I’m a firm believer that conflict is a healthy part of any relationship. Not because I’m a glutton for hard times but because if it’s not there you’re either lying or repressing the inevitable disagreements beneath the surface.
When conflict, and even anger, is not properly managed it is allowed to linger and fester and at some point, especially in close relationships, it will boil over. In the final sermon in ChristChurch London’s Love is a Verb series this was the topic of conversation, so in this post I’m going to run through the first seven ideas for handling conflict given. In a follow up post I’m going to write about the final one in more detail and with some reflections added.
- Decide to resolve conflict.This is the tough one, it might sound simple, even superfluous, but if you don’t take a decision to deal with things then they won’t be dealt with. I know from my experience that once I have taken the decision to do something the challenges of following through with that fade away. They don’t disappear altogether, and I often take longer than I should in getting round to having that hard conversation, but I have it. This is about clarity of communication, regardless of what we think we have said it is vital to pay attention to what the other person has heard, and how they have taken that.
Our natural instinct is to run away from conflict, but if we just move on we will experience the same friction in a new place, and if we continually shift away from discomfort nothing will ever be dealt with.
- Take your time.This is an interesting one. I’ve been brought up under the mantra of don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and consequently I’ve always wanted to resolve issues as soon as they flare up, that’s once I let them flare up.
But maybe it is sometimes wiser to wait, and acknowledge the conflict, and to allow passions to calm before addressing what lies beneath. When we come under attack, whether physically, verbally or emotionally we freeze, and our knee jerk response is very rarely a good one.
- Win hearts not arguments.I like a good argument. I like the chance to best my foes with my wit and wisdom. I like the haggling and scheming, the tactics and the strategy. I don’t mind losing the odd battle as long as I stay ahead in the war.
This is not a very good way of building relationships. I’m sure my tendency to want to win is shared by plenty of others, the dismay at being thought wrong, when you know you can set the record straight.
But who really wins in this situation? Certainly not the relationship. I need to learn to prioritise the relationship over what I think is right, and in my case not only the answer but the method. Too often I want things done my way, because I have the best, most efficient solution. It’s okay not to win the argument, it’s more than okay to put the other person first.
In the end most short cuts are diversions.
- Get perspectiveI’m very often right. And I’m more often also wrong. And sometimes I can be both of those at the same time. This is not some relativistic hogwash but instead the acceptance that there are almost always multiple perspectives to any situation. If we’re obsessed with our point of view, our interests, our rightness, then we will miss so much of what is going on. Likewise, if we think that everyone else is against us and become defensive we will end up wallowing in self pity.
In the talk on Sunday Andy Tilsley gave a pretty stiff challenge to see the other person’s perspective, and to think about how if we do this we could cut out gossip. The point being that gossip is usually when one person’s position is advanced without consideration of how others involved, think, feel or react.
- Take responsibility for what you can take responsibility forIt’s not my job to change the world. There are a lot of things that don’t work out the way I would like them to work out and some of the time I will have to live with that. If I spend my life fretting over problems that I have little or no control over then I will work myself into a frenzy and into a spin of stress and disappointment at the futility of it all.
Whereas if I focus on what I can change, on my behaviour and my relationships, of the way that I think about myself, then I will not only have a greater chance of success but I will also be dealing with the issues that are closer to the heart of the problem. Otherwise I’ll spend a lot of time on displacement activity, trying to get things done, change things, make things better, but all the time remain the frail shell with the same problems as before.
- Tell the truthSimple, tough, and essential. We avoid telling the truth because of where we fear it will take us. We worry that if we say something people will think less of us, or be disappointed. Or no that we are interested in them. Or know that this relationship isn’t going to work out. Not only do I need to tell the truth but I need people around me who will tell the truth to me, who will call me out on the nonsense that I spout and the lies that I live.
It was on this issue that a little query popped into my mind: how do we balance telling the truth with not always trying to win the argument? Because if we know that something is right then we have a responsibility to tell that truth, don’t we? Maybe, but we also need to balance a few other things as well, we can take time in our relationships to draw light onto problematic situations, and we can have grace to understand that things going wrong will not derail our life.
- Get helpOur problems are not just our own, and likewise the solutions will often be shared. It’s not an excuse to go gossiping to everyone about the problems someone else is experiencing, but the very real acceptance that we need help to navigate the tricky waters of our relationships. Help from other people can also shine a light onto the extent of the problem, sometimes it will be apparent that in the light of day things are really not that bad. But in others the extent of pain will only become clear with an outside perspective. Sometimes in the midst of a relationship we can forgive and forebear, and then excuse what we should not. There are relationships where the most loving thing we can do is walk away.
Effectively what I’ve presented is my extended notes from Sunday’s sermon along with a bit of commentary and reflection along the way. There is a lot we can do to handle conflict, but the most important part of this post is that we handle it. Something more important than that will come in the next instalment.