What if you were asked to communicate ‘conflict’ to someone without using words. You would probably turn to face them, put on one of those ‘prepare to die’ grimaces and assume the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots position with hands held high, ready to let fly.
Now while this 'me-against-you' image is most indicative of an encounter that has escalated to a very serious level, the fact is that any unresolved issue/disagreement in our lives can become a touch point for an increased level of conflict and disunion.
So how can we be true to the following biblical mandates?
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Romans 12:18
“So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” Romans 14:19
UNDERSTANDING THE NATURE OF CONFLICT
Conflict is a normal part of any healthy relationship as it is completely unrealistic to believe that two people can agree on everything, all the time, in every situation. And when you take that principle into a group setting, well then things can really get messy.
Conflict always arises from differences, large and small, significant and trivial, that go unresolved. It begins whenever we disagree over our values, motivations, perceptions, ideas, or desires. Sometimes these differences can be quickly dealt with by being open and honest with one another. But when they are allowed to fester and trigger strong feelings, a deep personal need is often at the core of the problem, and things can escalate. That need can be one of a desire to feel safe and secure, to feel respected and valued, or for greater closeness and intimacy. At the heart of every serious conflict is a profound personal need that has been unfulfilled -- and we need to be sensitive to that.
Bottom line, we are constantly going to be dealing with conflict and we should not treat it like it is something unnatural or unusual. That’s what makes learning how to deal with conflict—rather than avoiding it— so critical to our health and the health of others we are in relationship with. When we allow conflict to be mismanaged it can cause tremendous, sometimes irreparable, harm, but when it is handled in a respectful, positive way, conflict provides an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of our relationships and it becomes a foundation for growth and maturity.
ASSUMING A NEW POSITION ON CONFLICT
In order to resolve conflict in a respectful, positive way, we first need to take a new position on it.
In our beginning illustration we envisioned people in conflict standing toe-to-toe preparing to duke it out. Why?
I want to draw attention to two important facts about conflict:
- Conflict is a situation in which one or both of the parties perceive a threat.
- We respond to conflict based on our perceptions, or experiences with similar situations.
We are willing escalate disagreement to conflict because in some way we feel threatened. Whatever it is that is between us is something we feel very strongly about and we are worried that we will lose forever if we give in to the other person. The more emotionally involved we are, the more determined we get to protect what is threatened – sometimes at any cost. This is why mismanaged conflicts can become so vicious and destructive.
The second point adds emphasis to the first. If we feel threatened, and our past experience has conditioned us to believe that if we don’t fight tooth and nail we are going to be taken advantage of, then we become even more determined than ever not to give in. You can imagine, or have possibly experienced, how nasty things get when we go round and round, desperately hanging onto the thing we are so afraid of losing.
So what can break that cycle?
What if we assume a new position relative to one another? What if instead of facing each other with the issue between us, we stood side-by-side with the issue in front of us?
Now we are not adversaries, we are collaborators in a solution! We are standing together looking at the issue and working together to reach consensus.
I believe it is so important here to emphasize the word consensus rather than compromise. When we compromise, we walk away feeling somewhat diminished because we had to give up something to get there. We rationalize that it was “the best I could get,” but have an inner conviction that it was not the best -- and certainly not the most satisfying -- solution for us personally. Consensus implies that neither of us has to ‘give up anything’ -- because we have come to one mind about the solution. It is a true win/win solution that we can both embrace wholeheartedly, without reservation or regret.
The only way this is possible is if we also assume a new perspective on the issue that is now before us and not between us. Instead of insisting on what ‘I want’ versus what ‘you want’, what if we both agreed to seek what God what he wants? What if the core of our discussion was about what is necessary to glorify God in this situation rather than our insecurity about losing something important?
By bringing God into our consideration (he was already there anyway, waiting for us to remember him!), we can distance ourselves from the need to protect ourselves from a negative outcome. We are no longer the ‘needy’ person that is fighting for their life. If we are truly leaving the issue in God’s hands, and seeking his solution and resolution, then we can be assured that the outcome will always be to our benefit and blessing. And the benefit and blessing of the other!
God is not going to cheat either one of us out of his best for us!
Assuming that new position and perspective takes vulnerability, humility, and trust. I have to be willing to be honest about what is at stake for me in our conflict. I need to be humble enough to be open to see the issue through your eyes. And I need to be willing to trust God for you, me and the solution to our issue – to truly trust and believe him for his very best. Not an easy assignment, but necessary all the same.
If I can’t realign myself with regard to the person I am in conflict with, and put the issue in front of us instead of between us, we will never reach a true spiritual resolution that results in peace and edification. We will instead allow a root of bitterness to spring up in our hearts, defiling many, and as a result be incapable of enjoying true fellowship with one another or fully realize God’s purpose.
Assuming a new position on conflict is not something we can wait for the other person to take the first step or make the first move. We need to take the bull by the horns, ‘enter the danger,’ and pursue that which results in true resolution, peace and edification!