How to have an emotionally intelligent disagreement

Leaders tap into their emotional intelligence when tensions run high. The next time you find yourself in a disagreement at work, try one of these six strategies
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emotional intelligence

On the best of days, emotional intelligence might come easily. You keep your cool under pressure. You own up to your own mistakes and learn from them. You lead with mindfulness and self-awareness.

But not all days are ideal. Sometimes you’ll have to dig deep to find your emotional intelligence. And disagreements, when tensions run high and both parties feel strongly, can be the most difficult time to keep emotions in check. This is where the hard work of continually building emotional intelligence can really pay off for leaders.

[ How strong are your soft skills? Read also: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]

The next time you find yourself in the middle of a heated disagreement at work, consider these six strategies:

1. Find common ground

Emotionally intelligent leaders see conflicts as opportunities.

Before disagreements take a turn for the worse, stop, breathe, and take a moment to ensure you are going into the discussion with the right frame of mind. Emotionally intelligent leaders see conflicts as opportunities, says Sanjay Malhotra, CTO of Clearbridge Mobile.

“Leaders can easily bring more emotional intelligence to their next disagreement by looking at the situation as a means to identifying cooperative possibilities,” he says. “By approaching disagreements in this way, leaders utilize two specific skills: the ability to respond and not react, and the ability to envision the bigger picture with self-awareness.”

This mindset will go a long way in keeping feelings of frustration and anger at bay, Malhotra notes. “More importantly, self-awareness and the ability to respond encourage leaders and other emotionally intelligent individuals to examine the situation from all perspectives.” 

[ Do you match your decision-making style to the problem? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader's guide. ]

2. Practice empathy

Leaders know how to put themselves into someone else’s shoes and view the disagreement from their perspective. If you don’t know their perspective, be sure to ask. Making the wrong assumption in disagreements could backfire, Malhotra points out.

“It is important to clarify and challenge the validity of any assumptions brought up in a disagreement, those of others and your own,” he says. “By recognizing the multiple viewpoints and emotions of all involved, leaders are able to shift attention and encourage everyone to collaboratively search for an answer or solution. Ultimately, this allows leaders to truly harness the creative power behind conflict.”

Of course, being open to other perspectives means you have to be willing to let go of your own at times. Pride has no place in emotionally intelligent disagreements.

“Eliminate your own pride from the equation, have an open mind, and be wise enough to recognize better ideas than your own,” says Lee Rossini, VP of product at Limeade. “Seek to understand your partner’s concerns before raising your own. Listen and empathize before trying to coach the other person or present an alternative viewpoint.”

3. Listen

An emotionally intelligent leader typically will not be the one to speak first in a disagreement –not because they don’t have a strong opinion, but because they value listening first. Behavioral and management psychologist Dr. Elliott B. Jaffa says this is a key people skill that high-EQ leaders bring to disagreements.

He has a few go-to strategies for listening more effectively.

“Wait your turn,” he advises. “Never interrupt the other person while he/she is speaking. When he is finished, count ‘One Mississippi,’ and then speak. If you are interrupted by the other person, immediately stop talking in mid-sentence. If two people are trying to speak at the same time, neither is hearing anything the other is saying or said. Never raise your voice or use an inappropriate word. To make your point, it’s best to lower your voice to just above a whisper. These points sound easy, but they all require practice, role play, and simulation to maximize your own behavioral control.”

[ Read also: How to be a better listener: 5 steps. ]

Leaders have another compelling reason to listen first: It helps team members grow.

“Most people want to solve their own problems, and this is the best way for them to grow professionally.”

“It has been my experience that most people want to solve their own problems, and this is the best way for them to grow professionally,” says Jonathan Fries, VP engineering and digital transformation at Exadel. “If someone has a professional disagreement, begin by listening. Keep in mind that venting may be their way of saying they want guidance. Then ask questions and be sure you understand. Asking questions like, ‘How do you think the situation could be resolved?’ is very effective.”

4. Consider your body language and tone

Want to know how someone really feels? Beyond the words they use, there are two tell-tale signs that convey their true intentions and emotional motives, according to Rossini.

“In disagreements, I watch for two indicators: body language, and the type and tone of words used,” he says. “Between these two indicators, it’s pretty clear if the individual is truly interested in resolving the conflict or just being ‘right.’ Often the emotional state of an individual is anchored in pride, where being right on a particular topic or approach is linked to that person’s own assessment of self-worth/value. Unfortunately, that pride can come before doing what is truly right for the business or the team.”

Look for closed-off posture, rolling eyes, interrupting behavior, and assigning blame without responsibility for one’s own role in the situation, Rossini advises. Then assess your own body language and tone to ensure you aren’t sending the wrong messages.

[ What message do you send? Read our related article: 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

5. Know when to stay out of it

“It is hard not to jump in sometimes, but this distance can be a manager’s most valuable asset.”

Sometimes the most emotionally intelligent way to handle a disagreement is to stay out of it. For leaders, this can be an important strategy for modeling healthy conflict. One way to do this is to state your expectations for the resolution of the disagreement, says Fries.

He suggests saying, for example: “You’re going to speak to Ted this week? Let me know on Monday how it went.” Or, “Please listen to the other side of the argument and seek out a win/win.”

“Only get involved further if the sides seem unwilling or unable to reach a decision,” Fries says. “It is hard not to jump in sometimes, but this distance can be a manager’s most valuable asset.”

6. Assume positive intent

Finally, remember that most people don’t like conflict. If someone is engaging in an argument at work, they most likely feel passionately about their viewpoint.

“It’s very unlikely that the person you are working with woke up that morning deciding to be rude or search for an argument,” says Rossini.

Emotionally intelligent leaders assume positive intent when approaching disagreements, he adds.

[ Is your leadership playbook outdated? Read our report from HBR Analytic Services: Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  

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