When people think of emotional intelligence, they often think about the kinder, gentler side of it, equating high EQ with someone who is nice and gets along with others. They aren’t entirely wrong. Getting along with others is part of managing relationships, one of the four components of emotional intelligence defined by Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence. (The other components are self-recognition, social recognition, and self-management.)
What many people don’t realize, or perhaps ignore, is that managing relationships includes having hard conversations and managing conflict. No matter how high your EQ is, you won’t agree with everyone. It is your level of emotional intelligence, however, that will determine what you do about it. Someone with high EQ doesn’t run away from conflict, nor do they needlessly create it. Instead, they recognize its signs, step into it and manage it in a way that moves everyone forward.
Getting along with others and managing conflict seems like a contradiction for many of us whose scales tip in the ‘getting along’ direction, but to be a great leader, it is necessary to engage in conflict to get things done and to move the organization forward. If you’ve ever worked for a leader who avoided conflict, you know. When they look the other way, the problems fester, morale drops and the leader loses the respect of their employees.
If engaging in conflict is hard for you, here are some strategies to consider so that you can embrace the challenge and address conflict and difficult conversations head-on.
Instead of avoiding a situation you know will lead to conflict, take a time out and give yourself space to think about how to manage it. Make a plan. Avoiding conflict doesn’t mean you have to run straight into it. Figure out the steps you need to take to have a conversation and consider the benefits of coming out the other side of it.
Enter into a difficult conversation without tying yourself to the outcome. It’s okay to have an idea about what you want from the conversation. In fact, I’d suggest you’d want to consider that in advance. But rather than tying yourself to a conclusion, go into the meeting with curiosity. Ask questions. You can’t know in advance how the situation will resolve and if you are open to possibilities, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Lean on your high EQ areas
Employ other areas of emotional intelligence such as social awareness and get curious about the other person you are in conflict with. Explore areas where you might connect and start to build that bridge. Look to your empathy and compassion and rather than get sucked into reacting to what is being said, pause and consider what might be going on with the other person and where they are coming from.
Reframe it as a negotiation
Rather than get worked up around conflict, consider it an opportunity to flex your negotiation skills. What do you really want from the conversation or situation? What are you willing to compromise on? How can you meet the other person where they are? Be respectful and listen to what they are telling you. What are they really saying? How can you help? Consider how you make the situation one in which you both come out ahead and feel good about the outcome.
Recognize and adapt to different styles
Conflict often happens between people who have different approaches. They communicate differently. Their work style is different. Some may prefer to communicate in a very direct way. They come from a place of efficiency and they appreciate people getting to the point quickly. Other people are more relationship-driven so when they engage, they make take more time to get to the point, looking first to build a connection. One way isn’t better than another, they are just different, but you can see how communication between these two types might create conflict. When you become aware of people’s different communication styles, you can learn to adapt your behavior in a way that better suits your interaction. Employing assessments like DiSC are great for defining stylistic preferences so that everyone is aware of each other’s preferences.
Change your mindset
While engaging in conflict or having a difficult conversation with someone can be difficult, rather than focus on that, shift your focus to what you might get out of it. When you engage in a healthy dialogue with someone who disagrees with you, think about what you want to get out of it. Don’t just consider the outcome you are hoping for, but consider also what you might learn. After the conversation review what went well and what you could have done better. Learn from it. Conflict done right leads to growth.
Great leaders are great relationship managers. They both get along with others and manage conflict well, seeing no double-edged sword but rather two sides of the same coin. There is no contradiction for them. They take the steps necessary to move everyone forward in a way that benefits the greater good, employing conflict as a mechanism for growth for the organization and themselves.
Amy Kan works with companies to develop emotionally intelligent leaders who influence and motivate people, innovate solutions and collaborate effectively.