Re-building working relationships with emotional intelligence

By Elisabeth Goodman, 9th August 2019

Emotional intelligence - the basics
Emotional intelligence – the basics. Illustration by Robin Spain for RiverRhee

The Summer issue of APM’s (Association for Project Management) Project magazine has a couple of excellent articles on rebuilding relationships.

Susanne Madsen (p. 63) addresses how to strengthen your relationship with internal stakeholders who have become cynical and negative over the years.

Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton (pp. 65-67) have an amusing article about how to take on adversarial project team members. They suggest that team members fall into one of 5 types (the adjectives are my additions):

  • enthusiastic advocates
  • supportive allies
  • passive associates
  • problematic adversaries
  • unhelpful abdicators.

As the names imply, some types will be more harmful in their effects on your work than others.  People can also flip between categories depending on changing pressures on them, or even how you interact with them.

As all three authors point out, there is a lot that can be done to repair such damaged relationships in a very positive way.  These strategies rely on engaging your emotional intelligence.

Oh and never use email to do this – face-to-face is always best to pick up on body language as well as tone.  The telephone is a back-up option if face-to-face is not possible.

Here are a few tips, inspired by the articles and also with a few of my own elaborations.

 1. Assume positive intent.

It’s amazing how much of a difference the ‘going in’ attitude that you adopt in your interactions with others can make.  It’s very true that “behaviour begets behaviour” – and that others will very often reflect your behaviour.

As Susanne Madsen says – someone else will sense if you feel negative when you approach them and are likely to become hostile in return.  It’s an almost automatic emotional response.  Her advice? Present yourself as a friend rather than a foe.

2.  Try to see things from the other person’s perspective.

We have a tendency to think that someone is a difficult person, or being difficult, whereas what might be happening is that they are struggling to find the best way to deal with a difficult situation.

Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton take a similar stance:

When people are being difficult there is usually an underlying reason

Here is what Susanne Madsen suggests:

If you are in doubt about somebody, assume that their need is to feel listened to, accepted and appreciated.  That thought alone can transform your professional relationships.

We need to use our best observational, questioning and listening skills to understand another person’s perspective.

Then, if we can at least acknowledge the situation that they are dealing with, and maybe even help them with it, we will ultimately make our working relationship with them that much stronger.

RiverRhee delivers training, workshops and one-to-one coaching in range of management and team member skills

3. Connect with the whole person – rather than with aspects of their behaviour. 

This is something that Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton explain very well.

They suggest that you aim to get to know something about the other person that enables you to connect with them at a personal level as well as at a professional one.  It might be something that they enjoy doing in their spare time, something about their home situation, a personal ambition.  You might be able to share something about yourself that might help them to connect with you too.

Connecting with someone as a person should make it easier to keep any ‘difficult’ occurrences in perspective, and also to open conversations about them.

4. Pick your battles

This is based on another point made by Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton.  They suggest that you assess the impact of any apparently negative or adversarial behaviour, and then match your action appropriately.

In some cases the ‘damage’ may be one of discomfort only, that can be safely ignored.

In other cases it might be more damaging for instance to team morale, or to the quality of service to customers, or to the outcome of a piece of work.  In these situations, you will need to take action.

Actions will include:

  • Engaging other people who are better positioned to influence them – perhaps because they have a good relationship with them
  • Speaking directly to the person concerned (see point 5. below)

5. Articulate your perception of a situation and seek a way to address it collaboratively.

Any interaction involving emotions is very easily influenced by assumptions and misunderstandings.


  • assuming positive intent
  • trying to see things from the other’s perspective
  • connecting with them as a person
  • using the influence of others

have not somehow addressed a situation, then it’s time to articulate what you are observing.

As Thomas and Walton point out, it’s a good idea to prepare well for any discussion of this type by:

  • Thinking about the other person’s style of working and communicating and how you can approach them in a similar style
  • Looking for any positive aspect of their behaviour and/or work that you can speak about in terms of the value that they bring
  • Gathering evidence that you can use to illustrate the behaviour that you are observing and what a difference changing it would make

This is about trying to engage their emotional intelligence to understand the consequences of their actions.  The skill is to do this objectively, non-confrontationally, without implying blame.

A good tactic is to talk about the behaviour that you have observed, how you are feeling about it, and the different result that you would like to achieve.  If you can encourage and persuade them to find a better way forward, or if you can work collaboratively to find one, then you will get a  much more robust and longer lasting outcome.


There is more about using emotional intelligence to manage conflict in one of my earlier blogs: Conflict is the lifeblood of high performing organisations.

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus. 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

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