You have a meeting today with Michelle. She runs your music team, and she shouted at you a few days ago, after she found the door locked. Then she broke a piece of equipment and didn’t let the office know. It looks like she was hoping no one would find out. Over to you.
Enough to make you break out in a cold sweat? Me too.
It’s in every story, every marriage, every relationship, every business, every school.
Conflict. Fights. Disagreements.
Why do we find it so difficult? Perhaps if we had some training. Perhaps if we didn’t procrastinate. Maybe if we’d seen it modelled well during childhood. If someone had told me how much damage could result from running away . . . and on it goes.
This is a subject that will run and run.
When a leader lacks the ability to deal with conflict, the results can be truly awful. Division, discord, unhappiness, lack of vision, to name just a few. If you’re a leader who struggles with conflict, then this is not a subject you can just push under the carpet. Running from conflict is like pretending you don’t have an infection. It’s all well and good until the infection turns into sepsis, and then later on, you’re admitted to the ER.
A leader who can’t do conflict is inevitably a poor leader.
Why do we run from conflict? All sorts of reasons, but the primary one is fear. No question. Won’t everything just improve if I ignore the problem? Cue absurd fantasies, driven by terror over . . . actually doing something!
So . . .
I’m afraid that in one blog post, I’m certainly not going to solve the problem. But here are a few thoughts.
Conflict is normal
In fact, more than that, it’s healthy. Conflict may well arise from selfishness (or other sins), but it can also emerge from misunderstanding and a failure to communicate clearly enough. How often during a difficult conversation do we discover that we simply didn’t understand a person’s motivations, their background, the exact circumstances that led to the behaviour causing the problem? Conflict creates a space for learning, for empathy, for connection. For prayer.
Conflict is a teacher
Conflict is a light shining in the darkness. It illuminates truths not seen under normal circumstances. It forces each person to take a long hard look at both their behaviour and their response. Conflict shows us our lack of grace, our impatience, our unrealistic expectations, our failure to support and encourage. It can do the same for the person with whom we have clashed.
When done well, conflict will often provide the opportunity for a leap forward in a relationship. Greater trust, more patience, a better understanding of what motivates and drives us. I didn’t realise . . . I didn’t know that . . . I see now why . . . I’m so sorry . . .
Consider Michelle. How might the conversation go once you discover that she’s struggling in her marriage and faces losing her job? The whole tone of the conversation would shift. And rightly so. It would – and should – move towards grace, more grace, and prayer. This might even be the moment she looks back on, when she decided to seek marriage counselling and started down a path towards healing.
Conflict can lead to grace. Believe it.
Grace offered and grace extended – these are the crown jewels in the Christian community. Because God has graciously chosen us and saved us, we, of all people, are equipped to offer grace to all. And what a life-changer that can be!
Conflict isn’t about winning
If I could just show him where he’s gone wrong.
This is going to be great. Once I’ve proved that I was in the right, then he’ll see that he was wrong to speak to me like that. Ye-es! Let’s go.
Actually, let’s not. Let’s just calm down and take in the truth that conflict isn’t about winning. In an argument, if you win, you lose, and if you lose, you lose. There are no winners. Conflict isn’t about ensuring that the other person hears and understands your point of view. And it isn’t about ensuring that they agree with you. Conflict is there to bring us together. Often, I’m afraid, the results are unsatisfactory. Even when the issue has been addressed, differences often persist. It may produce growth, but it can equally leave us frustrated. Learning to deal with the disappointment arising from conflict is a life-long journey. It drives us to our knees. It’s supposed to.
Some final tips.
Do it now
Discord festers. It niggles. Like a pebble in a shoe, it first causes slight discomfort, then a blister, then outright agony. It would have been better to remove it the moment you felt it. So do it now. You know it, I know it – when conflict arises, it’s best to address it immediately. (See our post on procrastination)
Use ‘I’ language
You’ve probably seen this in marriage courses. It applies to any kind of conflict. ‘You’ language comes across as accusatory. "You were the one who . . ." "You said you were going to . . ." "You promised to . . ."
By contrast, ‘I’ language describes your own response to the problem. "I find it difficult when . . ." "I’m trying to understand . . ." "Perhaps I haven’t been as clear as I should have been . . ." "From my perspective, I struggle when . . ."
It’s worth adding here the importance of starting with the facts. Since conflict often arises from misunderstanding, it’s essential to discover what actually happened. Who did what. When. Who was responsible.
Remember your position
You’re the leader. You have power; you exercise power. Be very careful how you use that power when resolving conflict. Don’t manipulate. Don’t accuse. Set good boundaries. Be clear. Be specific. Have realistic expectations. Apologise, if appropriate. Take responsibility. Don’t fudge with the truth. Don’t be defensive. Be open to the other person’s point of view. Listen well.
And remember the psychology of both body and soul. Standing or sitting. Behind a desk or sitting in a coffee shop. In the lounge after the service? (Probably not). With another person present, or alone? Eye contact, tone of voice, use of language – avoiding inflammatory words – they’re all critical to how you come across.
The person who finds conflict easiest is the one who is comfortable living in the truth. If you’re too fond of the mask, conflict will be hard. So live in the truth. Rip off the mask. Take responsibility for your failures. Extend grace to the sinner. Confess your own sins. Enjoy grace and enjoy sharing grace.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes,
If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people. (Rom. 12.18)
Leaders cannot please all the people all the time. But leaders can and should seek to live at peace with all people. That cannot be done unless a leader learns the art of conflict resolution.
If you struggle with it, you are not alone. Be encouraged. The Lord knows that conflict is hard. It hurts. It’s a struggle. It forces you to dig deep, to draw on your resources of love.
Believe it or not, to engage in conflict is to love well. Who would have thought it?
Conflict forces you to go the extra mile. It forces you not just to talk about peace, but seek it, fight for it. Conflict forces you to your knees in humility; it drives you to draw on God’s help in times of stress and difficulty. It builds the soul, nurtures a faithful spirit. So however hard it may be, don’t avoid it. Face it. The Lord knows that you’re nervous and frightened sometimes, but that’s okay. Trust him and move forward. Step out in faith.
When you do, you may well discover that love flourishes. And isn’t that your goal? Isn’t that the kind of community you are seeking to build? A community of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14.17b)