Workplace Conflict: An Inescapable Reality
It’s no surprise that conflict is a regular and unpleasant reality in many workplaces. When a group of employees from various backgrounds and with different work styles is brought together to achieve a shared business goal, tensions are inevitable. Competing priorities, stressful deadlines, heavy workloads, and poor communication can cause a minor misunderstanding to snowball into a full-out argument or simmering resentment.
A 2008 study by CPP, developers of the Myers-Briggs assessment, found that US employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, equating to approximately $359 billion annually in paid hours. According to another study by the University of North Carolina, HR managers spend 24 to 60 percent of their time dealing with employee disputes. Worse, 53% of employees said they spend time at work worrying about a past or future conflict with a coworker. How to reverse these troubling statistics? Managing conflict at work takes more than patience and good communication. It requires emotional intelligence.
The Relationship Between Emotional Intelligence and Conflict Management
Think of emotional intelligence as a toolkit - an internal resource to draw upon when conflict arises. According to emotional intelligence and negotiation expert Dan Shapiro, “The moment you feel threatened in a conflict, a whole set of emotional forces turn your conflict into an adversarial battle: It becomes you vs. them. Suddenly the problem feels nonnegotiable because you can’t imagine working things out with the other side.” In these moments, emotional intelligence may help transform a destructive argument into a productive learning opportunity. Individuals with high Emotional Intelligence Quotients (EIQs) have an easier time controlling their feelings, display greater self-awareness, and are able to take time to process their thoughts before reacting. These abilities are particularly useful in conflict management and resolution.
The 5 Ways Emotionally Intelligent People Handle Conflict
Consider these actions that individuals with high EIQs demonstrate the next time you find yourself in conflict:
- They address issues privately. Responding to a frustrating coworker or situation in the moment (especially publicly) can cause lasting damage. Ask the other person if you can speak in private. If you need time to cool down before engaging in a dialogue, it’s completely acceptable to ask for it. Setting boundaries around conflict can preserve professional relationships. For example, consider the following responses:
– “Let’s not engage in this sort of serious discussion over email.”
– “Could we talk about this in person either later today or tomorrow morning?”
– “Can we please talk about this privately after I take a few minutes to process everything?”
- They ask questions. Asking open-ended questions is a useful technique for employees, managers, or mediators. Some examples of these questions are:
– “So how did you feel when _____ happened?”
– “Can you tell me a bit more about why you found the situation so frustrating?”
– “What do you think the other person might have been feeling/thinking?”
– “How do you think you could respond or change to resolve this issue and what would you like in return?”
These questions encourage the parties involved to self-reflect and even arrive upon solutions on their own.
- They listen. Emotionally intelligent people don’t merely listen to what the other person says, they also restate and clarify to make sure they accurately understood. The action involves saying something like, “So, what I hear you saying is that you were upset because it felt like the manager was taking credit for your idea during the meeting. Am I right?”
- They pay attention to their words and tone. It’s important to use neutral language and a calm tone when talking about sensitive issues. Avoid accusations such as, “You’re always making me look bad in front of our boss! What’s wrong with you?” This phrasing sounds confrontational and makes the other person feel defensive. Changing the statement to make it about yourself instead of him/her demonstrates another way to change the tone of a conversation: “It makes me feel embarrassed to have errors in my work pointed out publicly, especially in front of our manager. Would you mind sharing that feedback with me privately next time?”
- They find common ground. Ultimately, the biggest disagreements arise from passion. Most people feel strongly about their work or opinion, sometimes to the point where they’re unable to absorb a different perspective. Reminding yourself that you and your colleague share common goals may help neutralize a disagreement about the best way to achieve those goals.
There’s enough to worry about during the workday. Conflict — between and among coworkers, managers, and their direct reports, and even between and among larger groups or departments — takes time and energy away from achieving shared goals. Any steps you take to make your organization (and yourself) more empathetic and peaceful will bring major payoffs: happier employees, clearer communication, a more positive environment and, ultimately, greater organizational success.