I know that I need to get better at dealing with conflict. This is as a result of feedback from my business partner, some of our team members here at Kwela and my wife!

This article explores how Emotional Intelligence (also known as EQ – emotional quotient) skills (like conflict resolution) can be learned or enhanced. Current studies and my personal experience strongly suggest that it really is possible to teach an “old dog” like me new tricks. While it helps to have some genetic predisposition in the targeted EQ area, all is not lost when the DNA is not there in the first place. If progress in a skill like conflict resolution is possible, how is it done? Five steps deserve consideration:

  1. Knowing yourself and how you can get better

One of the early pioneers of EQ, Daniel Goleman, describes self-awareness as the “ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others.”

[1] Self-awareness means understanding one’s strengths, weaknesses, stressors, needs and values. People who have a high degree of self-awareness are attuned to how their behaviour affects themselves, others and their performance on-the-job. They are vulnerable and show humility, exhibiting self-confidence but also admitting to mistakes and appropriately disclosing insecurities and limitations. Seeking feedback and suggestions for how one might improve becomes a key to self-awareness. Listening to suggestions without judging too quickly, and learning from them, helps self-assess how you show up.

  1. Choosing to improve

If having self-awareness is foundational, choosing to get better is an essential building block. The decision to improve is usually based on an understanding of the benefits or the return on investment. Not all feedback on how to improve needs a response. What is most important? What will make the most difference? I know that improving my conflict skills will positively impact relationships on our team and in turn have a positive impact on our business.

I recently worked with a person who was on the verge of being fired. A workplace investigation concluded that his was not acceptable. In deciding whether or not to take on the assignment, I had an exploratory meeting to assess the person’s commitment. I was struck by how motivated he was to change. The penny had dropped – the person understood that without change he would be asked to leave. He had moved from gaining self-awareness to choosing to improve. I agreed to work with the person and eight months later, our pre- and post-assessments showed that key stakeholders in the organization had noticed significant improvement.

  1. Visualizing the “what”

The next key step is to be able to vividly and specifically “see” what success looks like in the future. It’s tough for people to build new behaviour and skills if they do not have a clear picture of what they have to do differently or how they need or want to be. Having insights into “how” one might achieve the “what” also helps.

It’s useful to break down the skill into clusters of 5 to 6 steps which increases the odds you’ll remember what to do. For me, getting better at conflict requires that I follow these steps:

  • Control my emotions, i.e. purposefully take time out to regain composure when emotions are heightened
  • Ask questions to really get where the person that I’m in disagreement with is coming from, and show the individual that I’ve listened
  • Ask permission to and then provide my views and perspectives on the issue
  • Summarize what we disagree on and what we agree on
  • Focus on the future by generating a few options and solutions that we can both live with

The above is not new or particularly earth shuttering, but a tried and tested approach. Keeping the desired behaviour in the forefront through review mechanisms and reminders is what makes the crucial difference. I have a recurring private note in my electronic calendar titled “read me”. I click on the note every Monday morning and reflect the above steps. This greatly increases the odds that should I need to deal with a disagreement in that week, I’ll remember the method.

Your vision should be realistic. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll turn a skill that you’re struggling with into strength. That’s not the idea. Developing it to an adequate level where it no longer is a limitation is more realistic.

  1. Practicing a lot

Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Psychologist Anders Ericsson, a renowned researcher on mastery (whose work was reported by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ’Outliers’) has examined what it takes for classical musicians to excel. He found that practice and feedback were far more significant than any kind of inherent genius. Ericsson coined the term “deliberate practice”. Deliberate practice requires steady, consistent repetition over time, a process that can be slow, even tedious. Developing a skill, whether it’s playing the violin, facilitating great meetings, or staying calm and focused under duress, requires us to repeat new behaviours again and again, until they take root in our brains as a habit.

  1. Not giving up

Setbacks are inevitable. Building a new ability is as much about making progress as it is about making mistakes which forms the basis for more reflection, feedback and learning. Tenaciously picking oneself up, brushing the dirt off your shirt and trying again is central.

I firmly believe that emotional intelligence skills can be learned. Not only does the literature strongly support this; I’m being told that I’m dealing with conflict better! I suspect that I’ll never be out of the woods entirely – such is the nature a developmental goal. But I’ve made progress to the extent that conflict is no longer something that gets me into the trouble it once did.

[1] What makes a leader? Daniel Goleman, Harvard Business Review, January 2004

Nic Tsangarakis, Principal