Necessary conflict: A new view about conflict and its usefulness

Darrin Hotte has learned to appreciate the value of conflict in our lives; he works as a mediator in a number of settings.

Darrin Hotte has learned to appreciate the value of conflict in our lives; he works as a mediator in a number of settings.

Conflict is one of the most prevalent and destructive realities in Christian communities. Every year relationships are broken, congregations are split and people are damaged – all due to conflict that was handled poorly. Mediator Darrin Hotte will present Blessed are the Peacemakers: Concepts and Tools for Better Conflict at Carey Centre May 28. In the meantime, this article is the first in a three-part series on conflict.

What is conflict?

I grew up in a family where our parents seemed to have minimal outward conflict with each other. I assumed that healthy married couples, and for that matter healthy people, did not have conflict – or at least very little. Furthermore, as a people pleaser, I had always wanted people to like me and think well of me. The result? I avoided conflict much too often.

In the process of becoming a mediator, I realized that conflict is all around us! It is with us every day, all day.

Consider this definition of “conflict”:

“To come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance or in opposition; clash.” [1]

How often do ideas, values, needs, opinions and emotions “clash,” “disagree,” “contradict” or “oppose?” All the time! It is hard to get through the day without bumping up against someone’s alternate way of thinking and being.

Some examples:

  • You need the photocopier for an annual report that’s due in two hours, but the receptionist is using it for Christmas letters.
  • Your spouse wants to spend your two weeks of summer holiday with extended family, and you would rather stay at home to landscape the back yard.
  • The controller thinks the budget is too high for the maintenance of the building and the facilities manager thinks it’s too low.

Even the physical world creates conflict for us. The forces of gravity work against my need to lift food to my mouth. The brake pads on my car battle against the turning rotors every time I want to stop (causing heat, noise and tiny bits of metal to fly all over the place!). What about childbirth? Our first moments of life are characterized by a messy struggle.

So, if conflict is normal and happens throughout every day, why is it still so hard, particularly when it comes to conflict in our relationships? What causes it? 

The five causes of conflict

I define interpersonal conflict as:

Disagreement or relational friction due to misunderstanding, different values, mismatched needs, diverse perspectives or low relational capacity.

1. Misunderstanding

Miscommunication or wrong assumptions about something communicated verbally or non-verbally.

2. Different values

We all have different goals, interests, priorities, drives, expectations, principles, passions, purposes, objectives, hopes, intentions, etc. These are the things that come from deep within us and are very difficult to change. These things determine what is important to us.

3. Mismatched needs

Wanting something that is in short supply, which others want too. Things like time, money or other limited resources. Also, different personal needs based on our unique personalities (for example, introvert vs extrovert).

4. Diverse perspectives

Our opinions, attitudes, viewpoints, ideas, beliefs, philosophies, approaches, reactions, etc. They represent what we perceive to be right or true. We are likely to believe that others should also believe these same things.

5. Low relational capacity

Stress (bad news from the doctor, financial crisis or even a bad cold) can cause us to have less capacity for healthy interactions. As well, certain kinds of mental health related issues could cause this, like autism or addiction. Also in this category is the way we behave when we are selfish, bitter, lazy or when we have a bad attitude.

Conflict is normally neutral

Of the five groups, it is interesting to note that only one is possibly negative at the beginning. Low relational capacity, when driven by poor decisions and behaviour, is the only one that comes from a negative place. All the others are truly neutral!

This realization affirmed what I had heard others say: “Conflict is normally neutral; it is how we deal with it that determines if it is a positive conflict or a negative conflict.” This new view of conflict reduced my anxiety. Conflict may not be pleasurable, often it is still a struggle – but it does not usually start negative.

Conflict is a good thing

Going further, I wondered about the value of “positive conflict.” Having been a leader in several organizations, I reflected back on the dynamics of a healthy team and the value that results from conflict.

I notice that conflict does these things:

  • Informs that there is a problem.
  • Prevents escalation to more serious conflicts.
  • Clarifies needs, values and interests of involved people.
  • Creates the impetus to search for new facts, information and solutions.
  • Shows opportunity for creative change both personally and organizationally.
  • Enhances group cohesion and performance.
  • Produces character. No one develops true character while sleeping in a chair at the beach. That might produce rest or revitalization, but not character. (Both are important!)

In all kinds of relationships, conflict is useful. Consider these:

  • On the world stage: conflict can result in trade agreements and peace treaties.
  • In academia: conflict can inspire new discoveries and fresh ideas.
  • In business: conflict can result in new strategies and greater utilization of strengths, gifts and passions, which creates increased effectiveness and profit.
  • In personal relationships: conflict can result in better communication and understanding, making the relationship stronger and more enduring.

When I was a child, my father and his friend built a cabin together. Dad wanted to include me in the process and teach me how to use tools, so I remember many Saturdays working with him. Learning how to use a hammer, I smashed my thumb, dented the wood and ruined nails many times. And as a curious young boy, I found other interesting ways to employ a hammer: striking windows, walls, rocks, trees, toys, my brother, etc. However, I also watched my dad build an entire building with that hammer! He knew how to use it, and he used it for good.

Conflict is like that hammer. In the hands of an unskilled or ill-intentioned person, it can cause incredible harm and destruction. But give it to a skilled and well-intentioned person, and it will help build something amazing. Considering all that conflict can be used for, I concluded that it was not only potentially positive, but also necessary for every healthy person, team and relationship.

A new mindset

So, conflict is usually neutral in the beginning, and it can become positive, useful and productive. My hope is that as you consider these things, your stress around conflict will be reduced – like mine was!

Here is one more thought that helped me immensely. Because we are all unique in how we are created, we should have conflict. Being who I am and who I am becoming will mean that I will have many disagreements, different values, variances and collisions with people all my life – because I am like no one else. To not have conflict would mean not being authentic to who I am. I am supposed to be in conflict!


[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/conflict

Part two in this three-part series will look at why the church struggles with conflict, how God is at work in conflict and the essence of biblical peacemaking. 

Darrin Hotte, BA, MDiv, Cert. ConRes., FMC Cert. CFM, FEA, runs New Solution Mediation and is co-director of Christian Mediation Canada. His mediation practice is focused on separation/divorce, family business and corporate training. He is a manager at Mediate BC, and coaches lawyers who are being trained in family mediation. He graduated with an MDiv from Regent College and served as a Baptist pastor before moving into mediation full-time. He is an associate with Outreach Canada in its Conflict Resolution and Mediation Department, bringing greater health to faith-based organizations.

1 comment for “Necessary conflict: A new view about conflict and its usefulness

  1. Rose-Marie Goodwin
    March 2, 2017 at 9:04 am

    Did not realize that you moved into this area of mediation full time; what a blessing for all. I could see the ‘depth’ in you so many years ago, and to understand that you pursued this to this extent is truly a gift to all of us. May you thrive and be sure to ‘take rest’ for yourself and your family regularly.

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