“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:32
We learn how to resolve conflict during youth from our family, and then re-enact those learned behaviors with others in our adulthood. For example, in my family, conflict was usually met with irritation and, if not easily resolved, could provoke explosive anger. Later on, amends might be made, but the issue was rarely rehashed or resolved. In my early years of marriage, this was how I dealt with conflict. Our marriage was heading for major problems until we learned how to resolve conflict in a godly way.
The following steps are proven for successful conflict resolution, and are applicable to many situations from friendships to professional relationships, and from marriages to churches. Put them on your refrigerator or keep them handy, and when a conflict arises, pull them out and follow the steps. Resolving conflict in a God-honoring and healthy way is a matter of patience, prayer and practice. Try these steps. They work!
Do not suppress the conflict. Pray about it, then talk about it. Having a conflict with someone means there is a problem that needs to be worked out. Pray for wisdom, self-control and that God’s will might be accomplished through the conflict. Choose the right time and place and then discuss the conflict. I tended to blow up whenever I was frustrated. Stepping back from the situation, praying, and then talking really has helped me handle conflict much better.
To begin, one person shares openly and honestly .Be slow to speak, not hasty (James 1:19). Think about your words before you say them (Proverbs 15:32). When you share, speak the truth but do so in love—no hiding or zapping (Ephesians 4:15, 25). Speaking the truth does not mean voicing your judgments and complaints. It means attacking the problem rather than the person. Use “I” statements when expressing how you feel and what you think. Express your hurts and fears as well as your needs and expectations.
The other person is to listen, understand and respond. Don’t be defensive when you are the listener (Ephesians 4:2). Do not interrupt, but rather wait until the other person has finished sharing before you talk (Proverbs 18:13). Adopt an interview style by asking questions and seek to genuinely understand what is being said. My mother was a great listener, and her example has made me a better listener. Even if you disagree with what you hear, do not react (James 5:9). Instead, summarize what you heard as verification of your understanding. Truly attempt to see the other person’s heart (Philippians 2:1-4).
Mutual restating. If either party feels misunderstood, the other party should agree to restate what they heard until the first party feels understood correctly. In a recent church conflict, both the pastor and his staff member were feeling misunderstood by each other. The issue was easily settled when both parties finally restated what they understood the other was saying and clarified the area of disagreement.
Stick to the topic and look for areas of agreement, not just disagreement. Most conflicts escalate into sinful quarrels when those involved do not stick to the topic. My wife and I used to switch topics so frequently that we would forget what the original conflict was about. Also remember that seeking areas of agreement will bring things into proper perspective. Often what we agree on is much greater than the small disagreement itself.
If the discussion escalates, withdraw, but not before scheduling the next discussion. Stopping a discussion that is turning sour can be very helpful. It gives both parties a chance to regain self-control and recommit to resolution—but only if whoever calls for the hiatus takes the initiative to schedule another meeting after the time out. My wife used to withdraw from conflict but would not reengage. Now she takes the responsibility to reconnect, and it has helped greatly. Failure to reconnect over a conflict can turn a time out into an avoidance technique.
Mutually identify a biblical plan of action that will resolve the problem and restore unity. Remember that the purpose of resolving conflict is to bring unity, not to win an argument (Psalm 133:1). This can be hard if you come from a family like mine where winning was everything. When problem solving, try to discover what God wants to accomplish through the conflict. Strive for a biblical resolution wherein both parties win, keeping the interest of the relationship at the forefront (Philippians 2:2). Brainstorm ideas for resolution; be creative, negotiate, pray and do not give up. Search the scriptures for an answer (2Timothy 3:16). Agree to disagree, if necessary, and ask for outside help if you can’t resolve the conflict (Ephesians 4:3).
Humble yourself and take ownership for how you have contributed to the problem. In many church, family and marital situations, wounded feelings and mismanaged problem-solving exacerbate the situation (James 4:6, 5:16). Our inner being is easily wounded, and a “wounded spirit who can bear?” (Proverbs 18:14). Be aware of how you may have wounded the other party and ask forgiveness (Colossians 3:13). Commit to forgiving them for their unkind words or insensitive actions. Take responsibility for how you knowingly or unknowingly may have contributed to the problem.
Control your spirit. Perhaps the most necessary yet most difficult part of resolving conflict is maintaining self-control. Proverbs 16:32 states, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.” Be sure you deal with your anger and offense appropriately. Be quick to resolve anger and work on self-control so that you can be patient with the other person (Colossians 3:12, 13).
Be relentlessly forgiving. There is no true resolution to the conflict without forgiveness. (Ephesians 4:32, Matthew 18:21-35).
CONFLICT BY THE NUMBERS
The number of American children that suffer through divorce yearly. Children of divorce are less likely to effectively resolve conflict as adults.
The percent of pastors that report having a serious conflict with a parishioner monthly.
The percent of American pastors that have been fired or forced to resign.
The size of the faction that forces a pastor out. It is often smaller.
The percent of pastors who burn out due to the bad behavior of church members.
The number of pastors that leave their assignments each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout or contention within their congregation.
The percent of pastors that felt they were inadequately trained to cope with ministry demands.