This is the third in a three-part series on conflict.
When I was a senior pastor, I can recall encouraging our church family to have a place to ‘live out’ kingdom values outside of one’s immediate family and our church family.
Since I also needed a place to do this, I started to think about getting trained in conflict and becoming a professional mediator. I was excited to bring change outside of Christian culture, by demonstrating God’s kingdom values as I served people in difficult conflict.
We should all be striving to exhibit the things that are important to God wherever we are. I want to share with you some practical tips that will help you be at your best in conflict – living out God’s values by modeling how to do conflict well.
I have trained mediators, judges, lawyers, business owners, Supreme and Provincial Court staff and various kinds of leaders in how to manage high conflict moments. They are interested in this because they want to serve people well. I teach them one of the things that others taught me; managing conflict well first means managing oneself.
1. Our bodies
In conflict, we experience the same physiological changes as we do when faced with threats to our safety. The ‘fight, flight or freeze’ process creates a chemical reaction in our brains, which we notice with changes such as these:
- Sweaty palms
- Increased heart rate
- Tunnel vision
- Dry mouth
- Warm, reddening face
- Cold hands and feet
- Tense muscles
- Shallow, quick breathing
- Throat tightening
Being aware of these changes in our bodies makes us aware that we are under stress that we need to take steps to manage. There are two things that we can do immediately to shift our physiology in a more useful direction.
First, breathe better. A helpful method is to breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds and breathe it out for eight seconds. This begins to regulate the chemicals in our brains so that we return to a calm, rational, creative way of being. Listening well and negotiating effectively depends on it. So when confronted with a conflict, or when you have a difficult conversation scheduled, use this breathing method in the early moments of it.
Second, use helpful ‘self-talk.’ This is simply telling yourself what is true, how you will ‘show up’ in this conversation and how this conflict is going to go. We can fall victim to our own negative ‘chatter’ in our minds when in conflict.
Things like, “yes, I am a failure,” “I was wrong again,” “this person hates me,” etc. are unhelpful for us. These messages only help to defeat us in conflict. Instead, phrases like, “I am going to be my best self right now,” “I am going to be loving in this conversation,” “I will value this person the way God does,” etc. will help us show up in the conflict positively.
When we are more confident, we are more calm. Take a few minutes to write out a few statements that you can turn to when you need them. I often advise people in certain workplace situations to write them on notes they can see while at their desk.
2. Our attitude
After we get control of the chemicals in our bodies, we need to also change our attitude and approach to the conflict. The average person becomes defensive in conflict; their energy goes into proving they are right and tearing down the other person’s arguments.
However, the skilled peacemaker becomes curious to learn about another perspective that is different from his or her own. This curiosity recognizes that the other person might have something to teach that was unexpected. I need to remember that in any particular conflict, I might be wrong!
I have always been fascinated by people. Their motivations, passions, attitudes, words and behaviours are interesting to me. When in conflict with someone or when I am mediating a dispute, it is normal to not understand why someone is behaving the way they are; what they are saying, believing and doing is a bit of a mystery.
I have taught myself to wonder, “what is it that makes them think or act that way?” I get curious, and try to get into the heart and mind of that person to understand them. When I understand them, my empathy grows and I have a better chance at a positive outcome.
Being curious and open to learning something new is a very humble posture to take in conflict, and one that people seldom use. However, not only is this humility helpful in getting more information, it is extremely ‘disarming’ to the other person. They will find it easier to also be accountable for their role in the conflict, and listen well to our perspective too.
3. Our greatest source of help
I don’t normally refer to this last way of managing ourselves in the training I do in my mediation practice, but those who follow Christ should not forget, we have the opportunity to pray for God’s Spirit to guide the conflict.
Prayer also reminds us of our identity in Christ and our place in the world around us. This encourages us and also humbles us. It puts us in a better frame of mind for handling conflict.
Conflict and the fruit of the Spirit
Self-management is not an idea original to me. Not only was it a main part of my training as a mediator, God holds this as a high value as well. We learn in Galatians 5 that:
. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.
These qualities take time to develop, and require us to choose them. In conflict, the more I exhibit these – the things that will come out of us the more God has his way with us – the better chance I and the other person have in being successful in the conflict.
Close your eyes and take a moment to imagine yourself in a conflict. Maybe it is one you were in previously, or maybe one that is coming. Now imagine yourself speaking and acting in a way that mimics the Galatians 5 passage. And imagine that it comes from the deep parts of who you are and is truly your authentic self that the Spirit has formed you to be.
When I do this, I can’t help but believe that every conflict I experience can be more productive. And if you struggle to exhibit these kingdom values, force yourself to act that way – it’s better than nothing!
Beyond the church for a broader society
I often say that our ‘DNA’ as God’s people naturally lends itself to positive conflict. We are reconciled to God and each other; peace is a kingdom value that we aspire to. I have been excited about exhibiting that DNA among the clients I serve in my mediation practice. I believe this pleases God, and I believe we are all called to do this.
God’s people should be leaders in conflict resolution in society!
At the same time, we have a spotty track record when it comes to doing it well in the church. Unhealthy conflict in the church – some of which ends up in the news – is responsible for severed relationships and can cripple churches financially. (I discuss some of the reasons for this in the previous two articles; see below.)
What do we do about this? Some would say that we need to do it well within the church before we try to be leaders in productive conflict in the rest of the world – hypocrisy is not something the church wants to be known for. They would suggest that we sort out our ‘home life’ before turning our energy to other places. I would encourage us to do both.
We can work to improve our conflict among God’s people and endeavour to be leaders in the broader society. I don’t believe that God is asking us to be perfect in our internal conflict before trying to model how to do it well in other places too.
We are called to be kingdom people who demonstrate the things that are part of God’s identity – and by extension our identity too. Things like truth, graciousness, patience, justice, reconciliation, etc. are the qualities that are embedded within our core identity as children of God.
Our families, churches, workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods desperately need more of those things! May we all model these things of God wherever we are.
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.
The first two parts of the series are:
Necessary conflict: A new view about conflict and its usefulness