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Training Emotional Intelligence For Conflict Resolution Practitioners

Emotional intelligence is not a passing fad nor the latest pop-psychology, self-help program. It is a well-researched theory that helps to explain many of the missing components of mainstream conflict resolution education. In our experience, training and education focused on the development of emotional intelligence competencies can increase: a trainer’s ability to work with individuals and groups; a mediator’s ability to listen and respond; any person’s ability to understand and better manage daily conflict; and adds a component to conflict management training in the work place that has been transforming and sustaining.

With any new book or theory, close scrutiny is required in order to create training that makes sense to trainers and trainees and fits well with their own experiences and premises. It often requires taking the “good” and throwing out the “bad”. As we have developed and refined our conflict management training, we realized that the components we were using from Transformative Mediation and other conflict management and adult education theories were already giving trainees an opportunity to develop their emotional intelligence (E.Q.). Though we have used some of the training tools sold by various entities that have capitalized on Daniel Goleman’s work in Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence, we have found that some concepts required further expansion and perhaps even shaping to be effective training tools and to fit our premises.

The primary components of emotional intelligence begin with the self. We use the acronym ARM: developing 1 self awareness; 2 an ability to regulate one’s behavior and thoughts; and 3 to motivate oneself following setbacks. These three are key to developing the other two competencies: better empathic responses to our fellow human beings, and in developing healthy relationships with others. Conflict resolution is a human process where communication and trust are important ingredients to success, regardless of how you define it. If a mediator, facilitator, or trainer is unaware of the effect that his/her behavior, thoughts, or beliefs can have on clients, the result can be detrimental and disempowering. Furthermore, if we have not been self-reflective, our ability to regulate our behavior is diminished and our motivation to press on and succeed less than desirable.

Motivation is a key element in the practice of conflict resolution. We can all recall training, facilitation, or mediation sessions that did not fare well and how we felt afterward. We blame ourselves, the clients, and other external circumstances. What is it that prevents us from giving up and provides us with the motivation for starting again with new clients? We agree with Goleman and Seligman that the key to motivation is your level of optimism or pessimism. It can be defined as fully understanding the reasons for a set-back and placing appropriate responsibility upon ourselves and things external to us (clients, circumstances, etc.); understanding successes in the same terms as setbacks; becoming aware of the internal messages we tell ourselves; and developing an understanding of the learned optimism or learned helplessness that has seeped into our being.

The other two components have more to do with how we interact with others. They are: Empathy and Social Skills/Healthy Relationships. Without a strong sense of who we are, the ability to regulate our behavior, and a healthy level of optimism and motivation our ability to develop these latter two competencies is diminished. Although the five competencies Goleman identifies are separate and distinct, they are also dependent and hierarchical. For example, if you can identify a weakness in your motivation levels, perhaps due to strong pessimism, you can find related weaknesses in areas such as self-awareness, self-regulation and in your ability to develop strong social skills. We all work in this field in order to help parties reach their goals. The processes we use are relational and based on the core values we hold. As human beings, we know that appropriate empathic responses are important to develop and maintain healthy relationships. Goleman makes the case for the idea that we are less able to be empathic if we lack awareness or the ability to self-regulate or motivate ourselves. Again, this concept illustrates the hierarchical nature of the E.Q. competencies and the idea that developing your E.Q. is a lifelong journey. It also illustrates the function of empowerment and recognition espoused by Transformative Mediation theory: one needs a sufficient level of empowerment (strength of self) before one will naturally recognize and feel empathic toward others involved in the conflict.

As Transformative mediators, we see the connection between what Goleman talks about in statements like “conflict makes smart people look stupid” as it relates to what we know as the “fundamental experience of conflict.” We see the connection between the diminished ability to feel empathy or give heart-felt recognition as it relates to the relative feelings of weakness and self-absorption that conflict creates. These concepts further illustrate the need for strength of self in order to develop true and natural commitment to others. Therefore, Goleman’s work gives more credence to the theories we work with in both mediation and conflict management and provides valuable information and insight into the conflict experience.

In our opinion, Goleman’s work makes a valuable contribution to conflict management theory and training, and a compelling case for the importance of emotion in what we believe to be “rational” decision-making processes. Many conflict resolution professionals believe that emotion hinders the process. However, if you apply this to a real-life experience, does it fit? For example, recall the last time you may have stopped an emotional moment in a group process, training, or mediation: what were you feeling; what were you fearing; what did you hope to accomplish? Did the emotion disappear or reappear? Did dampening the moment have a lasting impact, such as participants trying to disrupt a training because they did not feel heard, or parties in a mediation failing to follow through with an agreement because their emotion was not recognized and they were no longer emotionally invested in the process? Also think about your own conflict experiences: how “unemotional” or “rational” were you able to remain? If your emotions were ignored, how would you react?

Our lack of comfort with emotion has induced our perceived need to control it. Our response to emotion has had more to do with our needs than that of the parties. Our controlling actions can be felt as disrespectful, disempowering, uncompassionate, and sometimes shaming for the parties. After all, if they have lived with the conflict long before we entered the picture, they know their patterns, they understand each other, they expect emotions. They intuitively recognize the role of emotion in reconciliation, understanding, forgiveness, and believability. They are comfortable with it. We are not. A key in developing skills to work with emotion is increasing our comfort with emotion.

Goleman’s theories are instructive in helping us to understand the important role emotion plays in our life. We rely on emotional input in order to make decisions and prioritize information. Emotion is what non-verbal communication is made of and therefore, if we ignore the emotion, we also ignore more than 90% of human communication. We have found that if we recognize emotion as it is displayed, that the level of emotion naturally decreases. We have also discovered that if we fail to acknowledge emotion or prevent its revelation, the emotion in the room increases.

Learning more about our emotional intelligence is an empowering process. It increases our internal strength. The more inner strength and knowledge we have, the greater our ability to be compassionate, understanding and empathic. Folger and Bush call this movement or interplay “Empowerment” and “Recognition” and we believe that it is the way in which we recover from conflict. In the end, we find that it is also about increasing one’s emotional intelligence.

Our Center works to develop the emotional intelligence competencies of our staff, mediators and all of our workplace trainees. Unlike I.Q., one’s emotional intelligence can be increased throughout a lifetime. Thus, it is a lifelong journey we embark upon to become more clear, aware, sensitive and adaptable. The techniques we have employed in training have created sustaining change in the organizations we have worked with and we give much credit to the concept of emotional intelligence and to our mediation framework that gives us values and purpose.

Solid training that focuses on developing awareness about our strengths and weaknesses as mediators, facilitators and trainers is crucial to our development as culturally competent process workers, and is crucial in our pursuit to help clients achieve their potential. Openness to learning and reflecting about our role, about who we are, and about how we affect others is essential and will lead us down the path to success in life.

End Notes

1 See Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence, 1995. New York: Bantam Books.

See Goleman, Daniel, Working with Emotional Intelligence, 1998. New York: Bantam Books.

2 See Bush, R.A.B. & Folger, J.P. , The Promise of Mediation: Responding to Conflict through Empowerment and Recognition, 1994. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass.

3 See Seligman, M.E.P., Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, 1998. New York: Pocket Books.


Daniel Bjerknes

Daniel Bjerkness has a Masters Degree in Counseling from the University of North Dakota and a BA in Psychology from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. Dan serves as a Conflict Management Consultant and Mediator for the Conflict Resolution Center (CRC). He is an Associate of the Institute for the Study of… MORE >


Kristine Paranica

Kristine Paranica, J.D., Director of the UND Conflict Resolution Center , provides mediation, facilitation and training for CRC clients. She also serves as Adjunct Professor of Law in Alternative Dispute Resolution at UND. She is an Associate Member of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation, an Advanced Practitioner… MORE >

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