I have been working with conflicted congregations for 20 years this year. I am increasingly convinced that Emotional Intelligence is key to conflict management.
Emotional Intelligence and Effective Conflict Management, This Pair Can Make or Break Your Leadership
I was a young pastor, conscientious, concerned for my congregation and the unity of our church. So on that Sunday afternoon when John, an experienced deacon, showed up at my home unannounced, my antennae went up.
John’s agitation and dire message concerned me. He described a conflict within our congregation and insisted that it must be dealt with immediately. With a knot in my stomach, I jumped up from my chair and hurried to the phone. I called an emergency meeting of the deacons for that very evening.
At the meeting, I described this alarming conflict to the rest of the deacons. To my utter surprise, each one assured me that there was no problem. The “great conflict” I had been told about was actually quite minor. My worry turned to relief when I realized how I had overreacted, then to embarrassment as I began to back out of the “emergency” I had created.
The problem was that I had not corr-ectly gauged John’s emotional state and had taken his word for how others were feeling. I also failed to manage my own emotions well enough to think about the situation I was facing. Like most pastors, I was unschooled in both emotional intelligence and conflict management.
Today I serve as a church consultant and I am never surprised by the presence of conflict. Conflict in any church is inevitable, and it can make or break a congregation. Handled well, it can actually be constructive—helping congregations to become healthier and stronger. Handled poorly, it can result in schism and breakdown. Keeping conflict constructive requires emotional intelligence and effective conflict management skills—two areas around which most ministers have received no training. Two areas that can make or break a leader.
Key to Ministry
Whether during times of conflict or harmony, the majority of ministry is set within an emotional context. Knowing how to perceive and use emotion (i.e., having emotional intelligence) has a huge impact on an individual’s ability to form and maintain effective relationships. It also plays a vital role in how we respond to and manage conflict. Emotional intelligence is crucial to good leadership. Some experts believe it is a better predictor of life success than IQ. The good news is that, unlike IQ, emotional intelligence can be improved with training.
Until the last decade or so, emotion was generally seen as a detriment to intelligence, decision making, and leadership. That view is rapidly changing and today emotion is increasingly considered highly useful information that effective leadership requires. So just what is emotional intelligence? According to John Mayer and Peter Salovey, who defined it in 1997, emotional intelligence is “the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.”1 To put it simply, emotional intelligence is using emotion to help us cope with our environment successfully.
There are four components of emo-tional intelligence: perceiving emotions, facilitating thought, understanding emotions, and managing emotions.
Perceiving EmotionsBefore we can use emotions to help us be successful in our environment, we must be able to recognize and identify emotions in others and ourselves. The more we are open to emotions, even the ones we are uncomfortable with, the more information we have to cope with life situations. Though emotions are difficult to hide, they can also be difficult to read. Different individuals have varying capacities for perceiving and using emotions. One way we perceive emotions is through facial expressions. Paul Eckman, a pioneer in the area of emotional intelligence, identified seven basic emotions that look the same on people of all cultures: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, rage, contempt, and disgust. Body language and voice inflection are two other cues to another person’s emotional state.
Emotion can support the kind of thinking or action we need to carry out. When clergy use emotion to deliver an effective sermon, emotion helps convey a message. If you want your congregation to address an injustice, you want them to feel anger. If your church is launching a building campaign, you want them to feel energized and expectant.
Happiness is the most helpful emotional state for creativity. An upbeat, energized environment with music and snacks is great for big-picture ingenuity. Have you ever been in a committee session intended for creatively solving a problem while you sit in a dreary basement meeting room at 5:00 in the afternoon? The task will feel overwhelming. On the other hand, if you need to check a budget line-by-line for errors, better to be in the more subdued environment.
Most of us could stand to broaden our emotional vocabulary. Do you just feel good today, or are you actually content, joyful, or feeling enthusiastic? When we name emotions and know their causes and consequences, we can read a situation more accurately and know how to respond appropriately. Emotions are temporary, complex, and changing, and they involve our bodies as well as our minds.
The better we are at understanding emotion, the better we can predict the emotional future. Emotions come in sequences. One we’ve all experienced is this negative slide: Someone starts out irritable, something happens and he becomes annoyed, something else happens and he becomes frustrated, then upset. The situation escalates and he becomes angry, then furious, and finally enraged. If we know the sequence, we may be able to head things off at the irritable or annoyed stage and avoid the rage. Conversely, there are sequences to positive emotions that are worth knowing and promoting, such as the progression from calm and content to happy and joyous. Emotional intelligence involves getting a handle on an emotion in yourself or others and knowing how it can combine with other emotions or stressors and progress.
Managing EmotionManaging emotion is the fourth component of emotional intelligence. It is the ability to be open to both pleasant and unpleasant emotions and to modulate them in ourselves and others to promote personal understanding and growth.
A friend of mine serves as a pastor in Blacksburg, Virginia, near the site of the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech two years ago. As he stood to preach for the first time after the shooting, he needed to call upon all of his emotional intelligence resources. He had to consider his own emotions and those of the congregation and how to respond to them. When we see emotions as useful information and as having a predictable sequence, we can welcome them, using them to bring hope, console, inspire, and motivate.
A pastor who has been with the family of a dying baby and who, an hour later, must speak to the church youth group about their upcoming mission trip, must recognize and cope with his or her low emotional state. He or she might wisely decide to hit Starbucks for a change of scenery and a double latte. Some upbeat music, prayer, or a call to an encouraging friend might also be helpful in creating a more appropriate emotional state. Before he or she can speak positive words to encourage and excite the youth, the pastor’s emotions must shift from sadness to optimism and anticipation. Thought influences emotion just as emotion influences thought. The more we know about emotions, the less likely we are to be hijacked by them or to become victims of our own emotional states.
Choose Your Style Carefully
So how does emotional intelligence help us manage conflict? There are different styles of conflict management. The key to handling conflict well lies in knowing these styles and when to use each one. Most experts agree that there is no best conflict management style. Good leaders vary their mode of conflict management according to circumstances. The effectiveness of each depends upon the situation at hand. That is where emotional intelligence comes in. It helps us to read a situation and decide which conflict management style to use.
According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, there are five conflict management styles—competing, accommodating, avoiding, collaborating, and compromising—which involve various combinations of assertiveness and cooperativeness. Jesus himself used each of these five styles during his own conflict-filled ministry.
Competing is assertive and uncooperative—a power-oriented mode wherein an individual pursues his or her own concerns at the other person’s expense. Jesus took this route when he cleansed the temple. You might use this when standing up against an injustice, as when a staff member is unfairly treated.
Accommodating is the opposite of competing. It is unassertive and cooperative. Here an individual neglects his or her own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person. Jesus was accommodating when he appeared before Pontius Pilate. Your accommodating might take the form of giving in to another’s desire for a meeting location or time. This can be a good way to build trust and goodwill.
Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative. The individual who is avoiding does not address the conflict and so does not immediately pursue his or her concerns or those of the other person. Jesus demonstrated this style in Luke 4:29, when, after reading the scroll in the temple and declaring himself the fulfillment, he was taken to the top of a cliff in order to be thrown off by an angry mob. Jesus simply walked through the crowd and left the scene. Your avoiding might be to postpone a discussion for a week in order to let emotions cool off.
Collaborating is the opposite of avoiding. It is both assertive and cooperative. It involves working with the other person to find a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of both. Jesus collaborated when he fed the five thousand by taking the loaves and fish brought by the disciples and multiplying them. You might collaborate by exploring a disagreement with another to learn from the insights each of you brings to the situation, or by confronting another to try to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem. Collaborating requires high trust between parties and is time consuming, but it would be the best approach to a major decision, such as whether or not to purchase or construct a new church building.
Compromising is the intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. Here a mutually acceptable solution is sought to partially satisfy both parties. Jesus compromised when he was asked whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matt. 22:21 NIV). You might compromise by splitting the difference or seeking a quick, middle-ground position. For a conflict that is not critical to your church, like room décor, compromise would be appropriate.
Most people have a preferred style of conflict management and many have a consistent fallback—for example, competing and then leaving or avoiding. Each of the styles is effective in the right context, but it is not productive to use the same style in every situation. When a minister says to me, “I let everyone know what I think. I don’t play games,” in effect he is saying that his preferred mode of conflict management is competing. While this may be best for a number of situations, it will spell bad news for other situations in which the minister refuses to back down. Conversely, a minister who always compromises or accommodates will not be a prophetic leader. How can one lead if he or she is afraid to disagree?
Anyone who consistently finds him- or herself in irresolvable conflict should consider that his or her repertoire of conflict management skills is probably too narrow. The goal is to know which approach is most helpful in a given situation and then to develop the capacity to implement that approach. That is where emotional intelligence comes in. Emotional intelligence helps an individual to more accurately read a conflict and then decide which style to use and how to use it most effectively.
Raising Your Emotional IntelligenceThough it comes more naturally to some individuals than others, emotional intelligence can be improved with practice. Want to get better at perceiving emotion? Go to the mall with a colleague who reads emotion well, then people-watch and talk about what various individuals’ facial expressions and body language might mean. After an emotional meeting, talk to another staff member about what he or she perceived to be going on. If you are not good at reading people emotionally, do not guess. Instead, ask, “How are you feeling?” To get better at using emotion to facilitate thought, before you or a group embark on a task, think about what emotional state would be most helpful. If the task changes, you may need to take a break and do something to shift the emotional state. To understand emotion better, write an emotional story or journal about your feelings and the events and thinking that affect them. Journaling can be helpful for managing your own emotions. Personal coaching can also help increase emotional intelligence. To further manage your emotions, stay healthy—watch your diet and exercise.
Managing Conflict BetterMinisters should start working on emotional intelligence and conflict management when times are good. The question is not whether you will have conflict but when.
Once you have raised your functioning emotional intelligence, you can monitor your handling of conflict. That ability can be improved as well. It helps to become familiar with the five conflict management styles described above and to think about which one you generally use. Then imagine situations when that mode would not be the most effective. Imagine how a conflict might change and require that you alter your conflict management style. After a conflict, talk to a coworker, reflect, or journal about how you acted, what worked or did not work and why. Identify the other party’s emotions and conflict management style and your response.
Personal coaching can help anyone to handle conflict more effectively. Paying for one-on-one coaching is likely to be more cost-effective than paying consulting fees after a conflict becomes destructive. It is a smart way to invest in a leader and in the long-term health of a congregation. The business world has embraced personal leadership coaching; the church is just beginning to do so.
Effective leadership involves a capacity for both emotional intelligence and effective conflict management. Although I do more consulting around conflict, if asked which is the more important skill for ministry, I would have to say that emotional intelligence is the bigger of the two. Ministry involves relationship (even in conflict there is relationship) and emotional intelligence is essential to relationship. Without emotional intelligence, it is nearly impossible to manage conflict effectively.