Conflicts occur in some of our best-run organizations. Christians and Christian organizations experience conflict likely at the same rate as any other group or organization. Resource allocations, communication deficiencies, economics, environmental stress, confusion over roles and responsibilities are just some of the likely reasons for conflict and each can damage an otherwise healthy organization.
While Christian organizations are not exempt from conflict, there certainly are more reasons to quickly resolve these conflicts amicably — and, hopefully, positively — in Christ-centered organizations. Our mission, purpose and calling are more important, and the work that we are called to is truly life-giving.
I have found through experience that conflict is likely not entirely preventable. Since it is not preventable, it is actually much healthier for us to understand it is natural and expected. This is particularly true when the stakes are high and when people need to work together to accomplish the mission.
There are strategies that can be employed to resolve conflict; however, most approaches taught in seminars and by experts typically start after the conflict has escalated to antagonism and beyond disagreement, to collision. A better approach starts earlier in the process. As conflict is expected, learning how to navigate through conflict in a respectful and positive way is a primary management tool if we are leaders in an organization.
Smile, pause and listen
I’ve read a number of books and articles that say: “Don’t react; respond” — but they all miss the point. Our initial reaction is critical in dealing with conflict. By definition, our reaction to confrontation is immediate, and it tells much about our attitude towards our ability to be open-minded, humble, honest, selfless and kind.
Here are a couple of hints on how to react to an initial conflict or complaint:
Smile. There’s is an old saying that if you are happy, be sure to tell your face. Maintaining eye contact and smiling will encourage the person to finish their statement, complaint or report and realize that we are, at a minimum, open to their comments.
Pause. Abraham Lincoln likely paraphrased Proverbs 17:28 when he said, “It is better to be quiet and be thought of as a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Pause, take a breath, and allow the mind to be open to what needs to be communicated.
Listen. Effective listening is an acquired skill. Jesus said in Matthew 13 that people hear but don’t listen. According to Jesus, this is because people have hardened their hearts, closed their eyes, and stopped up their ears.
Failure to listen is a horribly limiting management flaw. Habit 5 of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Effective communication starts with listening, and listening is a good way to react in conflict.
Pray. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says simply, “Pray continually.” There are lots of opportunities to pray throughout the day. When conflict arises, there’s actually no better time to our mind and heart to turn to prayer. In just a few moments, and without words being spoken, there’s an opportunity for Godly wisdom to guide and direct the conversation.
Respond with kindness
The biggest advantage Christian leaders have in resolving conflict is in knowing that God is always bigger than the problem. Additionally, because all good things are from God — and the wisdom that’s needed to resolve any conflict is available to anyone who asks — our response should always be positive and constructive.
One of the most important things we can do in giving a response is to remember to be kind. Kindness is how we express our love. The words we use the can heal or destroy; they can demonstrate our interest in reconciliation, or they can push any wedge of division down even further.
Here are some simple things to remember:
Ask clarifying questions. Active listening actually starts in the first step, in our reaction. As we respond, we need to find ways to use clarifying questions to help both parties understand what’s being said. It begins with a positive and engaged attitude and an interest in truly understanding.
It’s been said that active listening is being “other-directed” — a quality that’s consistent with the Biblical encouragement of our character development.
Use inclusive, positive comments and statements. We can always be positive that there’s a resolution, even if, at first, it isn’t readily apparent. Own the fact that somewhere there has been a breakdown, and even if we are a small part, we’re still a part of the problem.
Keep the door open to future dialogues. Often, time is needed to be able to research and identify the actual problem. The true problem is often disguised, and leaders need time to sort through the symptoms to get to the heart of the issue.
To improve, review and reflect
Finally, resolving conflict is not about winning and losing, but it’s certainly about improving processes to improve the results. It’s been said that our processes are perfectly designed to achieve the results they’re producing. We need to review the dialogs and conversations we have with our colleagues and partners to make sure we’re making progress towards resolving conflicts and improving processes.
When we reflect on the challenges and opportunities that we have — particularly when it comes to resolving conflict — we actually can start to vision the opportunities for the future. The outcome of conflict should never be ‘business as usual”; conflict is actually an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to change.
Good leaders manage conflict. Great leaders see conflict as an opportunity for improvement.
Ken Behr is an executive pastor at Christ Fellowship, Palm Beach Gardens, FL.