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Four Steps to Manage Workplace Arguments

From the boardroom to the break room, arguments will inevitably surface, and the key to enabling employees to handle these situations well is emotional intelligence.

June 21, 2011
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Arguments, disagreements and differences of opinion are unavoidable facts of working life. Our inability to see eye-to-eye is so central to the human condition that some clashes stem from our physiology more than our free will.

A recent study published in Current Biology that was conducted by the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience found significant anatomical differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives that contributed to their opposing political beliefs. It appears the human race is built for conflict. So, what’s a talent manager to do?

When your opinions don’t mesh well with those of the person sitting across from you, the mark you leave on the situation comes from how well you understand and manage your emotions — not from what you say to prove your point. When emotions are allowed to run haywire during a disagreement, things discombobulate very quickly and the discussion goes nowhere.

From the boardroom to the break room, arguments will inevitably surface, and the key to enabling employees to handle these situations well is emotional intelligence, or EQ. Employees who are trained to argue with emotional intelligence will accomplish two things:

1) The argument itself will be far more rational and productive. Removing their strong emotions from the equation by following the steps outlined below will keep them from fanning the flames of discord. Regardless of how agitated the other party is, when someone remains calm, people are forced to lean further in this direction than they would have otherwise.

2) The argument will do less damage to the working relationship. Disagreements are fine, as long as they are conducted with consideration and respect. When someone explodes with emotion and says things that are better left unsaid, it has a lasting, negative impact on the relationship. However, if the person approached a disagreement with emotional intelligence, it has the opposite effect: It strengthens the relationship by showing the other person respect even when there’s disagreement with his or her opinion.

Talent managers can lead by example: When they find themselves in the middle of a disagreement, they can take the emotional high road for the greater good of the relationship. It’s critical to avoid being defensive, remain open and practice the following strategies.

Ask good questions. People want to be heard; if they don’t feel heard, frustration rises. Managers can beat frustration to the punch and ask the other party to elaborate on his or her point of view. Even if the other person has already gone on and on about his or her opinions, it’s critical to ask good questions about what he or she thinks and why he or she has reached these conclusions. Managers must control their own feelings as needed and focus on understanding where the other person is coming from. By asking for input, they will show that they care about the other person’s opinions and have an interest in learning more about his or her beliefs. This act establishes respect as the foundation for the discussion.

Resist the urge to plan comebacks and rebuttals. A person’s brain cannot listen well and prepare to speak at the same time. Managers must use their self-management skills to silence their inner voice and direct their attention to the person while he or she is speaking. The key is to focus their energy on what’s required to engage in an emotionally intelligent discussion or argument. When they do the opposite - by focusing on winning the argument, or at least sneaking a barb in - they are engaging in an unproductive habit.

Help the other person understand your side of things. Now it is the manager’s turn to help the other person understand his or her perspective. This is an important step because people are usually happy to voice their opinions, but they do nothing to bridge the gap between their perspective and how the other party sees things. Managers can describe their discomfort, thoughts, ideas and the reasons behind their thought process. They must communicate clearly and simply, and avoid speaking in circles or in rhetorical code. This ability to explain their thoughts may not win the other party over, but it will certainly garner their respect.

Keep in touch. Any resolution to an argument is not going to come in the heat of the moment. Managers can demonstrate a high degree of emotional intelligence by checking in with the other person once the dust has settled. The idea here is to see if the other party is satisfied with how things are being handled and to determine if there are any new avenues both parties can explore to reach common ground.

Travis Bradberry is president and co-founder of TalentSmart, a provider of emotional intelligence tests and training products, and author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0. He can be reached at

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