Learning Emotional Intelligence and Healthy Conflict in Your Relationships

Are you aware of your emotions in different situations? Do you try to understand how others are feeling? Are you able to cope with the daily demands and stresses of life, such as frustration, irritation and anger? Are you able to use your emotions and how others respond to you to guide your decisions and help you assess a situation? 

These characteristics are all part of being emotionally intelligent. The concept of emotional intelligence (or EQ) was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, and has gained more awareness and attention in the scientific community over the past 20 plus years. Researchers have noted it is important for coping with stress, performing well academically, making moral and ethical decisions, becoming a good leader, and having fulfilling friendships and relationships. 

There are many theories for why awareness of your own and others’ feelings is an important tool for navigating much of life, especially the parts that require us to communicate and deal with conflict. Emotional intelligence connects the way we think, what we feel and how we perceive other people and the world around us. Sometimes defined as interrelated abilities to “monitor one’s own and others feelings and emotions, discriminate among them and use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” It’s about how you first perceive (or notice), appraise (or make sense of), express (or communicate), and regulate (or manage) your emotions. More important, it’s about how we experience and express empathy and understanding in our interpersonal relationships. 

So, basically, emotional intelligence plays a part in the entire gamut of what we do on a day-to­day basis. I like to call it managing the emotional tabor of everyday life.

 My colleague and I conducted an interesting psychological study, where we investigated how one’s emotional intelligence abilities affected communication and conflict styles within relationships. Our goal was to look at conflict and communications styles in intimate relationships and how a person’s level of emotional intelligence affects how people dealt with conflict in their relationships.

 The different conflict styles we explored were:

• Avoidance is an unassertive and uncooperative conflict style, where strategies such as denying conflict or deflecting conflict are used. An example would be keeping conflict to yourself to avoid being put on the spot. 

• Competition is an assertive but uncooperative conflict style, characterized by trying to convince others to achieve one’s goals or meet one’s needs. An example would be using your influence (instead of trying to compromise or collaborate with your partner) to get your ideas accepted. 

• Compromise includes elements of assertiveness and cooperativeness. It is a way of addressing the needs of both parties quickly but without fully resolving the issues. An example would be trying to propose a middle ground for breaking deadlocks. 

• Accommodation involves deference to others in an unassertive but cooperative manner. One problem is that one’s own needs have to be overlooked in favor of addressing others’ needs. An example would be simply accommodating to your partner’s wishes. 

• Collaboration involves both cooperation and assertiveness and should result in both parties’ needs being addressed to resolve the conflict. It is considered the healthiest of the five because it recognizes the inevitability of conflict but focuses both people involved reaching constructive resolution. An example would be trying to bring your and your partner’s concerns out in the open so that the issues can be resolved. 

What did our study find? Not surprisingly, higher levels of emotional intelligence were related to the more “advanced” or “healthier” approaches to dealing with relationship conflict -specifically, compromise, accommodation and the healthiest method, collaboration. These conflict resolution approaches tend to be healthier because they get couples out of the fight, flight or freeze cycle that some couples engage in that leads to stonewalling, holding grudges and being overly critical of each other. 

We also observed some interesting gender differences: Women were more likely to report collaboration in response to healthy conflict situation and men were more likely to report accommodation in response non-violent conflict situation. 

What does this all mean? Well, conflict in a normal part of relationships and that means the longevity and quality of a relationship is determined in part by how each partner learns to navigate their difficult conflicts and disagreements. What our study highlights is that emotional intelligence could be one of the keys to unlocking healthier ways of communicating and dealing with relationship conflict. How aware you are of your own and others’ emotions says a lot about how well you’ll be able to fight fairly, disagree without destroying and care as much about your partner’s emotional needs as your own. Your emotional intelligence -your awareness of your own and your partner’s emotions, being able to acknowledge your own and your partner’s difficult emotions, and feeling capable of managing and regulating your emotions -helps you to deal with conflict in your relationship in healthier ways, which can lead to greater relationship satisfaction. 

So for the sake of your relationship, it may very well be time to getting smarter and work on your EQ. 

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