Frequently, I watch teams trying to solve an issue that seems straight forward while observing that their behavior says it’s anything but.  I see people interrupting, I hear yelling, I notice tears welling up.  Then I know that it’s not an intellectual debate, it’s an emotional conflict that’s at the heart of the issue.

The secret in this situation is to stop trying to solve the intellectual issue and switch to addressing the emotional ones. Once the emotional issues and concerns are on the table, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to make a good decision on the presenting problem.  Unfortunately, you’ll have difficulty working your way out of emotional issues on your own because they are so personal, so contentious, and so uncomfortable that your team just won’t go near without some help.

How do you know if you’re trapped in an emotional conflict rather than an intellectual conflict…

  1. You FEEL it. You don’t get sweaty palms or a flushed, red face from the stress of weighing the pros and cons of raising the price of a product by 5% versus 10%. So if you’re feeling more than thinking, you’ve probably struck an emotional chord.
  2. You HEAR it. Emotional arguments are distinguishable from intellectual arguments because the tenor of the conversation changes. First, the conversation speeds up as you get less focused on listening and more worried about landing your point. Second, as you and your teammates start downplaying each other’s contributions, the volume starts to go up—as if saying your points more loudly will make the other person more likely to listen!
  3. You go off on tangents. Intellectual arguments tend to proceed logically with each point flowing linearly from the previous one. In an emotional argument, ideas tend to come out of left field because they are being trigged by undiscussed, implicit issues (such as values and beliefs). If you notice yourself thinking “where did THAT come from,” you need to assume you’re into an emotional argument, not a rational one.
  4. You circle. As you try to solve the argument with logical, intellectual suggestions, you find that nothing seems to land. Things that seem totally reasonable are rejected, or at least not endorsed. You start to feel like you’re going around and around.


If it’s clear from any of these signs that you are in the midst of an emotional argument, stop trying to solve the intellectual issue; it won’t get you anywhere except more frustrated. Instead, call what you see. Try one of these lines…

  • I get the sense that the conversation has taken on a new tone. What just changed?
  • We’re getting louder and louder and not listening to each other. How are folks feeling right now? Is there something we need to get on the table?
  • There seems to be more going on here than just our discussion about pricing. What’s at stake in this decision?
  • I’m feeling my heart race. I didn’t realize I would have this kind of a reaction to this issue. Can we slow down and talk this through a little more?


The last thing you want to do when you’re trying to drive for a solution is to stop everything and go into a deep conversation about what’s going on for people emotionally.  Do it anyway. I promise you that any time you spend and any deicsions you make before you resolve the emotional issues are wasted. Decisions that are made without resolving the underlying issues tend to drive concerns and resistance underground. You won’t know when, but at some point your decision will pop back open or you’ll notice that no one is implementing it.  Do yourself a favor and get to the bottom of the issue.

As the old kids’ books says “you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you’ve gotta’ go through it!”

Further Reading

When Conflict gets Emotional

Dealing with Negative Emotions

How to Foster more Open and Honest Debate

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