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Conflict: What Is It Good For?

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What Is It Good For?

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Most of us learned as we grew up to avoid conflict. What if we could change our thinking about conflict? What if we began to see conflict as an opportunity to build relationships? We interact with other people at various levels ranging from one-time brief encounters to life-long relationships. Conflict is almost always a part of every relationship we have. If we say we do not have conflict in our life we are fooling ourselves. Most of us have been so conditioned to feeling negative about conflict that we don't even like to admit it exists in our lives. What if we learned to look at conflict as an opportunity to grow personally and to understand other people better? What if we made a decision to always try to resolve conflict in our life?

Why is this such an important subject? When the lawyer asked in Matthew 22:36-40: "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said to him, '"You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" [cited from Deuteronomy 6:5]. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" [cited from Leviticus 19:18]. On these two commandments hang all the Law and Prophets." Jesus said that the second great command was "like" the first. Loving others as much as we love ourselves is what God the Father and Jesus require of us. Do we really contemplate what that means? It means we treat others the way we want to be treated, no matter what.

Reconciliation With Our Father

When conflict arises with another person we should seek reconciliation so we can fulfill love to our neighbor as to ourself. Webster defines reconciliation as the renewing of friendship; harmonizing of apparently opposed ideas, etc.; expiation. Jesus Christ reconciled us to the Father (Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18). Because of sin we were in conflict with God the Father and Jesus Christ. Christ died for our sins making it possible for us to be reconciled to the Father. We have been given the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18). What does this mean? It means that we are to help others to come into that same relationship with God and Jesus Christ. To serve their need, to have their conflict with God resolved through the sacrifice of Christ and a changed life.

Reconciliation With Our Brother

The ministry of reconciliation not only applies to our relationship with God, but equally to our relationship to other people. Matthew 5:23-24 makes this clear: "Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." We need to have any conflict we may have with others resolved before God can accept our offerings. When we were baptized we were given a clean slate, so to speak, and every time we go to God in prayer to ask for forgiveness He continually keeps that slate clean. We need to keep our slate clean with other people as well. We know that if we do not forgive other's offenses God will not forgive ours (Matthew 6:14-15).

To live in reconciliation with God and others requires constant dedication and diligence. The same scriptural principles that are given for seeking reconciliation with your brother after he has sinned against you can be applied in resolving interpersonal conflicts. "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother" (Matthew 18:15 King James Version).

First of all, the Scripture says "tell him his fault between you and him alone." Often a problem occurs when we engage in something I've learned to call triangulation. What is triangulation? It's when we violate the rule by telling or complaining to a third party about the offense. Now we have brought another person into the equation that most likely doesn't need to be, and probably shouldn't be there. What compels us to do this? Most often we want sympathy regarding the wrong we feel has been done to us. We also want someone to validate our feelings in regard to the situation. The problem with all of this is it doesn't reconcile the conflict.

The Way We Want to Be Treated

Our first thought should be to give the person the benefit of the doubt. Believe that if they had known they would be hurting or offending us they would not have done what they did. Our second thought should be that we don't have all the facts and we can't read someone's intentions. Now we are treating our brother or sister the way we would want to be treated. Our next thought will probably be about how hard it will be to go to the other person to talk about the situation. We may find it hard because usually we have fears about doing this. We fear we will hurt their feelings. We fear that they will not be understanding of our feelings. We fear they will think we are being overly sensitive, or misjudging them. We fear they will not take ownership for their actions or words. We fear they will escalate the situation by blaming us.

All these are real fears because we have all had people react in these ways. Until we become accustomed to dealing with conflict, and dealing with it properly, we will have fear regarding it. It takes courage to go to our brother. We must overcome our fears about conflict in order to have the courage it takes to maintain right relationships with other people. We cannot control another person's response. We can control how we respond. We can decide ahead of time that no matter what happens we will stay centered and not get off track. One of the most effective ways to stay on track is to listen to understand. Most of the time while we listen to someone else we are thinking about what we will say in response. What if our whole reason for listening was to understand the other person's viewpoint? What if we did not give our viewpoint until we were certain we understood the other person's feelings, thoughts, and intentions? Have you ever heard someone shouting at another person? The reason people shout is very simple. When someone raises their voice it is because they feel they are not being heard. They feel the other person doesn't understand their viewpoint or isn't interested in their viewpoint. Have you ever felt this way?

Seek to Understand

If we seek first to understand we will find others will be more open to understand our feelings and views. Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People, states: "Empathic listening gets inside another person's frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel. The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it's that you fully, deeply understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually" (Simon and Shuster Publishers, copyright 1989, Fireside edition 1990, page 240).

Listening must come from a sincere desire to have a better relationship with the other person. It must come from love for our neighbor. We should think more highly of others than ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4). This is difficult to do when we are feeling angry or hurt. Our best asset in dealing with conflict is to go to God in prayer and ask Him to help us to be reconciled with our brother or sister. If the problem is small, and has just come up, we may want to address it immediately. We can quickly ask God to help us in our own mind. If it is a more difficult matter, then thinking about it and praying about it at home for a short time may be wise. Sometimes it's good to sort through our own feelings before we try to understand someone else's. God can help us with this.

Step By Step

The first thing we can do is to clarify what we want to accomplish by bringing up the problem. Let the person know you value the relationship you have with them. Tell them, in your own words, that you have something you feel is important for the two of you to discuss. If the person is already aware there is a problem let them know you're concerned because you don't like things that hurt the relationship. Let them know you want to resolve the problem because you don't want anything to come between you.

Next, agree to discuss the situation with them at a good time for you both. If now is not a good time, ask them to help you decide when you will discuss it. Try to find a private place you both feel comfortable with. If complete privacy isn't available go to a place where others won't hear your conversation. If the other person doesn't seem ready to discuss the problem give them some more time and then ask again.

Once you have the time and place decided someone would need to go first. You may begin by using what I have learned to call "I" messages. Use statements that describe how you feel about the situation. You can give a brief description of the behavior that you feel is the problem. Take ownership of your feelings. Realize they are your feelings and not the other person's. Share your feelings honestly and accountably. Describe how the incident or incidents impacted you. Phrases such as "I feel," or "I sense," or "It seems like" are good things to help you talk about your feelings. Do not put yourself in the position of blaming the other person. People have a tendency to become defensive about conflict. When the other person is feeling defensive it will become much more difficult to communicate. If the other person is defensive, try to use listening and understanding before you go on with your own feelings. When you are talking about your feelings, acknowledge your part (if appropriate) in helping create the problem.

Next, let the other person communicate their views and feelings about the problem to you. Listen respectfully while they share their feelings and perspective with you. Be sure you understand them by asking questions about how they feel and see the problem. Do not interrupt them or make comments until you are sure you understand. Try to remember that you both have a valid perspective even if you do not agree with the other person. Acknowledge that you appreciate them sharing their point of view. When we communicate, our feelings are always playing a part no matter how strongly we would like them to go away.

Temperance is the trait used in exercising control over our emotions. We are created in the similitude of God. God looks on our heart, which is the seat of all our emotions and our intentions (1 Samuel 16:7). We need to seek to use our emotions as a valid means of communication, but with the kind of temperance Jesus Christ used. Jesus used emotions when He communicated, but they were always appropriate to the situation. Jesus used his emotions wisely.

After you understand each other you will need to ask for what you want. Identify what you will do in the future to try to prevent misunderstandings. Ask what the other person needs or wants to resolve the situation. Share what you need or want to resolve the situation. You will want to remember to think win/win. What is win/win? Once again I would like to quote from Stephen Covey's book: "Win/Win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win/Win means that agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial, mutually satisfying. With a Win/Win solution, all parties feel good about the decision and feel committed to the action plan. Win/Win sees life as a cooperative, not competitive arena. Most people tend to think in terms of dichotomies: strong or weak, hardball or softball, win or lose. But that kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed. It's based on power and position rather than principle. Win/Win is based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody, that one person's success is not achieved at the expense or exclusion of the success of others" (page 207).

On the Receiving End!

What if you are the person who caused the offense and your brother or sister comes to you? Try to remember to respond the way you would want another person to respond to you. Galatians 6:1-3 says this: "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself" (KJV).

Why is it so difficult for us to go to our brethren and say "I'm deeply sorry," or "I made a mistake," or "I'm so sorry I hurt you"? Why are we so afraid to admit we were wrong or made a mistake? Often we are afraid the person will think less of us or see we aren't perfect. We may not be aware of how much respect others usually have for people who can admit their faults. Others will usually think more of us if we ask for forgiveness. More importantly, what does God think of us? We shouldn't care if someone thinks badly of us if we have done what was right.

We want more love, more trust, more respect in UCGIA. Reconciling relationships begins with each of us and is the way to establishing these things we long for. Sometimes our egos get in our way of opening our hearts and minds to other people. In his book, The People Skills Of Jesus, William Beausay II has this to say: "Being egoless greases the rails of work and home life. How often has a work project been muddled by the tension of conflicting personalities (egos)? How often has someone been more interested in being right than being successful? How often have silly differences meant the end of a worthwhile effort and the beginning of open hostility? Way too often. On the flip side, how many successful projects have changed the world because many people submitted themselves (lost egos)? You can answer this easily: Think of any outstanding event.

Egoless looks very different. You won't see this trait very often.... Egoless people give other people room to speak and express themselves. They don't think too highly of themselves. They actually try to make themselves servants of other people, even strangers. If they do something good, they don't rejoice over their own personal greatness; they rejoice because something good has been done" (Thomas Nelson Publishers, copyright 1997, pages 47-48). We should all lose our egos!

Seeking Help

The question, "What if my brother doesn't hear me?" may come to mind. If the other person doesn't see there is a problem or isn't interested in resolving the conflict what should we do? How should we handle it? We are faced with several choices. We may simply decide that the offense was small and it's not worth pursuing. We may decide that we value the other person and will choose to forget the offense. In doing this we must realize we must be able to completely forgive the other person and not hold any unresolved anger or feelings towards them. You must own this decision and realize you may be taking a risk. You may be risking having to deal with the same kind of conflict at some point in the future if something else occurs. You need to decide if you are willing to deal with it in the future if necessary or if dealing with it now is best.

If you decide you need to resolve it now what's the rule? Matthew 18:16: "But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.'" What should be the motivation to do this? The motivation is to restore the relationship. The motivation is love for the other person and a desire to have the conflict resolved.

How do we decide who should help us with this situation? First, you may want to let the other person know that if they won't talk privately about the situation then you will need to involve someone else. Let them know you do not want to do this, but you care enough about the relationship to have the courage to ask for help. This may be enough to help them see you are taking the situation seriously and how much it means to you. They may at this point decide to resolve it privately. If not, ask them if there is someone they feel comfortable including as a facilitator.

A facilitator is someone who helps others communicate with each other in a mutually beneficial way. A facilitator will help keep the conversation on track and aid in the listening process. This should be someone both individuals feel comfortable with and respect. The other person may not be receptive to involving someone else and in rare cases refuse to talk. If this is the case you will need to enlist the aid of someone you know is in a good relationship with both of you, or is a completely impartial person. You should never take someone you know will want to take your side. The person you have the conflict with will most likely see through this tactic and feel as if you are "ganging up on them." You probably won't get very far if this happens. We can't at this time go into all the aspects of facilitation, but if you need a facilitator be very careful whom you choose.

The next step if the facilitation process fails, is a very serious one. This would only involve very serious matters that would effect the whole church. Matthew 18:17 states: "And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church." It isn't my purpose here to try and resolve conflict of this magnitude. My purpose is to help us see we have a responsibility to ourselves and to God to maintain a right relationship with God and other people. My purpose is also to help get us on the right track in regards to how we go about it.

Loving our neighbor goes much deeper than the last six of the Ten Commandments. It involves the kind of love Christ had for us when He died so we could be reconciled to our Father. We have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable to maintain godly relationships with others. Conflict: What is it good for? Unlike war, it is good for something.