Emotional Intelligence Workshops

Emotional Intelligence & Conflict Management

By Roger Reece


People with high emotional intelligence EQs are clearly more effective in resolving conflict than low-EQ people. As someone who teaches conflict management skills, I have found that it’s not enough merely to teach the techniques of conflict negotiation and resolution. If you expect the training to be effective, you also have to raise EQ levels. But how do you increase someone’s emotional intelligence? Is EQ a matter of skill, or is it an innate capacity that can’t be changed?

Skills and Programming

An individual's EQ is a product of their emotional intelligence skills as well as their internal programming. The skills can all be taught, but whether the knowledge will cause an individual’s behavior to change during emotional situations is largely a matter of programming. Some people know what they should do in a difficult situation, but when they actually find themselves in the situation, their emotions trigger reactions that sabotage their ability to put those skills to use. Their programming trumps their skills training. 

If you search the Internet you will find online EQ tests that ask you a series of multiple-choice questions about what you would do in situations involving emotional conflict. If you know the right answers, you will get a high score; but does that really mean you have a high EQ? The real question is, “What will you do when your emotions are triggered?” How you behave in those situations is largely the result of your programming. The effectiveness of a conflict management training program is certainly dependent on the program’s ability to transfer the right skills. But perhaps to an even greater degree, the program’s effectiveness hinges on its ability to change an individual’s old programming.

Conflict Management Skills

Conflict management is about teamwork, respect, flexibility, collaboration and negotiation. Effective conflict management training programs teach people to step back and consider outcomes from the perspective of team objectives. Too often, coworkers find themselves arguing about petty issues; and if they aren’t careful, these interactions can trigger waves of defensiveness and hostility. The best conflict negotiators lead conversations toward team goals, team interests and opportunities for achieving win-win solutions.

The best training programs provide participants with tools and a framework for conflict resolution, with concrete steps they can follow to avoid the common pitfalls that lead to communication breakdowns and conflict avoidance. But many alumni of conflict management training programs report that although they are trying to follow the steps, they aren’t getting the desired results. As it turns out, the problem is not in the tools or the steps. Often, the problem is a lack of emotional intelligence skills.

Emotional Intelligence Skills

Emotional intelligence skills can be divided into four categories: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Within each category is a set of skills that, when coupled with conflict resolution tools and techniques, will yield great results. But these skills have to be learned, practiced and internalized if they are to be successful. Effective emotional intelligence training programs must not only teach people about these skills; they must also help them learn to master those skills.

  • Self-Awareness:

    When strong negative emotions are triggered, the limbic system within the brain is immediately activated, obstructing of the executive functions of the brain and putting the individual in a potentially volatile, reactive state.  High-EQ people recognize this and have learned to neutralize their internal, automatic reactions. They proceed with caution, keeping their reactions in check. Low-EQ people, on the other hand, become externally focused on the person or situation that has “caused” the problem they face, and thus allow their reactions to “hijack” their behavior. This altered state of mind - often referred to as a neural hijack - can easily sabotage a person's ability to get the outcomes they want, as a result of their reactive behavior while in the grip of this emotional state. Recognizing and identifying one's own reactions in real time is a crucial first step to emotional intelligence. Self-awareness is a powerful skill set and is essential for enabling self-management skills. 

  • Self-Management:

    High-EQ people have the ability to slow down and visualize outcomes. Instead of letting reactions dictate behavior, they can explore possible strategies to achieve the outcomes they want. Their energy is focused on slowing down and suppressing the urge of the emotional brain to react, while making conscious choices about what to do.  Self-management is the skill set that enables you to exert conscious control over your behavior in a situation where your reactions could sabotage the outcome you want to achieve.

  • Social Awareness:

    Low-EQ people tend to make false assumptions in the heat of emotion. They often assume that there is a negative intent behind the behavior of others, usually as a form of projection. In general, when emotions are triggered they assume the worst, and their assumptions fuel the fire of their reactive behavior. High-EQ people, on the other hand, tune in to others; they establish empathy and look for positive intentions behind negative behavior. Instead of reacting negatively to "bad" behavior, they seek to respond to the other person’s positive intentions and to lead them toward behaviors that better express those intentions.

  • Relationship Management:

    Low-EQ people often lose their perspective of time when they are emotionally charged. Dispite whatever ongoing relationship they may have with someone, when negative emotional reactions are triggered they are likely to react in the heat of the moment, with destructive behavior that undermines their future relationship with that person. High-EQ people remain cognizant of the fact that how they interact in the present determines the quality of their relationships in the future. Keeping this broader perspective during conflict helps them to focus on self-awareness, self-management and social awareness, resisting the impulse to react negatively to the other person and thereby sabotage their relationship with them.

The Effect of Low-EQ Behavior on Teams

A manager or employee’s EQ is difficult to measure, and is generally not the major criterion during the selection and interviewing process. But by the time it becomes evident that an individual is lacking in emotional-intelligence and conflict-management skills, the entire team may be suffering. Because low-EQ behavior brings out the worst in people, productivity and teamwork can quickly deteriorate as a result.

Overcoming the Force of Habit

How a manager or employee behaves in the face of conflict is highly dependent on habit (programming). Over the course of a lifetime, neural pathways in our brain have formed the basis for how we will react and behave during conflict. Training classes generally provide us with information, tools and new frameworks for approaching conflict, but their success is dependent in our ability to change our old programming.  Too often, conflict management and emotional intelligence training classes fail to overcome the force of habit.

Learning Emotional Intelligence vs. Learning About Emotional Intelligence

Most emotional intelligence training classes are good at explaining what emotional intelligence is. Few of these classes actually result in raising the EQs of the participants, however. Emotional Intelligence training should be the cornerstone of any comprehensive conflict-management training program, and must result in reprogramming participants for high-EQ behaviors. If you would like to beef up your emotional intelligence training, below is a list of skills training modules you might want to add to your program.

EQ Improvement Skills to Include in Emotional Intelligence Training Classes

  • Shifting Your Position

    Because our eyes are fixed in the front of our heads we normally don’t see ourselves. Self-awareness during conflict includes being able to see how the other people involved in the conflict perceive you. In training we tell people to have empathy, but how do you see the situation through someone else’s eyes? Other people see your body language and tone of voice and interpret these signals through their own perceptual filters. To understand how another person is feeling, you need to get a sense of how they are seeing you.

    A highly-effective method for training and real-time practice in self-awareness and social awareness is to use a "video-camera" metaphor to shift your position. Imagine we are filming an interview using three video cameras. Camera one is behind you, the interviewer. The first camera's position focuses on the face of the person you are interviewing. Camera two sits behind the person you are interviewing and focuses on you. Camera three is positioned above and beside you, at a distance enough to focus on the two of you as you interact. A three-camera interview gives the viewer a richer and more revealing experience as the cameras shift the point of reference from one position to another. Using the camera metaphor helps you train workshop participants to shift from their normal "first camera" position to second and third positions, increasing self-awareness and social awareness by making the empathy shift.

    In first-camera position - my normal point of reference - I understand clearly my intentions, my strategy, my interests and my perspectives. By learning to do a cognitive "switch" to second position and actually see through the other person’s eyes, I can more easily listen with empathy and imagine what it’s like to be that person. I can also begin to perceive how my own words and behaviors are being received by that person. Visualizing another switch to third position, I can observe how we are talking to each other and more easily monitor important factors such as trust, respect and teamwork levels. Practicing this visualization exercise and mastering the use of this tool can dramatically improve your emotional intelligence during conflict.

  • Monitoring Your Emotional Triggers

    We have each had a lifetime to observe what happens when our emotions get triggered during conflict. Your reactions may include anger, defensiveness, blaming, attacking, stonewalling, yelling, clamming up or shutting down, in varying degrees or combinations; our reactions are as individual as we are. Any of these or other unresourceful reactions can derail what might otherwise have been a conflict-resolving conversation. So what triggers these reactions in you? Only you can answer. If you can identify and monitor your triggers during a conflict interaction or dialogue, you have a much better chance of keeping the triggers from being unconsciously pulled.

    A great classroom exercise is to ask everyone in the room to build a list of their common unresourceful reactions and the triggers that cause them to flare up. A common trigger is the offense trigger.  Some people are easily offended by the comments, body language and tone of voice of other people during conflict. If someone knows they have a touchy offense trigger, they can anticipate and learn to control it by practicing un-insultability during the conversation. When the anger of a child is triggered and results in bad behavior, parents are quick to remind the child that “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” That motto is easy to quote and it’s easy to understand... until your offense trigger is pulled. Awareness of your trigger and real-time practice of the emotional intelligence skill of un-insultability is the key to developing the capacity to keep the offense trigger in check.

    The other side of trigger-awareness is learning to avoid other peoples’ triggers. With a little awareness, you can usually quite easily identify the emotional triggers of the people you work and live with. By attuning your awareness and conscious intentions during conflict, you can avoid pulling those triggers in the person you are having a conflict with, and work around those trigger-zones to negotiate win-win agreements. This awareness takes practice. Classroom role play involves setting up conflict scenarios between role players who are provided briefing sheets of each player's known triggers.

  • Monitoring & Managing Your State

    Conflict resolution training generally focuses on cognitive skills and techniques for leading a discussion toward a win-win agreement. But this assumes that you are able to maintain a resourceful state during the dialogue, which may or may not be the case. Your state, at any moment during conflict, includes your state of mind, your emotional state and your physiological state. We might describe resourceful states with adjectives such as happy, enthusiastic, energetic, confident, focused or calm. But these adjectives just scratch the surface. Your state at any moment is about your mood, your neurology, your biochemistry, and your subjective experience on many levels.

    When you are in a resourceful state, it’s easy to work with a difficult person. But when you go into an unresourceful state, the difficult person instantly becomes far more difficult to handle. When your triggers are pulled, you may unconsciously shift into an unresourceful state - something we mught describe as upset, stressed out, offended, fearful, hurt, angry, hostile, irritated, resentful, indignant or shut-down. But neuroscientists have discovered that within your neurology and physiology, these adjectives don’t begin to describe the impact that your state has on your behavior. Your state literally removes your ability to find the resources to effectively resolve the situation.

    Effective conflict managers must be trained in the self-awareness skill of monitoring their state so they don’t shift into unresourceful states without realizing it. If you are aware of your state change, and you have the right self-management tools, you can pretty easily shift back into a resourceful state. But if you don’t know what just happened to you, you will tend to blame the person you are interacting with, and your effectiveness as a conflict manager will be greatly diminished as a result. An extension of the classroom trigger exercise described above includes identifying the specific states that conflict triggers in you.

    A helpful tool to teach conflict managers is a state test. It’s a bit like a sanity check, involving a quick shift from the content of your difficult conversation to focus internally on yourself. You shift from first camera position to second and to third position; you identify and analyse your state and then continue on with the conversation. With practice, you will develop the ability to continuously monitor your state and your level of resourcefulness.

    The other side of state management is the social-awareness exercise of monitoring the other person’s state. This is how you develop awareness of other people’s triggers, and how you can learn to avoid them. A helpful classroom exercise is to ask participants to list the names of people they commonly work and live with, and describe what they know of their triggers and the states that their triggers result in, and work on strategies for helping those individuals to maintain resourceful states during conflict.

  • Reframing Perceptions

    When you are trying to resolve a conflict and the situation comes to seem hopeless, what you have is a framing problem. Your frame of reference has a dramatic effect on your attitude, your creativity and your confidence in success. We tend to unconsciously frame people, situations and conflicts; that is, we size them up. “This person is impossible to work with” is a way of framing the person - a way that may very well make it impossible, at least for you, to work with them.

    Reframing is one of the most powerful skills that can be taught in an emotional intelligence training class. Reframing is the cognitive process of changing your frame of reference. Reframing a half-empty glass as half-full, in effect, changes your attitude about the situation. You can successfully frame any problem as an opportunity by expanding your frame to bring new possibilities into clear focus. By reframing conflict with a co-worker as an opportunity to build better teamwork with that person, you can find the motivation to initiate a conversation rather than avoid the conflict as unworkable. During a difficult conversation you can reframe the way you see the other person - not as an enemy, but rather a potential new ally.

    When you learn to continually monitor your frames of reference during conflict, you soon discover opportunities to reframe your thinking. Reframing is the heart of creative thinking, and when applied to difficult situations, often gives you the power to resolve conflicts you would previously have given up on. Emotionally-intelligent conflict managers use reframing as an effective tool to help other people see conflict differently. By reframing a hostile conflict into an opportunity to improve work processes, you can transform a meeting from a gripe session into a productive teamwork assembly.

    Effective reframing exercises for classroom training involve describing perceptions of various situations and people in negative terms and asking participants to reframe them. You can also share narratives attempts to resolve various conflicts, and ask participants to reframe the narrative to change the perception of the other person and improve effectiveness in leading them toward a win-win agreement.

    The skill of consciously changing your frame of reference with reframing techniques requires self-awareness and self-management. The skill of effectively changing another person’s frame of reference requires social awareness and relationship management. The practice of these skills not only helps you resolve conflict - it also increases your emotional intelligence EQ.

  • Monitoring & Managing Your Connections

    Most conflict management techniques tend to focus on the content of the communication. But what is often more important to managing conflict is the connection (or lack of connection) between the people involved. What does the interaction feel like? Does it feel like a problem-solving and teamwork-building dialogue - or does it in truth come off more like hostility? Are we connecting with each other, or does it feel like a series of attacks and counter-attacks between us? If your words are creating dissonance in the other person - or if their words are creating dissonance in you - shifting your focus from content to connection may be the best approach to take. This requires self-awareness, self-management and social awareness.

    Often, improving a connection requires experimentation. Start by shifting to second or third position as described in Shifting Your Position above. If you realize have been doing a lot of talking, start listening instead - practice the technique described in the Reflective Listening section below. If you feel you have been pushing, ease up. If there is intensity in your voice, tone it down. If you are feeling hostility in the air, show the other person you are on her/his team. When you are continually monitoring and managing the connection, you are more able to turn your conversation into a resonant experience that will result in a win-win resolution. During classroom role play, it is important to always have at least one observer who can comment on the connection between the role players.

    A great working definition for effective communication during conflict is: “The effectiveness of your communication is measured by the response you get.” When you aren’t getting the response you want from another person, there is a tendency to react with the attitude that it is the other person’s fault. High-EQ people do a far better job in managing the connection and the experience during a potentially difficult conversation. This skill can be taught in the classroom, and practicing this skill during conflict is a critical key in improving emotional intelligence.

  • Reflective Listening

    Listening is a critical conflict management skill, but when strong emotions are triggered, most people lose their capacity to really listen. You may have noticed your own tendency to use what should be listening time as a time to decide on what you will say as soon as the other person stops talking. In reflective listening, you do just the opposite. You consciously focus on the other person, their intentions and their perceptions.

    Your role in any conversation is to add value. There are times when you can do this by expressing your opinions or by adding the value of your knowledge and expertise. Other times, though, the value you add is in giving the other person the satisfying experience of feeling validated and of being heard. Reflective listening provides you with a means for helping the other person to express and clarify what she/he wants to say. Your role is to listen deeply, provide helpful cues and ask open-ended questions to coax the other person into clarifying or going deeper into their thinking. Reflective statements are used to restate the implications of what the other person has said as a clear positive intent. For example, after listening to someone vent about not receiving timely responses to emails, you might say, “So you would like the members of this department to be more responsive when you send them a request by email.” Your statement was not a paraphrase. It was a directional statement of what was implied by the comments expressed by the other person.

    During conflict, most people have a tendency to complain about what they don’t like or don’t want. This is the result of away-from thinking. The problem with away-from thinking, especially during conflict, is that it generally creates negative reactions and doesn’t tend to move us toward a win-win solution. Toward thinking focuses on what you do want, rather than on what you don’t. The best conflict negotiators are skilled in methods of reframing away-from thinking into toward thinking. Reflective listening is used not to interject your own ideas into the conversation, but rather to help the other person to express her/his ideas with clarity, but also in a way that moves us toward a solution that will satisfy their and your interests.

    Reflective listening is a powerful skill that can be taught in conflict management and emotional intelligence training classes through role play. When practiced in real-life situations, it serves to defuse negative emotions in both the listener and in speaker. Often, the core problem in conflict is that the people involved feel they have not been heard. Reflective listening solves this problem, and is one of the best practices for increasing your emotional intelligence EQ.

Adding an Accountability Coaching Component to Your Training Program

Regardless of how comprehensive and practical your conflict management and emotional intelligence training may be in the classroom, significant results will only be achieved if participants begin practicing their newly-learned skills on the job. One effective way of doing this is by adding 90 days of accountability coaching to the regular training program. The participant receives a class-completion credit for attending the class, but does not receive full course certification until the 90-day coaching program is completed. Coaching may consist of a series of one-hour, one-on-one coaching sessions conducted at 30, 60 and 90 days after the class. Homework for each coaching session includes maintaining log sheets of conflicts, conversations, negotiations, and practice of techniques learned in class. The coaching provides not only accountability for practicing the new skills, but assistance in effectively dealing with the real people and situations the course participant is encountering day to day.

Raising the Collective Emotional Intelligence EQ of Your Organization

We generally think of EQ as being a measure of the emotional intelligence of an individual. But if you step back and look at the day-to-day practices of managers and employees, you will see a kind of collective emotional intelligence that characterizes an organization. You can most easily see this in comparing one team to another. Some teams are clearly working with a higher collective EQ than others. We often use core value statements and mission statements to characterize our organizational culture, but a good mission statement can’t make up for a low collective EQ.

Low-EQ managers and employees affect the behavior and morale of everyone they come into contact with. If your conflict management and emotional intelligence training programs can really result in raising individual EQs, the net effect will be to raise the collective emotional intelligence EQ of the entire organization.


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