Probably a day doesn’t go by without someone saying or doing something that bothers us. Remembering our mother’s advice to, “Play nice,” we often choose to smooth things over and keep the peace. However, the problems keep festering until someone “loses it” and says things they later regret. Feelings are hurt. People are embarrassed. Nothing gets resolved. People simply promise themselves, “I’ll never do that again.” They work harder to stuff down their feelings and keep the peace. The pressure builds to an explosion that is bigger and even more dramatic. Now, “I’ll really never do that again”… and the unhealthy conflict cycle continues.
People think churches would be better environments. The truth is, churches are worse. We have our share of double-booked facilities, misprinted bulletin articles, and customers with bad attitudes. But we often try even harder to maintain the appearance of niceness that leads to the unhealthy conflict cycle. I once worked under a kindly named Fr. Jack. His staff would say (behind his back) that he was “conflict averse”; he would do everything he could to avoid confrontation. I noticed that his life was never free of conflict. Under an appearance of peace there were always issues festering and threatening to boil over. I promised myself not to run from conflict. Here are three things I have learned about healthy conflict.
1. Don’t waste a good conflict. We tend to see conflict as some kind of failure – one of us failed to communicate, respect the other’s feelings, say things in just the right tone of voice, or remember the 14 previous times that we talked about this and you promised to do things differently. Someone has failed, and it wasn’t me. If we start with the assumption that conflict comes from failure, then we are already failing to do conflict well. We should instead see conflict as an opportunity to address assumptions, talk about fair vs. unfair expectations, find out where communication broke down, and learn more about the other’s feelings and what is driving them. Happily married couples are not the ones who never fight but the ones who have learned to make good use of their fights. Healthy conflict brings them closer together. Families and workplaces have the same opportunity; don’t waste a good conflict.
2. Improve your fighting skills. If I were a betting man, I would bet you are bad at conflict. Odds are that none of us grew up in an environment that modeled healthy conflict. We have all learned some bad conflict skills: we flail around aimlessly, hurt innocent bystanders, get off topic, beat on the wrong person, and generally make a mess. I always chuckle at the scene in The Bells of St. Mary’s where the nun buys a book on boxing to help a boy who is being bullied. We need a book on conflict. I would suggest Redeeming Conflict by Ann M. Garrido. It was created specifically for a church audience, but anyone can learn from it. Another great resource is Crucial Accountability by the business consultants behind VitalSmarts.com. A Roman general once wrote, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” The time to prepare for a conflict is precisely when you are not in conflict with anyone. Take time to learn from your mistakes, apologize for the ways you caused hurt, and train for a cleaner fight the next time.
3. Stop trying to win. One of the key insights I learned from Garrido’s book is that I often jump into a conflict wanting to win. That attitude immediately creates an unhealthy environment. The other person will tend to put up walls or fight back and things begin to escalate. Healthy conflict is not about creating winners and losers. It is about both parties understanding more deeply where the other party is coming from. I might feel that I have to shout to be heard, but that only makes the other party shout louder. If, instead, I take time to hear the other person out, they are more likely to hear me out. Whether you end up being right or not, you will certainly learn something and you will grow as a person. Remember the words of Grantland Rice from the poem “Alumnus Football”: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game.”
Originally published in the Antigo Daily Journal please support local journalism.