How do you lead through conflict? Do you work primarily to manage it, resolve it, transform it, or avoid it? Part of being a courageous and effective leader is being able to confront conflict and to lead people through it. Leading through conflict is one place that reveals who you are is how you lead.
Conflict is an inevitable part of life. It occurs naturally on a daily basis in one form or another. There will always be differences of opinion and disagreements. It is a part of the human experience. It influences your actions, your decisions, and your relationships. Although it is often viewed as being negative, conflict can be an opportunity for positive learning and growth.
Leading Through Conflict
As a leader, you already know that conflict can be a result of attitude, race, gender, looks, education, opinions, feelings, religion, and culture. It can grow out of differences in values, affiliations, roles, positions, and status. And even though you might attempt to find the cause of any particular conflict, the reality of most conflict is complex and is made up of a mixture of sources from emotions to values.
So, how do you lead through conflict? Matthew, in his good news, gives us direction regarding conflict. Let’s use our practice of “Read, Reflect, Respond, and Return” as a pattern for confronting conflict while caring for relationships.
Read Matthew 18:15-20
15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If you are listened to, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
There are several stories of conflict in the New Testament. A quick read reveals that Jesus was not frightened by it and even invited people into it. One day he asked his disciples, “What were you arguing about along the way?” He knew his question would lead to a messy discussion about who was the greatest. He asked people why they called him “Lord” without doing what he said, and he called religious leaders “white-washed tombs” knowing that things would get messy.
There was a conflict in the church after Jesus ascended. Hebrew-speaking Christians got tangled up with Greek-speaking Christians about whose poor were getting cared for. Paul went after Peter for giving in to the legalists. The list goes on.
Relationships and Conflict
John Ortberg, in his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them, writes, “People who love authentic community always prefer the pain of temporary chaos and conflict to the peace of permanent superficiality.”
Relationships were important to Jesus and to the early church. So, Matthew tells of Jesus teaching how to live a righteous and holy life. For Matthew, the righteous and holy life is lived out in relationships.
So, the righteous and holy life is seen in how you restore and maintain relationships in the midst of conflict. Dealing with conflict always involves a series of choices. To assist us to live in relationship as God’s children, Jesus gives a set of instructions about what to do in case of relational breakdowns.
How to Navigate Conflict?
So, when there is conflict:
To be alive means to be in conflict. When there is conflict, you have two choices. You either pretend that conflict does not exist and become conflict-avoidant, or you honestly admit there is a challenge, a broken relationship. Matthew is talking directly to Jesus’ followers when he writes, “If your brother or sister sins against you, go…”
When there is conflict, there has been a breakdown of some kind. Usually, the breakdown is more complex than what appears on the surface. There will be no transformation without a serious commitment to face the breakdown. Acknowledge the conflict.
Take responsibility for your part in it.
As a Christ-centered leader, take the responsibility to set things right. Regardless of the cause of the conflict, take the first step toward restoring your relationship. We don’t naturally want to do this. We have thoughts like, “it is not fair that I should have to be the one to take the first step.”
Here is where who you are comes into play. Instead of blaming others and avoiding responsibility, be who God created you to be, take responsibility for your part, and move forward toward reconciliation.
Take action to confront it.
Don’t let resentment grow. Often, when you have been wronged, it feels better to be angry and to play the victim. You have been wronged and someone should do something about it. You are correct. It is you who takes the initiative.
Go and make it right with your neighbor, friend, or colleague. It will not be easy. You will not do it perfectly. Just remember this, avoidance kills community. Here is where your self-awareness is important.
Approach the people involved with generosity.
You truly do not know what is going on in the heart and mind of another person. So, be generous in your assumptions and projections. Here is where love comes into play. As a Christ-centered leader, you are always leading with the best interest of others in mind. You are always working for their good as well as the good of the church or your organization. Remember, you are in the people business. Love others as God in Christ has loved you. Be generous in your assumptions and projections.
Approach others with the same care and sensitivity that you would want to be approached.
Deal with it privately. Include only those with whom there is conflict. As Jesus has instructed through Matthew, “go…when the two of you are alone. If you are listened to, you have regained that one.” Be aware not to embarrass others by approaching them in front of an audience. Approach the other person in the way you would want to be approached.
Just a bit of advice on this point. If you are angry, deal with your anger first. It is not healthy to confront conflict with anger. This is not a time to ventilate. It might make you feel better, but it will do nothing about transforming the conflict. Your ventilation shows that you have not taken the other person seriously. So, be clear about your motives, deal with your anger, and approach others the way you want to be approached.
Be clear in your communication.
Brene Brown reminds us that Clear is kind. I read recently of a pastor who taught his staff the “Last 10% Rule.” Often, after going through all the challenging work of setting up a difficult conversation, he found people would stop and not discuss the hardest but most important truth. They would fail to say the last 10%.
So, what happened? They were vague and fuzzy just at the time clarity was most needed. For example, Instead of saying, “You talked too much at the meeting,” people would speak vaguely of not feeling connected to the other person and hope they will fill in the blanks. Here is the reality of that situation or lack of clarity. You are not speaking out of love for the other person. You just don’t want to go through the pain and fear involved in a deeper conflict. Remember, “Clear is kind.”
Describe clearly what you have observed.
Explain how you perceived it. Tell me what the consequences have been. Ask for the change you want. And then ask, “How can we move forward toward our goal of being in relationship with each other.”
Aim for reconciliation.
“If you are listened to, you have regained that one.” The goal of conflict transformation is not to win but to restore broken relationships. Reconciliation is rarely simple and never quick. Again, this is where who you are is how you will lead. Reconciliation takes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It takes loving your neighbor as you have been loved. It takes doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. You get the point.
Remember you are not alone.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” You often hear these words regarding worship. But Matthew did not use the words in relationship to worship. He used them in relationship to conflict. Remember, when you are confronting conflict, God is with you. You are not alone. When you are confronting conflict, you are being who God created you to be. You are not asked to live a righteous and holy life on your own. God is with you as you build and maintain healthy relationships. It is who you are as a Christ-centered leader.
From my perspective, this scripture has often been used more as a weapon than as a tool. It has been used to gain control rather than restoration. It is part of our broken human nature to experience conflict. Whether it be differences of opinions, different world views, or a clash of values, we human beings will always be at odds in one form or another.
God sent Jesus to teach us how to live before God. I understand that means “be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect.” In other words, to be whole, righteous, and holy. From Matthew’s perspective, as well as the other gospel writers, righteous and holy living is lived out in relationship with other human beings. We love one another as God in Christ has loved us.
It Starts with Me
The first place I have to start in confronting conflict is with myself. When I am at peace with God, I am at peace with myself, and at peace with others. When I get angry, I first ask myself “Why am I angry?” Even my best self wants to blame others for my misunderstandings. I first must deal with my own hurt, frustration, and fear before I can honestly confront any relational conflict in a healthy way.
When I finally came to my senses, I asked myself “What do I want?” Too often when people get to a certain level of anger, their only focus is to win the argument or to inflict pain or to get even. They forget about righteous and holy living. They forget, if only for a moment, that righteous and holy living is to be in healthy, loving relationships with the people around them, especially the people they want to hurt or “tell where to go.” I know. I speak from experience.
Conflict at the Extreme
Just for the fun of it. I want to share with you some information that carries anger and conflict avoidance to the extreme. It illustrates that the problem of conflict usually begins within us.
There are over 33,000 denominations of Christianity in the world. Every one of them was a split. Almost all of them were born out of anger, hostility, and withdrawal between people who claimed to follow the teachings of Jesus. This is the same Jesus who prayed to his Father that all his followers might “be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me.”
A man was lost at sea. He found his way to a desert island where he lived for fifteen years. One day, a ship came by, he was found, and was rescued from the island. Before leaving, he gave his rescuers a little tour of the buildings he had constructed over the years. It was a one-man town, but it served his purposes for survival. Pointing in one direction he said, “That is my house.” Then he pointed in another direction and said, “That is my store. I store coconuts, berries, and roots in there.” Then he pointed to the building next to it and said, “That is my cabana. I rest there. I have even taken a few vacations there.” Then he pointed to the next building and said, “And that is where I go to church.”
The rescuers were amazed. One of them noticed another building next to the church and asked, “What is that building next to it?”
The man replied, “Oh, that is where I used to go to church.”
Give God thanks for the people you met today.
- Where did you experience conflict?
- How did you respond?
- How did you interact with others?
- What did you learn about yourself?
- Who is helping you remember that you are a child of God and that you are not alone when you confront conflict?
- What will you do differently tomorrow?
- Ask God to give you the faith to be the leader God has created you to be.
May this prayer of Jesus become reality in and through you and the people entrusted to your care.
“I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” So let it be!