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Blog

...as featured in Harvard Business Review.

Manage a Difficult Conversation with Emotional Intelligence

Susan David

I once worked with a leader — we’ll call him Karl — who needed to have a difficult conversation with an underperforming (but key) team member. To prepare, Karl built ammunition by creating a list of the employee’s shortcomings. He sensed that the interaction would end poorly and he felt extremely anxious about it.

Workplace conflicts like this one are often unavoidable. Just as you disagree with your spouse, your best friend, or your parents, at some point you are likely to disagree with someone at work. Many leaders, like Karl, choose to approach situations of conflict with logic: if a team member isn’t pulling his weight, get proof; if your office mate makes an egregious mistake, take note of the ways her mistake breaches company policy.

But while logic is an important aspect of conflict resolution, it is only part of the equation. Emotions cannot be ignored. In fact, research suggests that suppressing your emotions – deciding not to say something when you’re upset – can lead to bad results. Have you ever yelled at your spouse or child after a frustrating day at work – a frustration that had nothing to do with him or her? That’s what psychologists refer to as “emotional leakage.” When you bottle up your feelings, you’re likely to express your emotions in unintended ways instead, either sarcastically or in a completely different context. Suppressing your emotions is associated with poor memory, difficulties in relationships, and physiological costs (like cardiovascular health problems). Emotions matter.

When Karl came to me with questions about his upcoming meeting, I walked him through a plan based on the principles of emotional intelligence. This plan would help him acknowledge logic and emotion during the meeting.

First, I suggested that Karl recognize the emotions at work in the situation. Karl knew how he felt – he was extremely frustrated. However, he also needed to consider the emotions of the underperforming employee, who likely felt scared and threatened. Perspective-taking is essential to effectively navigating conflict. When they sat down, Karl’s suspicions were confirmed: he could tell from her crossed arms and facial expression that she was already on the defensive.

Second, Karl needed to assess the impact of those emotions on his behavior and the behavior of his employee. Emotions are double-edged swords. Everyday negative emotions help us stay analytical and task-focused. During a conflict, though, negative emotions can result in criticism and nitpicking (just the type of thinking that Karl had been engaged in). Positive emotions support big picture thinking, brainstorming, and creativity. But if we’re not careful, we can start looking at the world through rose-colored glasses and lose track of reality. With the power of positive and negative emotions in mind, Karl began his conversation by highlighting the reasons why he wanted to keep the underperforming employee in his office. He introduced positivity into the discussion, which helped them listen, relax, and engage in problem solving before approaching negative topics.

Third, Karl and I discussed the importance of understanding the swirling cloud of emotions present during this workplace conflict. Emotionally intelligent leaders are aware of what causes their emotions, and they also think through what outcomes are most desirable. While planning for the meeting, Karl began to wonder why: Why were they each experiencing frustration and defensiveness? Why was the employee underperforming? During the meeting, he shared his observations. He asked open-ended questions, hoping compassionately to understand what was happening for the employee. “How are you feeling about your current projects?” he asked. When she noted that she was bored, he continued, curiously. “Why is this happening? What are some of the key skills that you’d like to be cultivating?”

Finally, Karl needed to manage the emotions of the situation by deploying strategies that would lead him to his objective – keeping the employee in his office, and creating a plan to improve her performance. In this case, that meant scheduling the meeting over coffee in the atrium (this helped to encourage open conversation). Also, when the employee came up with overly optimistic goals, Karl logically demonstrated the seriousness of the situation, all the while praising her initiative. In the end, the employee felt that she was being treated fairly – Karl had listened intently and was open to her ideas – and together, they came up with a plan of action.

Emotions aren’t just the result of a workplace conflict. In fact, emotions usually are the conflict. They need to be acknowledged and planned for. Recognizing emotions, assessing their impact on thinking, understanding them, and managing them is a roadmap for navigating through those often-murky (and anxiety-provoking) waters.