It’s easy to think that conflict won’t be a part of life when working alongside other Christians. Unfortunately, that is just not true. We experience differences in personality and opinion as much as any other people. Throw in a whole lot of passion for the cause and it can be explosive sometimes. We are all nearly experts at handling conflict poorly. Our challenge as leaders, though, is to handle conflict better – better so we can accept seemingly impossible visions and develop solid strategies for the change we so wish to see in our communities and world.
In Romans 12 Paul breaks down what it looks like to live out of our strengths as part of the one Body of Christ. Immediately following this we are taught how to live from love. Here we are told to make a real effort to live at peace with everyone. Somehow we have mixed up the invitation to live at peace with an unrealistic perception that peace means not expressing difference and not deviating from the norm, as if conflict is somehow sinful in itself. Living at peace takes skill. Leading others to live at peace does too. Healthy conflict takes practice as we change how we approach it and transform it into something that challenges us to use each others strengths in a way that helps us go further than we could go on our own.
This past month we invited professional mediator, Joe Campbell, to facilitate a day workshop with us on Handling Conflict Better. He approached the day with a solid foundation in theory and theology while making it incredibly practical for us to make realistic, everyday sort of changes. Here are just a few of the tools that stood out to me as particularly important for us in Ireland today:
Listen. If someone has a difference of opinion to you, there is a reason. Try to discover what that reason is instead of preparing your argument. When they feel heard there is a greater chance of working on the problem. When we hear them, there is a greater chance of figuring out what the problem actually is. Speaking of the problem …
Keep the problem as the problem. It can be really easy to quickly jump into believing and acting as if the problem is actually the person. Focus is removed from the problem and onto the person. This starts an escalation in conflict. The next thing you know you will be saying, “you always …” Sides are formed as you gather people who will agree with you and not the other person. The heavy artillery is launched at the other person until gigantic walls are formed between people and groups. When we focus on the problem rather than the person, we are in a place of problem solving, which is ultimately what we want.
Let someone know if there is a problem. We can tend to just shy away from problems we have, wishing they were biodegradable, breaking down and disappearing into the earth in a natural sort of way. Joe asked, “What’s the worst that could happen?” If someone does something that affects you there is a chance that the person doesn’t even know. Why not tell them what the problem is, without attacking them? “When you do (such and such) then (such and such) happens. Is there any chance of changing that?”
Bring in a third party sooner rather than later. If it looks like you are both having a tough time focusing on the problem, bring in a third party that is respected by both of you to help resolve the problem. The more escalated a conflict is, the more difficult resolution will be.
Conflict brings both danger and opportunity. As we lead, let us not forget this. If we want the same old, same old, then we should avoid allowing anyone, including ourselves, from expressing their views. If we want to remain comfortable and in control, then we should limit the input of other people – inviting only those who are like us. However, if we want to live out of opportunities that have never been realised in this country before; if we want to see the church working together as one under Christ; if we want to show the power that comes from reconciliation with God, then we need to learn to embrace conflict and, by all means, handle it better. We can lead that change.
Looking for more resources on how to lead conflict better? Check out our friends at the Saint Patrick Foundation.