How To Maintain Emotional Intelligence In A Stressful, High-Conflict Workplace

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working woman

Conditions of high social stress can fuel high-conflict workplaces.

Were you an essential worker working during the pandemic because society needs its hospitals and grocery stores open and you need the paycheck?

Are you a worker coming back to a non-essential small business that has just re-opened?

Or are you a white-collar worker just now leaving the home office and heading back to professional life in your "real" office?

No matter your profession, emotional intelligence at work is now more important than ever. 

RELATED: Are You Logical & In Control Of Your Feelings? 9 Signs Of High Emotional Intelligence

What is emotional intelligence?

It's defined as "the ability to perceive, use, understand and manage emotions."

Given the social and economic disruption of the past fifteen months, you've been functioning under stressful conditions — the life-or-death threat of Covid, social distancing and lack of human contact, the questions of "to vaccinate or not to vaccinate" and vaccine availability, and shortages of toilet paper and alcohol wipes.

Even your personal life has been stressful. You're irritable, short-tempered, and less willing to make allowances for both yourself and others, craving human contact and simultaneously dreading it.

Your working life is no less fraught, opening up the possibility of stepping into mine-laden workplaces. 

You’re irritable and your boss is irritable. A mistake is made and which party made the mistake is completely irrelevant but blame is still exchanged. 

Together you launch into a battle, rather than calmly handling the mistake and any consequences.

Here are three steps for managing stress and conflict at work, using your emotional intelligence. 

1. Recognize your own emotional responses.

Improving your emotional intelligence starts with recognizing that you have a point of view that you believe is an obviously "correct" point of view.

How do you know you have a definitive point of view? Ask yourself if you ever called someone a jerk for disagreeing with you or if you have "hot buttons" that friends and family can press to instantly anger you.

Ask yourself if you provide clear evidence of the correctness of your position to someone who argues a point with you.

If you’ve done any of these things, you have a point of view and you’re strongly connected to your point of view.

It’s OK. All human beings are this strongly connected to their own points of view.

So, you have a point of view and it’s the correct point of view. Now what?

The next step is to realize that your body is going to instantaneously respond when your point of view is challenged. Why?

We were cavemen once and our "fight-or-flight" bodily response served us well when confronted by saber-toothed tigers.

Today, there aren't so many saber-toothed tigers about. Yet, our bodies continue to respond in the same fashion when confronted with mere thoughts or challenges.

Understand, then, that you believe you hold the correct point of view, that your brain will immediately think its own thoughts about imminent threats, and that your body will respond to all perceived threats, real or merely "thoughtful."

This is what your emotional intelligence is up against when dealing with your brain and your body. The only thing to do here is to breathe deeply and exhale fully. This will calm your physical response.

You’ll be able to think again, rather than simply react.

RELATED: The Smartest People Possess These 4 Traits Of Emotional Intelligence

2. Respond with empathy to your perceived opponent.

Emotionally intelligent people pay attention to others. 

Your work colleague is dealing with the same ancestral biology. In their mind, their point of view is the "only correct" point of view.

Their hominid ancestors are your hominid ancestors, so they have the same flight-or-fight bodily response — their physiology is reacting in the same way that yours does.

Now that you’ve taken a few deep breaths and can think again, respond to your opponent with empathy. Imagine yourself in your colleague’s shoes.

Their point of view is "correct" from their point of view and you’re not going to win by arguing, convincing, or debating. Good points and evidence just don’t matter.

You don’t want your conflict to degenerate into a name-calling, playground fight that nobody wins. You want a successful resolution to your conflict.

3. Resolve the conflict rather than escalate it.

Solving problems require listening. Given that you’re breathing again and can see that your colleague has a point of view valid in their own eyes, really listen to your colleague’s point of view. Active listening is key.

There's something valid in their viewpoint — viewpoints don’t just sprout out of thin air like mold.

Agree on the facts: something happened and you’re both responding to whatever happened. Do this without adding any emotional content. ("I’m right and you’re wrong," "I know this and you don’t," "I was there and you weren’t," or "What a jerk!”)

Rely on empathy when you have this conversation. Together, look for a resolution that works for you both and, presumably, your customer or co-workers.

Now that you know the importance of emotional intelligence, you can use this 3R approach every time you feel a conflict coming on.

Workplaces aren’t the only places where you spend time and get into conflict with other human beings.

Conflict can occur anywhere and anytime human beings gather — within families, neighborhoods, and organizations; between states and countries; among workers, owners, and customers, to name just a few examples.

Everyone has opinions and they're not identical. In fact, everyone has their own unique personal set of opinions about how the world is.

You can resolve the differences in your opinion without demonizing others. You can agree to compromises that work for the greatest number of you, whether that’s between you and a partner, within an organizational structure like a workplace, or globally among nations.

The key is to remember to breathe when confronted by conflict. Clearer thinking and a workable, amicable resolution flow from there.

RELATED: What Is EQ & Signs Someone Has Low Emotional Intelligence

Susan Kulakowski, MBA, MS, is a writer who has been actively pursuing personal and professional development since 2017. Her focus is making personal development courses available for minors and their families. And yes, she did enroll in that standup comedy class and got a few laughs at the student showcase. Visit The Relationship Mastery Institute on Facebook for insights on relationships, communication, and love.