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Emotional Intelligence and its Role in Conflict Resolution

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

Being “smart” is one of the most commonly cited attributes in relation to success. We want to look smart, make smart decisions, and be smart about our careers. However, being ‘smart’ means more than we often realize. Intelligence cannot be separated from the blessings and curses of human emotion, and this is a vital insight in the workplace.

In the mid 1990’s psychologist Daniel Goleman caused a stir with his book Emotional Intelligence. Intelligence Quotient (IQ), argued Goleman, is an incomplete way to understand intelligence. No matter how much we value rational faculties, anyone performing them is still human, and being human means having to deal with the messiness of emotions. Accomplishing tangible outcomes with our rational skills – publishing a book, closing a business deal, making a good decision – will automatically put us in contact with emotional boosts or complications, whether our own or those of the people around us.

Part of Goleman’s intervention was simply arguing the “soft skill” of emotional intelligence (EI), and its importance, into popular discourse. But he also pointed out that rational and emotional intelligence are actually wrapped up in a complex “dance” which enables thought. In other words, our emotions can facilitate our rational capabilities, but we can also apply our rational capabilities to affect emotional outcomes. Understanding this relationship and being able to demystify the role of our emotions characterizes emotional intelligence.

Goleman’s argument unseated common sense notions about the skill sets necessary for obtaining high-powered roles in, for example, law or business – and anywhere confrontation and antagonism are likely. Earlier understanding assumed that emotions were purely inconvenient intruders in these spheres: the best emotional face is a ‘poker face,’ the symbol of suppressing emotionality in lieu of rationality.

The relevant insight here from conflict resolution is that emotions can never be removed from any process in which divergent interests are involved. Emotions are internal to the process of reasoning itself, and they are likely to become more influential and relevant as more is at stake. Convincing yourself that your field doesn’t require EI because you use a lot of ‘hard skills’ could be a huge mistake.

In the field of conflict resolution, a lot of practitioners feel that emotions can hinder the process of conflict transformation or resolution. Daniel Bierknes and Kristine Paranica, however, ask us to reevaluate whether that assumption actually matches up with reality. Is it really better to emphasize the thinking and not the feeling, and does that really reflect your experience of conflict resolution?

Bierknes and Paranica emphasize that EI about our own responses is paramount to developing our capacity for empathy. If we cannot be reflective about how we feel when someone gets angry or sad, it is unlikely we will be able to manage our own emotional responses well enough to help facilitate the conversation. They also remind us that any resolution itself is an emotional process. Overemphasizing rationality in conflict can leave important emotions unacknowledged.

While we often think of IQ as an expression of innate capabilities we are born with, EI is undeniably an attribute which we develop as a lifelong journey. Your formal education formed and expanded your intelligence in so many areas. How have you nurtured your EI as you’ve progressed in your career and life?

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She is one of eight Maryland mediators featured on a statewide demonstration video of good mediation practice. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute.  She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse clients in Washington, DC and the US. Get in touch with her via email, and follow her on LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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