7 Basic Steps in Resolving Conflicts
- 1—GOALS. Why is it that you’re engaged in this conflict, which you’re resolving with conversation?
- 2—PARTNERSHIPS. Be partners, not adversaries. Try to aim for a common goal of resolving the conflict. When Paul was spreading the gospel, Acts 18 says, “he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” He wasn’t telling them what to believe, but rather was building partnerships.
- 3—RAPPORT. Develop and maintain a good connection. Avoid language like “you” and instead build something together by switching to the third person with “we” and “us.”
- 4—LISTEN. You know the saying: God gave you two ears to hear and one mouth to speak, so listen more and talk less. Perhaps encourage the person to vent. (Say “Tell me more,” and then listen.) One of the biggest impediments to the effectiveness of a Christian is when we don’t listen to understand, but instead to respond. “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” —James 1:19
If at any point the conversation becomes tense, listen more, talk less, and don’t rush to fill silence with words. Wait. It is difficult to have an adversarial relationship with someone who’s an excellent listener.
- 5—SHOOT THE MESSENGER. Don’t just deliver your truth. The research literature on effective conversations shows that delivering messages does not work. This is because messengers don’t speak across political and moral divides, or even converse—they deliver messages. Conversations are exchanges. Messages are information conveyed in one-way transactions. Messengers espouse beliefs and assume their audiences will listen and ultimately embrace their conclusions. So shoot the messenger in you.
- 6—INTENTIONS. Assume that people have better intentions than you think. Acts 9 describes how Saul of Tarsus, after his experience with Jesus on the road to Damascus, was trying to associate with Christians. He had a tough go of it, since Christians avoided him like the plague—after all, he’d been murdering them. Let’s read Acts 9:26-27 and see who helped him:
“When he came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.”
Everyone knows a ton about Paul in the New Testament, but sometimes we gloss over what we view as “lesser” characters. Above, we saw that Barnabas was a very forgiving, kind, and, in his own fashion, brave man. What do you know about Barnabas? Over the next few days, we’ll learn more about this awesome man.
- 7—WALK AWAY. Don’t push the other person beyond their comfort zone. They’ll become defensive and less curious if you press the conflict. When you end any conversation, thank your partner.
Do Not Do These Things
- Be discourteous or uncivil.
- Raise your voice and talk over someone.
- Intentionally be disrespectful.
- Ridicule anyone. Sometimes people feel that it’s ok to be harsh toward others. A common line you might have heard or said is, “The truth hurts, deal with it.” In the same way, we can sometimes be very rough with a person who has some sin in his/her life. “Don’t you know that you…” and the lecture begins. I’ve come to realize that people are pretty smart. Often they know in their heart of hearts what is immoral. Allowing them to save face is very important. Some gentle guidance, some lifting up; some helping hand is much more effective than beating the spiritually sick with a stick of righteousness. And thus Jesus said simply to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” —John 8:11
- Laugh at someone.
- Attack a position before understanding it. Instead, make your goals of collaboration and understanding explicit. Say, “I really want to understand what led you to those conclusions. I hope we can figure this out together.”
- Display an unwillingness to hear your conversation partner’s arguments. Instead, Ask yourself, not your partner, “How could someone believe that?”; and ask it in earnest, with curiosity instead of incredulity.
- Adopt the least charitable interpretation of someone’s words.
- Accuse someone of being stupid if they ask a question or say they don’t understand.
- Punish people for making mistakes or asking for help, information, or feedback.
- Lash out at someone for speculating.
- Attack a person who holds a belief rather than the belief. I am not convinced of the value of attacking identities. It seems better to me to explore ideas. If we want to have the mind of Christ, we should tear down the arguments, not the people. As Paul said, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” —2 Corinthians 10:5 So we attack the argument, but not its proponent. We show charity and grace in our convictions, that we might persuade all the more.
- View people as being “ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.”
- Be dishonest with yourself about what you believe.
- Pretend to know something you don’t know.
- Fail to say “I don’t know” if you don’t know.
- Focus on the belief instead of how the belief is known. (That is, focus on conclusions and not epistemologies. For example, “The death penalty isn’t murder, those people deserved it,” as opposed to, “What are the reasons one would think the death penalty is justified?”)
- Fail to change your mind when presented with new and compelling evidence.
- Obfuscate (especially when someone asks you a direct question).
- Fail to acknowledge vulnerability.
- Correct someone’s grammar (it’s annoying).
- Finish others’ sentences for them.
- Bully someone into having a conversation.
- Let yourself be bullied into having a conversation.
- Look at your phone while having a discussion.
- Be negative and complain.
- Let the bridges you burn light your way.
Watch the Portion Size
Problem: I like information. When I find myself in any sort of conflict with people I like it too much. In the book, “How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide,” Dr. Boghossian points out a number of things that I do poorly. On having difficult conversations, he writes:
“Most basic elements of civil discussion, especially over matters of substantive disagreement, come down to a single theme: making the other person in the conversation a partner, not an adversary. To accomplish this, you need to understand what you want from the conversation, make charitable assumptions about others’ intentions, listen, and seek back-and-forth interaction (as opposed to delivering a message). Learning to listen is the first step in the give-and-take of effective conversations. You’ll need to overcome the urge to say everything that’s on your mind. Finally, you’ll need to know when to end your conversation gracefully.”
God instructs us to season our words with salt (Colossians 4), and that’s hugely important, but it’s also important that we not force-feed people 10 tons of salted food. That’s very hard for me, as I tend to want to say everything that’s on my mind, convey everything I’ve researched, and then break down the conflict, too.
Portion size matters, especially with words.
When communicating with someone else, style and tone affect information delivery. As the saying goes, “You can be right, but wrong at the top of your voice.” In essence, when communicating with someone else, the person doing the talking/writing needs to construct their wording in such a way that the receiver accurately processes the information. Failure to do this is known in business English as incompetent communication, because valuable information was not delivered successfully due to the method of presentation.
Failure to communicate competently can take many forms, but one egregious error is communicating not simply aggressively (which can at times be necessary), but with a tone of hostility or combativeness. Being bellicose can undermine one’s attempt to, say, convey an idea about a needed change. Why? When we, as humans, feel that we are being attacked, whether it is subtle or not, the fight-or-flight response often kicks in. Catecholamine hormones, such as adrenaline or noradrenaline, are secreted, and facilitate immediate physical reactions associated with a preparation for violent muscular action. Our digestive systems actually shut down, along with the parts of our brain associated with cognitive deliberation. We lose the ability to calmly reason. In effect, we truly lose our senses. We lose our minds.
People from ancient times realized this; it’s not just a modern understanding. The epistle of second Timothy, which is estimated to be written around AD 67, says the following about interpersonal communication,
“With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition…that they may come to their senses and escape from…”— 2 Timothy chapter 2
Even stripped of a religious context, there is valuable insight in that passage. Gentle words (which are not necessarily soft, as one can be gentle but also firm) often facilitate our ability to communicate and affect needed change.
Overlook Some Conflicts
Sometimes it’s best to resolve a conflict by simply overlooking it.
And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.1 Peter 4:8
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said explicitly that the peacemakers are blessed. Sometimes we can be peacemakers by overlooking the conflict. If the conflict can’t be overlooked, propose a solution that seeks the best interest of everyone. Remember that love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.
Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.Philippians 2:4-5
Recognize Your Own Flaws First
You need to be willing to change your opinion, and also to recognize that you have flaws, too.
“Take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”—Matthew 7:5
Before approaching someone else about a dispute, prayerfully face up to your own flaws. It’s important to confess anything that might be a contributing factor. As above, that builds a partnership.
Resolving Destructive Conflict
Some conflicts are not light and airy, but rather toxic and corrosive. Those types of conflicts may demand a much more vigorous approach. They should be fixed by speaking up, standing up, and stepping back, in that order.
- Speak up. Sometimes one has to engage in direct conflict in order that genuine peace ever be reached. Do this first in private.
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” —Matthew 18:15
“A pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.” —General George Patton
Do not engage in words just to vent, but rather speak the truth in love in order to help sin end.
- Stand up. As Christians, we are called to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” —Ephesians 5:11
If someone is blind to their sin or evil, it can be helpful to stand up to it with the aid of others, once we’ve tried taking it to them in private.
“But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” —Matthew 18:16
- Step back. If the person refuses to alter a toxic behavior, you must abandon having a close relationship with them. The Jews didn’t have close relationships with pagans or the tax collectors. “If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” —Matthew 18:17
Stepping back from the relationship helps minimize damage to us, and by preventing the person from doing that damage, helps minimize their sin, too. It also provides time and silence, which are helpful as outlined in some of the other thoughts. Note that this isn’t an excuse for us to be mean. Paul wrote, “We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us,” in 1 Corinthians 4:12, and in Romans 13:10 he said, “Love does no harm.”
Resolving conflict is very situational. Sometimes it is better to simply ignore something, while the most toxic conflicts may require us to entirely break away from them. Regardless, kindness, humility, and a backbone are always required.