Why conflict is so hard, and how it can be better

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 says the business community accepts positive conflict more readily than the church community – but he encourages us to see the good that can come from resolving conflict effectively.

This is the second of a three part series on conflict.

Conflict and Christians

What I encountered when I began my work as a mediator was that the Christian community had trouble embracing the idea of positive conflict. This did not surprise me after many years as a pastor and leader.

What surprised me was that the business community (and others) seemed to have an easier time embracing the idea of positive conflict than faith communities.

Why is that? What is it about our theology, our culture and our history that makes us feel this way? Here are some thoughts:

  • Conflict can be uncomfortable and painful. Our culture is a “comfort culture.” For many, discomfort = negative = bad = evil = sin.
  • People in western culture – and some other cultures – are chronic avoiders. This allows bitterness and resentment to take root and create serious damage. Christians feel bad about being bitter and resentful because it displeases God. They blame these feelings on the conflict, not on how they handled it.
  • Most people handle conflict poorly and sin eventually enters in.
  • People make assumptions (especially when relationships break down) about why others are doing or saying things that have been hurtful, and usually the belief is that their actions or words are rooted in sin. Not only are these assumptions often wrong, they always favour the person with the assumption! What starts out as a misunderstanding can easily end up in resentment and a judgmental spirit.
  • Faith groups usually believe that conflict is sin, especially the most fundamental ones. The more “black and white” their thinking and theology is, the more likely they are to treat conflict as sin. One side is right, the other is wrong. The thinking is, “There are three sides to every story; his, hers and the truth.” A faith community that believes there is only one way to view even the minor issues of faith will likely also view an interpersonal conflict as “one of you must be wrong.”

With these things working against us, it is even more likely that conflict is avoided – and therefore becomes even more negative. With more negative conflict comes more avoidance. You can see the pattern – the church is more likely than other places to find itself in this unhealthy spiral.

A new way to approach conflict

In spite of what we commonly experience of conflict in the church, we believe God is at work in astonishing ways, as we see many examples in scripture. God used the conflict between Joseph and his brothers to put Joseph in a place to save his family and nation from starvation. God used the conflict between Paul and Barnabas to spread the gospel further afield. Christ’s life and eternal impact on humanity began and ended in the context of conflict. God uses conflict to further his kingdom!

With a new understanding about the nature and positive potential that conflict brings (I elaborated on this in my previous article), here are some thoughts about how you can personally prepare and give your conflicts the best chance at being productive.

  1. Acknowledge that God is at work. Pray when you are made aware of conflict or are preparing to engage it. Ask God to have his way with the situation.
  2. Work with God to make the conflict productive, healthy and positive. Look for what God might be trying to achieve through this. Allow the difficult conversations to happen without cutting them short. Practice active listening, kind assertiveness and asking open questions in the conflict conversation.
  3. Allow the Spirit to reveal areas of potential growth in you. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn about yourself and grow further towards the goal of being like Christ! Whether it is your leadership, your heart or your skills, we all can take steps forward.
  4. Make it easy for those in conflict with you to handle it well. Be humble – humility goes a long way to helping the other person want what is best for you as well. Also, be curious about the other person’s perspective. You will probably learn something, which could alter your perspective.
  5. Be intentional (and patient) about growing in your capacity to handle conflict skillfully. None of us are born with amazing conflict resolution skills! Learn more about conflict and your personal conflict style. At Christian Mediation Canada we recommend the ‘Style Matters’ online conflict assessment tool at Riverhouse ePress for further personal development. Do some reading or attend a course. Being mindful and intentional about conflict can help us grow more skillful in it.

Biblical peacemaking

My enthusiasm for effective conflict resolution is driven by a passion to see God’s kingdom values expressed in relevant and practical ways: “. . . your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10, NIV)

Biblically compatible conflict resolution is grounded in some important beliefs and values. These things enhance and sometimes distinguish a faith-based conflict resolution process:

  • We approach conflict with honesty, holiness and humility – as a continuation of our overall goal to be like Christ.
  • We are called to work hard at being at peace with each other.
  • Prayer and scripture influence the process if the parties are willing and ready.
  • We recognize God at work in developing our character and bringing good out of our conflict.
  • We recognize the Spirit’s power to accomplish great things and are dependent on it.
  • Our identity is wrapped in the story of a God who reconciles relationships – between himself and people and between humans. Just as confession, forgiveness and reconciliation take place between God and people, these also can take place between people in conflict with each other.
  • We are accountable to God for how we work through our conflict.

I wonder what kind of impact the church could have within our communities and cities if we were more in touch with our call to exhibit kingdom intentions and behaviour when we are in conflict. It is possible for us to live this way!

It is not necessary for your future conflicts to be as difficult and hurtful as your past ones. With a new mindset and new ways to approach conflict, you will have a better chance at seeing what God has in mind for the necessary conflict in your life.

Part one of this three part series looked at Necessary conflict: A new view about conflict and its usefulness. Part three will cover ‘Some practical tools for how to manage emotion in conflict and the church’s role in positive conflict outside of Christian culture.’ 

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.

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