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Emotional Intelligence in Tough Conversations

| July 14, 2015

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading is a short video Emotional Intelligence in Tough Conversations from the Harvard Business School’s “The Management Tip” series.  The presenter is Susan David, CEO, Evidence Based Psychology and Codirector, Institute of Coaching, McLean Hospital.  David is also co-author of Emotional Agility, which appeared in the November 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

A few months ago on May 12, we also discussed having difficult conversations in a Tuesday Reading.  There we talked about an approach – Listen, Ask, Summarize, Validate, Express, Negotiate, and Commit – that helps manage the process you might follow in having a difficult conversation.  Today, the focus is on learning to use your emotional intelligence to guide your conversations to a successful conclusion.

 Dr. David notes that we almost always begin our difficult conversations with a cool head, a logical argument, and with no consideration of either our or their emotions.  Yet, in her view, emotion often derails the conversation and results in less than the best outcomes.  As a result, David believes that our conversational strategy should not ignore the role emotions play.  When we work on logic and don’t plan for what emotions might be triggered, we can easily be derailed.  She suggests four steps we might take to bring our emotional intelligence into play in our tough conversations:

  1. Recognize emotions.  Before we get into the conversation, it is important to consider how both you and they feel.  If the manager recognizes the emotional clues, he or she is better able to respond proactively and adaptively in the conversation.  
  2. Use emotions to facilitate thinking.  If you know the emotions in play in your meeting, you can intentionally use them to guide your conversation.  For example, research has shown that if the emotional mood is negative being analytical and task-focused can help make your point.  And, that if the mood is positive, then a brainstorming conversation that develops the big picture can be helpful.  Aim to match your approach to the emotional mood at hand.  Or, work to change the emotional mode to one that supports what you are trying to accomplish in the conversation.
  3. Understand emotions.  Try to understand the emotion and what the ideal outcome might be.  Emotions convey information and can guide you in your interactions with your conversation partner.  Knowing the emotional mood of your partner, you can ask better open-ended questions to get to the heart of the matter.  Once you begin to ask questions that are on-point, you are better able to reach an outcome that will work for everyone.
  4. Manage emotions to lead to better outcomes.  If you are seen as being invested in the person and being honest and fair in crafting a solution, this will work for everyone and you will have succeeded.

David believes that taking these four steps will strengthen your own emotional intelligence.  If you are on guard as to the emotions in the room and do not ignore them, your conversation is less likely to be derailed.  When you recognize these emotions, and use, understand, and manage them, you can help everyone achieve better outcomes.

The next time you have a difficult conversation, start by doing a check on your and your partner’s emotions and use what you discover to have a better conversation.


Make your week a great one.  .  .     jim



 Susan David and Christina Congleton, Emotional Agility, Harvard Business Review.