Three Ways to Cool the Conflict

Leaders can't just remain silent when disagreements arise among work team members, says emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

A disagreement surfaces as a team discusses what messages to use for which audiences in a marketing campaign for a new product. Janine and Pat are passionate about one viewpoint, while Zack is adamantly opposed. Tempers flare, voices are raised, and Pat says to Zack, “I guess I couldn’t expect someone with your lack of sophistication to understand.” Zack strikes back with a barbed statement attacking Pat’s character.

These days some version of that scenario goes on happens every day. Barraged by “the people on the other side are idiots” messages, we find it increasingly hard to separate the disagreement from person with whom we disagree. Yet having robust discussions about differing viewpoints—and still maintaining the relationship—feeds both healthy innovation and the collaborative work common in today’s workplace.

What’s a leader to do? That was the focus of research done at Harvard that found a difference between “hot” and “cool” topics. Cool topics in workplace teams are ones that do not trigger opposing values and belief systems, have fact-based methods (such as analyzing financial data or engineering tests) to reduce uncertainty, and do not involve high stakes. In contrast, hot topics are those that include differing values or belief systems that shape each person’s viewpoint, uncertainties that can’t be reduced by analyzing facts, and high stakes. Leaders and teams with skills in communication and shared goals generally can handle cool topics without major conflict. Talk about hot topics, however, can more readily disintegrate into personal attacks.

When disagreements flare into attacks directed at individuals, leaders often think they have only two options: voice their opinion and risk damaging relationships, or suppress their response. Neither of these tactics is effective. Negative comments about another person breaks the trust in a group. But remaining silent can backfire if negative attitudes leak out in indirect comments or a disrespectful tone of voice.

Three Ways to Handle Hot Topics

The Harvard researchers identified three strategies that leaders and team members can use to handle heated conflict in a team: Manage self, manage conversations, and manage relationships. Each strategy draws on the emotional intelligence of the people involved, particularly on three EI competencies: emotional self-awareness, emotional self-control, and conflict management.

Manage self doesn’t mean suppressing feelings, but rather noticing them, reflecting on your reactions, and reframing the situation. A key reframe recognizes the value of different perspectives on a team: different viewpoints allow seeing something others do not notice.

Manage conversations builds on the reflections each person has about their initial reaction, and takes some moment-by-moment awareness when you’re communicating. If you can learn to take a pause before making a potentially contentious remark, you are more likely to find the right words to express your views without sounding defensive or on the attack.

Manage relationships is a strategy best done before the team addresses hot topics. Getting to know each other as people, including others’ goals and concerns, helps everyone recognize that each of us is more than our specific views. The researchers emphasize the importance of building trust grounded on real experiences with each other. They recommend investing in relationships that are key for the success of the organization. Ideally, team members can monitor the quality of interactions during team discussions and intervene.

We don’t have a choice about whether conflict will arise in teams, but we do have a choice in how we respond—and these strategies can help you cool conflict when it appears.