The Role of Intuition in Conflict Resolution

by John Ford

There is no question that to resolve a conflict beyond a superficial level, the emotional energy that accompanies any conflict must be addressed. And yet how we go about working with emotions in conflict situations is not that clear. Some encourage a focus on forgiveness, while others point out that until the nasty reality of revenge is addressed, forgiveness will be illusionary. Some say we need to understand the neurobiology of emotion to respond and others say that all we have to do is listen actively.

In this article, I want to explore the role of intuition and suggest that at the heart of the work of conflict resolution, whether by professional mediators, or HR managers is our ability to sense what to do or not do, intervention wise. To do this, we first need to develop our capacity to sense through feeling and images. Secondly, and at a cognitive level, we need to develop rules of thumbs or what some call ‘heuristics’ to guide us in our interventions.

The Role of Emotion in Conflict

Imagine an employee receives a performance review that she considers unfair. Her manager has rated her poorly for her ability to get along well with others. All her other scores are excellent. The interesting question is whether the thought that it was unfair came first, or the emotion. Some neuroscientists, like Damasio suggest that before there is conscious awareness of a feeling, there is a visceral emoting in the body and that therefore, even if just by a millisecond, emotions precede thought. In this situation, one can imagine a range of emotions including the initial surprise, anger both toward her manager and maybe even herself, disappointment, and fear about what this means for her job security with the company.

Beyond the emotion, there is the thought that it is unfair. This cognitive perception is based on the expectation that something different should have happened. In other words, that there is a gap between what is (the poor rating), and how she would like things to be (all excellent). And while the initial thought pattern may have been stimulated by the raw emotion, it doesn’t take long for most unexamined minds to perseverate and to generate ongoing justifications, explanations, arguments and demands that continue to feed the range of emotions. Except now, instead of the stimulus for the emotions being external, they are internal-her own thoughts that blame the other.

And then, most likely, there will be some form of behavior associated with the emotions and thoughts. When humans experience stress there is the well known fight or flight response. Thanks to the work of Shelly Taylor at UCLA, we now know that there is also the capacity to connect (to tend and befriend), especially in women, and where the fight and flight response is associated with the release of the hormone adrenalin, there is oxytocin, which some refer to as the trust hormone. It is at this point, when she storms into your managers office, or goes over his/her head to HR that the first outward ‘fight’ signs of conflict emerge. Of course, if her tendency is to bottle things up, then it may be harder to detect, and yet the energy of the unresolved emotion will continue to haunt the relationship and may lead to indirect or passive aggressive behavior. Some may try a different tack, and seek to talk openly about the situation and seek to learn rather than to defend. Resolving the conflict at the level of the behavior is the easiest but also the least durable. In essence, they both agree to conduct themselves in a civil and professional manner and to communicate about difficult issues. The issue of the actual performance review may also be settled at a substantive level. Depending on company policy the review may remain, be changed, or be linked to a performance improvement plan. However, until the emotions that informed that initial perception of unfairness are addressed, any resolution will be at best, superficial.

If this conflict surfaces, it will not only be her emotions, but also her managers. It is not just the employee that has feelings about this. Her manager may be outraged that she went to HR, and like her is concerned how this is going to impact his/her job security. This too must be addressed.

It is at this point that most have justice/revenge/payback etc on their minds, and through insular thought processes develop elaborate stories that cast each in the role of victim, while blame is used to distance themselves from responsibility. Only if the emotional energy can be addressed, the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation as the deepest form of conflict resolution may arise.

The challenge for conflict resolvers is to work with the emotional energy that holds the key to the lasting resolutions of the conflict. As I have already suggested, my experience is that to do so effectively we are operating intuitively.

Intuition as Emotional Intelligence

Intuition can be defined as knowing without knowing why. Unlike conscious thought, in which theory is applied to facts, intuition is sourced from the unconscious and without being fully aware of the underlying reasons or theory, we have a spontaneous sense of knowing that emerges primarily as a feeling, hunch, or sense that we consider strong enough to act upon. The interesting observation that even intuition must make it’s way to conscious awareness, points to the key factor that distinguishes the two: the source of the knowing. To reference the now well known four quadrant emotional intelligence model of Goleman, intuition is a heightened sense of self and social awareness, that allows us to manage both ourselves and our interventions in a relational setting. Obviously, as conflict resolvers, being emotionally competent is a given, and our ability to master how and when we say or do what (intervene) when supporting a conflict resolution conversation is vital.

Developing Intuition

How then do we develop our intuition? Frances Vaughn in her early classic, Awakening Intuition, suggests an approach that allows our whole being to be a more receptive sensor to what is going on. She suggests that we quieten our minds, both before and during situations where we need our intuition. She encourages a sensitivity to feelings and images as the primary way in which we get in touch with intuition. And she warns that if we have not cleansed our own emotional bodies, our projections, transference, and our triggers, we will be distracted us from picking up on the subtle messages that are being sent. She points to meditation as a key tool that allows intuition to come into conscious awareness without interference.

Clearly this is part of the puzzle. Doing our own emotional work is the price we pay for the privilege of meddling in the conflicts of others. However, there is another way that we can develop intuition, and paradoxically it is through the use of heuristics or rules of thumb. I say paradoxically, because heuristics can be developed by the conscious or thinking mind. In essence a heuristic is tool that helps with decision making. For example, in health care, young doctors are told, when you hear hooves, think of horses, not zebra’s. This helps minimize the unfortunate tendency of newcomers to assume that the disease is exotic rather than common most of the time. When confronted with a lot of data, it helps to rapidly come to the best solution most of the time. A heuristic is a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation.

Interestingly, Gerd Gigerenzer in his book, Gut Feelings, suggests that this is exactly how intuition works. Intuition, he suggests is really the application of unconscious rules of thumb, some developed through knowledge, and others already evolved, which allow us to focus on a small sample of information to reach conclusions, much in the way that Malcolm Gladwell describes ‘thin slicing’ in his book Blink. So, for our purpose, what heuristics are available to guide us when it comes to decisions that we must make when helping others resolve conflicts. In other words, what are our simple rules of thumb?

Emotional Heuristics For Conflict Resolution

The sad truth is that there is no library of heuristics to guide how we respond to emotions in a conflict resolution setting such that our intervention decisions are more likely to guide the parties to resolution. For the most part what we have are lists of interventions that can be used. The question of when which intervention should be used is the task that lies ahead of us, unless we continue with an essentially random approach that relies on big chunks of trust that each new conflict resolution practitioner will get it right. I have included at the end of this paper, some of the more classic interventions that I and my colleague Eileen Barker have been developing. We use it in conjunction with our core beliefs about emotion (also included). And while helpful, the reality it that we need to start developing is a list of markers that essentially say, when this occurs, do this most of the time.

Let’s take an example. Imagine, you as a HR manager are asked to facilitate the conversation about the performance review issue I referred to above. One of your beliefs is that feelings are not the same as behavior and that a possible intervention you are considering are communication preferences aka ground rules. Over the years I have developed an informal heuristic that says:

When emotions are high and trust is low, be explicit with behavioral ground rules.

I have found this to a helpful guide, and in these circumstances where there are strong emotions between the employee and her manager and low trust levels this would be a good idea most of the time.

Let’s imagine you do, and the conversation is going well. However, as the employee is telling her manager how upsetting the performance review is, and how she is afraid that she won’t be able to support her child if she loses the job, she starts to cry. My belief is that everyone is responsible for their own feelings, that the expression of feeling is healthy, and that it is not my job to fix or change what others are feelings. The classic question, of whether to offer tissues, if you have any, could be the basis of another heuristic. I know that some colleagues who will immediately offer a tissue, and others that make tissues available but fall short of offering them. So, as you can see there are two possible heuristics:

When tears appear, acknowledge the emotional content and intensity and offer tissues.
When tears appear, acknowledge the emotional content and intensity and make tissues available, but do not offer them.

My practice is to follow the latter practice on an intuitive basis. My gut tells me that I am right, but I don’t really know why. My out loud thinking is not evidence based science, and hopefully will be taken to another level through research.


An interesting rule developed by a foreign student, was to always laugh when others did, even if he didn’t know why they are laughing. My sense is that most professionals working with others in conflict know what to do without always knowing why. As we evolve our capacity to both resolve and to teach how to resolve conflict, acknowledging the role of intuition is vital. Having a methodical way of increasing our capacity to respond intuitively will help newcomers to the field avoid unnecessary and painful lessons. The last thing I want to suggest is that we become robotic. But we do need to look honestly at what we do, when and why and look for the general lessons.

Core Beliefs

1. Human beings are emotional and have feelings. 2. All (both externally and internally stimulated) emotions/feelings are valid. 3. Feelings are not the same as behavior. 4. We can change when we allow ourselves to feel. 5. We can choose how we relate to our emotions. 6. No one is responsible for anyone else's feelings. 7. Appropriate expression of emotions is healthy and empowering. 8. Don't try to “fix” or “change” the feelings of others. 9. The essence of emotion is motion. Moods are about stagnation. 10. Emotions are part of an open system and can be perceived both consciously and unconsciously.


  • Do Nothing
  • Acknowledge the emotional content and intensity (empathy)
  • Validate the sense their emotion makes to their identity
  • Reframe from truth to perceptions, from the past to the future, from demands to needs and from blame to problem solving
  • Establish and use communication preferences (aka ground rules) to address negative/unproductive communication
  • Acknowledge impact, and explore intention
  • Risk surfacing what your gut tells you-the deeper truth
  • Explore thoughts connected to the emotion
  • Describe and make explicit the pattern/dynamic
  • Ask, “What would I be feeling?”
  • Elicit and draw attention to apology and other conciliatory gestures
  • Explore issue of forgiveness
  • Reinforce positive moves
  • Use humor and laughter
  • Be welcoming and hospitable