How to use emotional intelligence to resolve conflict at work

Leader resolving conflict among front-line workers
Key takeaways
  • Recognizing, understanding and managing emotions is particularly important in a leader’s ability to resolve conflict
  • Emotional intelligence at work, often seen as more valuable than IQ, is a skill that anyone can improve with training and practice
  • 6 steps to resolving conflict quickly and effectively
31 January 2023 – Conflict resolution in the workplace is one of the most important skills for leaders today. It is essential for creating a positive work environment and helps to maintain good relationships between colleagues. This blog looks at how mastering emotional intelligence can help leaders resolve conflict quickly and effectively.

Emotional intelligence and conflict resolution in the workplace

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a set of abilities that enables us to recognize and understand our own feelings and those of others around us. EQ is thus a kind of social intelligence which enables us to act wisely in our relationships with others.

The ability to recognize, understand and manage emotions is an important skill for our interactions with other people, but it is especially important in conflict resolution in the workplace. Unresolved conflict often results in loss of productivity, the stifling of creativity, the creation of barriers to cooperation and collaboration, and even loss of top talent; but recognizing our and others’ emotions is fundamental to resolving conflict.

The concept of emotional intelligence first appeared in business literature in the early 1990s. The premise is that it is EQ and not IQ that determines success in the workplace. As Daniel Goleman, the leading authority on emotional intelligence writes in his book, Working with Emotional Intelligence: “IQ takes second place to emotional intelligence in determining outstanding job performance”.

Emotional intelligence influences how well employees interact with each other, and their ability to solve problems and manage stress. According to recent research by Frontiers in Psychology, employees with higher scores on measures of EQ tend to be rated higher on measures of interpersonal functioning, leadership abilities and stress management.


Download the how-to guide Interpersonal skills for team leaders for tips and techniques to mastering five core skills that help build cohesive teams.


The four major skills that make up EQ

Emotional intelligence is a valuable skill that anyone can improve with training and practice – much like lifting weights to develop stronger muscles.

EQ encompasses these key competencies:



1. Self-­awareness
The key to emotional intelligence is self-awareness. Self-awareness is the consciousness of what you’re experiencing. It’s the ability to read your emotions and understand how others influence your emotional state. By understanding your own feelings and motivations, you can better understand the feelings and motivations of others. This understanding allows you to respond to situations – such as conflict – in a more constructive manner, rather than reacting in a defensive or aggressive way.
Self-awareness is therefore the foundational element on which all other emotional competencies are built.
Self-aware leaders are:
  • Comfortable with their strengths and not crippled by their weaknesses
  • Able to recognize how feelings can influence actions and therefore performance
  • Transparent and authentic – their actions align with their values and build trust
  • Able to separate perceptions, biases and prejudices from the real situation
  • Aware of their emotions and conscious of when emotions cloud their judgement
2. Self­-management
This involves controlling your emotions and impulses as well as adapting to change. Awareness of your emotions isn’t enough. You also need to be able to manage those emotions by not making rash decisions or overreacting to a situation. This allows you to pursue goals and opportunities despite obstacles, and make balanced decisions based on what’s really important and not just how you feel at the time.
3. Social awareness
Emotional intelligence competencies include not only dealing effectively with oneself, but also dealing effectively with others. This cluster of competencies includes the ability to really hear what someone else is saying, sensing others’ moods and being empathetic. Empathy allows you to see things from the other person’s point of view and understand their motivations and feelings. This understanding can help you to find common ground and work toward a resolution.
Mindful leaders are highly skilled at understanding what makes others tick, and they’re able to use this understanding to respond to their teams in ways that bring out the best in people.
Social awareness also includes the ability to understand corporate politics, and to be service-minded.
4. Relationship management
This is the aspect of your EQ that enables you to succeed in motivating and inspiring other people, and helping them to reach their full potential. It is also vital for negotiating successfully, compromising when necessary, working with others toward a shared goal and resolving conflict. A key attribute here is the skill to resolve conflicts without jeopardizing interpersonal relationships.
Your success in this final area is directly correlated to your success in the other three areas because management is all about getting work done through other people, some of whom you have no direct authority over.


Once you’ve mastered the above four competencies, you’ll easily manage conflict by working through the six steps below.


6 steps to resolving conflict

Some conflicts energize employees and encourage creative thinking. However, destructive conflict that decreases morale and cooperation must be addressed as soon as you become aware of it. 

Following are some guidelines for conflict resolution in the workplace:


1. Recognize the conflict
  • First, recognize that the conflict exists and that it will affect the team negatively if it is not addressed
2. Agree on a code of conduct
  • Before discussing the issue, agree to some simple rules for the team’s behavior
  • Confirm that everyone is willing to work together to solve the problem. You could say the following: “Let’s try to work this out together by staying focused on the problem, really listening to one another, staying calm and not shouting.”
3. Discuss and listen to both sides of the story
  • It is important that both sides hear and understand the opposing points of view
  • Clearly identify and describe the source of the conflict
  • Relay the facts of the situation as you see it
  • When listening to the other person’s point of view, use the technique of active listening – try to understand what the other person is feeling and why, listen carefully and ask fact-based questions (Who? What? Where? When? How?) to make sure you understand the situation from the other person’s perspective
  • A deeper understanding of another person’s point of view often improves the situation, and facilitates conflict resolution in the workplace
4. Define and summarize the problem
  • Once both sides of the story have been heard, summarize what each person has said – this ensures that both points of view are heard and understood; you could say the following: “So what you are saying is …”
5. Discuss and agree on a workable solution
  • Each team member should suggest possible solutions and discuss them calmly
  • It’s helpful to brainstorm ideas first, withholding any evaluation or judgement of the ideas until all the ideas have been listed; ask exploratory questions (What if? What are you saying? Is this the only solution to our problem? Are there alternatives to this situation?)
  • Discuss how each person feels about the various alternatives
  • Propose a way to resolve the conflict that works for everyone
6. Follow up
  • Follow up on the discussion by putting agreements into action
  • Create an action plan that specifies who will do what and by when
  • Agree on a date for a follow-up discussion to make sure that the solution reached is working and that the conflict does not flare up again


Download this infographic for the steps to mastering conflict resolution in the workplace.


What Goleman and others have established quite clearly is that our interpersonal skills are as important, if not more important, than our qualifications and expertise. So the ability to recognize and understand emotions and workplace conflict, and bring swift and just resolution to the conflict, will serve you well on your leadership journey.


Download the how-to guide Building high-performance teams to find out how to develop teams that resolve conflicts early in their pursuit of excellence.

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