Conflict is truly everywhere. We are sinners who have deeply rooted selfishness and pride. And when you put us together with other sinners who also have deeply rooted selfishness and pride, you’re going to have a bad time. Recently, I listened to a workshop delivered by Danielle Sallade on Biblical Principles for Resolving Conflict. I’ve read enough about this (and been in enough conflict) to say that this was an excellent, helpful, practical workshop that is well worth taking the time to listen to (audio is available). In addition to listing the common personality-styles of dealing with conflict (withdraw, yield, win, resolve) and outlining a biblical theology of how to love others and our call to be peacemakers, Sallade also provided highly practical steps to be more Christ-honouring in our conflicts. Below are the (cleaned up) notes I took during this session.
Things to remember going into (and during) conflict:
- Remember how graciously God has treated us through Jesus Christ. We must fix our minds on this: we won’t treat others with the necessary grace and forgiveness until we first come to realise how graciously God lavishes his forgiveness on us, despite our sin (Colossians 3:12-15). Forgive as the Lord forgives you.
- With Christ’s power we can love others, even our enemies. Romans 5:8. Jesus died for us when we were his enemies, so now we can imitate him through showing the same kind of undeserved compassion to those who have wronged us. Jesus commands this, and he will empower you to accomplish it.
- With Christ’s power, we can take initiative in resolving conflict. Jesus took initiative in reconciling to us, and now we can take that same initiative with others. Matt 5:23-24.
- In Christ’s power, we can humbly admit our faults to God and to those who we are in conflict with. Remove the log from your own eye before taking the speck from others. Jesus sees every single sinful motivation of our hearts and he loves us unconditionally anyway. We need not be afraid of bringing our sins into the light before God and before others because we know that we will find mercy every single time. 1 John 1:8-9.
- In Christ’s power we can overlook offenses. Proverbs 19:11. While there are times when we should confront, there are also numerous times when we could simply overlook. Sinners aren’t perfect, and they’re not going to do everything exactly the way you want them to, and that’s not a sin. Unless they’re hurting themselves, hurting you, or dishonouring God, love should cultivate a culture of grace.
When the time does come to confront, we must do it gently and with the goal of restoring the other person. Galatians 6:1. When it comes to confrontation, here are some communication styles to avoid:
- Avoid Criticisms. Criticisms attack the character of the person, and not the problem. Instead, we should learn to effectively voice complaints. These focus on behaviours, and not the person’s character. Attack the problem, not the person.
- Avoid contempt. This is where one person moves towards scorning the other person (name-calling, mockery, sarcasm, etc). It’s an outward demonstration of decreased admiration for the other person. Contempt is one of the main signs that a relationship is in deep trouble. Avoid it.
- Avoid defensiveness. This is where we blame-shift or deny responsibility. What’s the opposite? The humble admission of wrong.
- Avoid stone-walling. This is when a person shuts down and refuses to engage with another person. Contrary to what most stone-wallers think (and stats show this is more common in men) this is not perceived as a better, or neutral, behaviour, but rather as a behaviour that is hostile; even punishing. When men stone-wall women, a woman’s reaction is often to attack – they want a reaction because at least that means discussion.
- Avoid mind-reading. Don’t assume anything about the other person’s motivation in a particular instance, no matter how well you know them. Don’t make any judgements about how ‘everyone else’ would perceive what they said, either. This can be really hard. We all-too-quickly assume we have the other person’s motivation all worked out. But this can lead to assumptions which are rarely wise or helpful on the path to restoration.
- Avoid generalised statements. In particular, stay away from ‘always’ and ‘never’. Why are these words damningly dangerous? They exaggerate, they assume you’re keeping a record of wrongs (which 1 Corinthians 13 absolutely prohibits) and they attack the person, not the problem.
So there are some things to steer clear of during conflict. Now, the other side of that coin. Here are eight positive things to practice on every journey through conflict.
- When resolving conflict, go face to face. In-person communication is infinitely more effective than our technology-driven communication preferences today. We all know this, and yet our text threads are so telling. In person, if possible, please.
- Resolve to discuss one issue at a time. If you’re talking and a second issue comes up, stop and actually label it “this is a second issue”. Determine to postpone that second issue discussion until the first issue is done. And even then, wait until both parties are ready.
- One person should have the floor at a time. And when you have the floor, be sure to use specific, clear language which keeps in mind these other principles. This isn’t your opportunity to simply “let fly”. Remember to focus on the problem by using helpful sentence formulas such as “When you did (or didn’t do) [BLANK], I felt [BLANK]”. This aims at addressing the behaviour, and shouldn’t prompt the person to shift into a posture of personal defensiveness.
- Never interrupt. James 1:19-20. Listen much more than you speak. Repeat back what’s been said to demonstrate that you heard and to show you understood. But don’t interrupt.
- Use “I” language instead of “you” language. This pronoun switch from “you hurt me” to “I felt hurt” is paramount because while the former is attacking, the latter communicates the truth about you, doesn’t give rise to defensiveness in the other person, and allows them to respond on their own behalf.
- Allow for time-outs. Either party can feel overwhelmed, or feel that things are escalating beyond mature conversation. Everyone should be free to hit pause on the conflict, leave the room, regain calm, and then enter back in when they’re ready. This is infinitely better than simply blowing up at each other.
- Move the conversation toward the 3 A’s. Admit the wrong (in detail), Apologise (again, details), and Ask for forgiveness. When possible, think of scaffolding you can build around the asking to ensure repeat offenses don’t happen again, or at least are actively minimised (because hey, we’re all sinners).
- Forgive. When we grant forgiveness to each other, we make a conscious decision to let go of anger, bitterness, and resentment etc. and we chose not to hold it against the other person. Forgiveness is often granted before it is felt. When it comes to Biblical forgiveness, here are some promises that you’re agreeing to when you forgive like Jesus forgives you:
- You will not bring up the offense again
- You will not bring it up to others (that’s gossip)
- You will not bring it up again to yourself.
- You will not allow the incident to hinder your relationship.
These Biblical principles for walking through conflict carry with them the single aim of leading both parties towards reconciliation with each other and right standing before God, which is exactly what Christ died for. As we are resolving conflict, let’s be people who are also reflecting the character of our peacemaking God.