Series on Emotional Intelligence: Handling conflict

Conflict triggers strong emotions and can lead to hurt feelings, disappointment, and discomfort. To successfully resolve a conflict, one needs to learn and practice the ability to quickly reduce stress in the moment and remain comfortable enough with his/her emotions to react in constructive ways. Staying in touch with one’s own emotions is particularly important in the midst of an argument or a perceived attack. Read on…


Dave runs a marketing company. A client had accepted some work without criticism but, sixty days later, still hadn’t paid up. Dave was getting irritated: after all, cash flow was tight. Dave started emailing his client requesting payment. After a while, he was very surprised to receive an email back from the client asserting various inadequacies with the service Dave’s business had provided and making various allegations of incompetence against Dave’s staff.

Dave was indignant and sent off a long, businesslike and polite email, but one which made his position clear. He got back another email from his client like the first. So Dave responded in kind, and got another unacceptable reply (and no cheque). Dave responded, got another reply (and no cheque).

By this time Dave was frustrated and he called his Business Consultant. Before going on to read the resolution, below, what would you do in Dave’s position? (It’s a safe bet the client could have kept up the emails indefinitely rather than pay up.)


When Dave called the Consultant, Robert, asked to see the emails. Robert had no way of knowing whether the client was right about the quality of the marketing. On reading the lengthy emails from both parties, it was interesting to see that, under Dave’s polite and business like writing style, there were plenty of little attacks. Robert pointed out that there was a point in the letter where Dave wrote “I attach another copy of the invoice for your convenience”.


“Are you sure you’re doing that for his convenience? Do you know he has lost the previous copy?” Robert asked Dave—it felt a lot more like Dave was electronically waving it under the client’s nose and shouting “pay up!”. Of course the client was giving as good as he got, but Robert didn’t have access to the client, so there was no chance of any mediation process (and no need either).

The obvious point is that Dave and his client were in a fight. Strong word, perhaps, but let’s call a spade a spade.

From this we can say that (1) whether or not he felt he was in the right—or even whether he was right—Dave was colluding with the client in perpetuating the fight. He was as responsible for it as the other party. Most people believe that if you walk away from a fight, the other side is going to walk all over you. This is not usually the case. Dave had to be brave enough to just stop fighting.

Then (2), an attachment to being right (even if you are right!) always stops you moving forward. Dave had to let go of that need to be right, if he wanted the situation to move forward (something most business owners find very hard).

The practical action Dave took was to draft an ultra-clinical, very short and objective response to the client’s recent email, answering the points of fact raised, but not rising to the bait of any allegations, or anything that didn’t have to be answered. He resisted the temptation to have a go at the client, or to ask for the money. To his surprise he got a similarly brief clinical response which required, in turn, an even shorter response.

The client paid up two days later.


There are two principles of emotional intelligence at work here which Dave needed to be reminded of:

(1) If you’re in a fight, you’re equally responsible for it and, if you want it to stop, stop fighting.

(2) An attachment to being right will always stop you moving forward (more precisely it stops you communicating fully and therefore prevents you from finding a resolution).

Applying principles of emotional intelligence almost immediately resolved the problem (at no cost) and Dave’s business got paid. Any other intervention would have been costly and time consuming, at the very least.