Editor: I previously published the following in Episcopal Cafe in 2013.
Conflict. Even the word itself makes us cringe a little. It has a hard, biting edge. In the back of our minds, the word conjures up unsettling images — of dentists’ drills, of that last really bad cold, of falling out of a tree as a child.
Fortunately, when we understand conflict, we learn to take a deep breath, to relax a little, to move past the immediate issues, and to view conflict as perhaps even a stepping stone to positive change. We may never come to enjoy conflict, but with perspective we learn to put it in its proper place.
So, next time you feel like you’re about to be run over by a truck named conflict, here are ten tips to help you understand and work through conflict:
1. Conflict is inevitable — Much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, conflict is as old as humanity. It happens among the closest friends, even among Jesus and the disciples. And like death and taxes, it comes to us all. So don’t panic when you see conflict coming–it’s just part of life.
2. Churches may be particularly susceptible to conflict — Avoiding conflict is easy when we get to pick and choose those around us. But in an environment that embraces diversity, there will, by definition, be a wider array of perspectives and viewpoints. As a result, there will be a greater likelihood of conflict.
3. Conflict doesn’t make you bad — Conflict, in and of itself, has no moral implications. Just because there’s conflict afoot doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Similarly, the presence of conflict doesn’t reflect badly on your parish, your vestry, your priest, or your bishop.
4. Conflict can be healthy — Growth requires change, and change engenders conflict. Handled appropriately, conflict can be a sign of positive change and growth. So next time you feel tension in the air, consider the possibility that something good is in the works.
5. Suppressing conflict is unhealthy — Suppressing or ignoring conflict inevitably spells trouble. The underlying issue doesn’t go away. Instead, like a locust, it goes underground, only to emerge later in spectacularly noisy fashion.
6. It’s all about how we handle conflict — Moral meaning attaches not to conflict itself, but to how we handle conflict. Remembering that we all are made in the image of God, assuming good intent, and avoiding “scorched earth” responses can go a long way towards de-escalating even the most difficult situation.
7. Choose engagement over fight or flight — The old axiom about fight or flight as a response to threats misses the third option: Engagement. When conflict rears its ugly head, take a deep breath, relax, and “lean into” the issue. Promote engagement through use of “I” statements versus “you” statements, and by avoiding sweeping generalities. For example, “I feel like you are often late to meetings,” is better then “You are late to every single meeting!” Test for understanding by reflecting back the other person’s comments, “So you are saying it would be easier for you if the meeting were a half hour later?”
8. Get outside help when needed — Sometimes, a neutral third party can be invaluable in breaking through layers of anger and misperception. If you’re just not connecting with the other person, consider asking your priest, a professional mediator, or other trusted person for help.
9. Know that some situations require an immediate response — Situations involving bullying or workplace violence, whether verbal or physical, require an immediate response to avoid potential damage to people or liability. Similarly, potential violations of fair employment laws, the canons, or issues involving sexual misconduct warrant a special response. When in doubt, act immediately to protect the vulnerable.
10. Persistent, high-level conflict is a warning sign — Church, like work and home, should be something to which you look forward. If you find yourself dreading that next vestry or altar guild meeting, or you routinely dash out after services to avoid coffee hour, consider the possibility that a larger, more serious issue is afoot, and take steps to address it before it becomes even more toxic.
In short, while no one enjoys conflict, there’s much that you can do to manage conflict, to reduce anxiety, and to move towards successful outcomes