with comes with stories about conflict within their workplace. Although every situation is different, there tends to be a high degree of similarity in the types of conflict experienced. Usually, the conflict involves things like differences of opinion about strategy or direction, competition over resources, personality clashes, different working styles, differences in values, and various forms of power dynamics (hierarchy, tenure, generational, gender, etc.).

    What I have learned while coaching people through conflict is that typically:

    a. People aren’t really in touch with what matters most to them (and why), and

    b. People rarely understand the other person’s perspective

    Through a process of reflection and inquiry-based discovery, we work through the surface layers of their story to reach the true core of the issue—the ‘what’s at stake’ layer (in other words, why does this dispute matter to them?). Then we follow a similar process to imagine what’s truly at stake for the other person.

    Armed with these insights, I invite my clients to schedule time with the other person with the sole purpose of seeking to understand their perspective. The EI-based practices that support them in this conversation are mindful listening, reflecting back what they’ve heard to ensure understanding, and ways of acknowledging the other person for their willingness to share. Most of the people who have followed through report back how much simply asking questions and listening shifted the dynamics of their relationship. There is something remarkable about taking time to sit and truly listen to another person. It often helps to lower defenses and undo assumptions we have about one another.

    This approach also does more than resolve the immediate issue. It sets a precedent for how conflict is handled within the organization, viewing conflict as an opportunity to delve deeper into the collective wisdom. Leaders who are empowered with these EI tools can use conflicts to reinforce a culture of open communication and mutual respect, crucial elements in fostering an innovative and adaptive workplace.

    Emotional Intelligence as a Strategic Business Tool

    Leveraging emotional intelligence in conflict management also offers significant strategic advantages. In an era where retention and engagement are paramount, the ability to manage conflict with emotional intelligence can be a key differentiator. Organizations that excel in this area are often seen as desirable places to work, attracting and retaining top talent who are eager to engage in meaningful, challenging work environments where their emotional and professional needs are understood.

    Businesses that embrace EI report not only smoother interpersonal dynamics but also enhanced decision-making capabilities. When employees feel emotionally supported and understood, they are more likely to contribute and innovate. This openness accelerates problem-solving and helps in identifying unique opportunities that a more conflict-averse or emotionally unaware organization might miss.

    Building Organizational Resilience

    The long-term benefits of integrating emotional intelligence into conflict management extend beyond immediate interpersonal successes. They also contribute to building organizational resilience. Teams that are skilled in EI adapt more quickly to change, work through and recover more rapidly from challenges, and are better equipped to handle the pressures of the modern business world. As such, EI becomes not just a tool for managing emotions but a strategic asset that can guide an organization through the complexities of rapid change. It ensures that the inevitable conflicts that arise from such pressures are not merely managed but are harnessed as sources of opportunity.

    So next time you’re feeling tension with another person, see what it’s like to pause and remind yourself, “This is an opportunity to engage with what really matters.” Emotional intelligence skills such as self-awareness and empathy will help you approach this conflict with courage, generosity, and a commitment to mutual understanding, paving the way for a culture where challenges become opportunities for innovation and deeper human connection. 

    Want to learn more about how to manage conflict at work or how conflict can be transformed into growth opportunities? 

    Read our article that further discusses it here and watch our webinar here

    Interested in learning how we can assist your organization in growing your emotional intelligence practices ton help employees communicate through conflict effectively and with respect? Check out our Bridging Conflict program and contact us to learn more!