One of the lessons of postmodernity is
that of the importance and necessity of sometimes living in
cognitive dissonance. In other words, if language is symbolic and we
hold truth in paradigm, it makes sense that there would be times
when two things both seem to be true, yet contradict. But sometimes
the thinking of thesis-antithesis comes more easily to us. At times
an issue really does boil down to black and white, but at other
times, our lack of skill in dealing with conflict arbitrarily
drives a dispute to polar opposites.
Division among Evangelical
Christians is one of the tragic ironies of a historical movement
committed - at least by confession - to Jesus' prayer "...that they
may one" (John 17:11 - all
references are from The New American Standard Bible unless otherwise
noted). And its results are often devastating to organizations,
denominations, local churches and individuals. What is equally
tragic is that while these splits are often over doctrinal
differences, the very basis for those doctrines --- the Scriptures
--- provides principles for handling conflicts that, if followed,
would frequently stave off such heart-wrenching divisions. For in
many cases it is primarily a misfiring of relationships that
exacerbates genuine differences of opinion and heightens conflicts
to the breaking point.
And, of course, conflicts are not
limited to the context of church. Whether at work, in the home, or
wherever, we've all been there: Locked into opposite positions;
heels dug in firmly; glaring at each other.
But I'd like to suggest that
conflict, broadly defined, is not only something that can be
resolved successfully, but also can be a positive force in
the life of any community. Consider: Haven't you ever weathered a
conflict with someone only to come out of the experience with a
strengthened and closer relationship? The very work that's necessary
to successfully resolve a conflict often enhances a relationship
rather than weaken it. In addition, the fact that we all do not know
everything and that our perspective is not invariably the correct
one suggests that if we approach conflict with an open mind and a
sincere heart we will make ourselves wiser people. The Book of
Proverbs is replete with praises for the wise man who will accept
correction (e.g. Proverbs 10:17,
We will only learn and grow by discriminatingly submitting to
others' wise insights and alternate perspectives. If, then, it's
true that conflict can yield positive results, what light does the
Scripture shed on a methodology that can guide us through the
inevitable disagreements that we will encounter in all of lifeís
One of the most helpful passages
that informs a methodology of conflict resolution is Philippians
2:3,4 where Paul writes: "Do nothing from selfishness or empty
conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more
important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own
personal interests, but also for the interests of others."
From this passage we learn the
guiding principle that a radical focus on the other person is
critical when resolving conflicts.
For several years, I've been
training new customer service representatives in my company how to
resolve conflicts and deal with very upset customers who call
USA TODAY's National Customer
Service Center's 800 number. For over ten years I myself have
taken calls on that 800 number. (Though Iím a technology
manager, at the inbound contact center where I work, the policy is
that all employees spend at least some time every week taking
calls, irrespective of job title). During that time, I've been able
to discover ways of turning a difficult conversation with someone
who's irate into a productive discussion with someone with whom you
have a stronger relationship after the conflict.
Right Brain Considerations:
Listening Beneath the Words
Every conflict has two components:
an emotional component and a rational component. Many of our
frustrations in attempting to manage conflicts come when we confuse
these components in our responses. The successfully resolved
conflict typically is characterized towards its beginning by an
emotional/empathic exchange, transitioning towards its end to a
rational/ logic exchange. The emotional/empathic aspect of the
conflict is more right-brain focused while the rational/logic
component of the conflict is more a function of the left-brain. I.e.
the rational/logic interchange typically deals with what we
characterize as the substance of the issue, whereas the
emotional/empathic aspect of the discussion is more the music of
conversation. One of the
most significant errors we make in attempting to resolve conflicts
is focusing exclusively on the rational/logic component of the
Let me unpack that just a bit.
When Alia (my 15 month old) is
upset about a circumstance in her little life, she cries. But when
my wife Bethany is similarly disconcerted, she, however, uses
words. Because words, linguists tell us, are logical symbols,
it's our tendency to focus on the logical content of what's being
said rather than on its emotive content. So, for example, when Beth
raises her voice a bit and says to me, "Why don't you ever take out
the trash?" I err when I answer, "Well now that's just a fascinating
question: why, indeed, don't I take out the trash? Actually, Beth, I
must take issue with your presupposition. In fact, I remember one
cold December evening in 1992 when...." In this obvious example, I
am dealing only with the logical content of Bethany's
question and ignoring its emotive content. I would most
effectively respond with a "Sounds like you're pretty frustrated
with this overflowing kitchen trash can."
Accordingly, here's a key thing to
remember: Respond to every emotional statement with an empathic
response. It might be a "That must be really hard" or a "I think I'd
feel the same way in your shoes" to a "Wow, I had no idea how you
felt about this." You have to find the verbiage with which you're
most comfortable and can naturally express.
Most of us are pretty good with a
perfunctory "I'm so sorry to hear that" or a similar phrase when we
first encounter our disagreeing friend's emotion. The trick to
effectively managing the emotional music of a conflict is to respond
to every emotional statement with an expression of empathy.
After our initial apology or expression of empathy we often feel
silly repeating ourselves, but that's because we feel that we are
repeating logical content. We are not repeating
content. We are merely repeating expressions of concern and empathy.
Realizing this frees us up to repeat ourselves because we understand
that we are only conveying empathy in our repeated responses to our
disagreeing friend's expressions of emotion. In addition, being
aware of the essentially emotive character of our friend's comments
also frees us up to ignore any illogic content they might express
when upset. Many a conflict has locked into an unfruitful
emotional versus logic interchange when one person was in their
right brain and their opposite was in their left.
Managing the music of a
successfully resolved conflict requires responding to every
emotional statement with an empathic response. But it also requires
a vigorous focus on the perspective of your disagreeing friend.
Left Brain Considerations:
Listening To the Words
While the worst thing you can do in
the middle of a conflict is slavishly follow some technique, it is
nonetheless helpful to summarize the main things to remember in
Listen for Understanding
Initially, simply listen to what
your disagreeing friend is saying. This conveys respect.
Employ the Acknowledgement Clause.
After the person with whom you are
disagreeing has stated their position, acknowledge that you have
heard them with verbiage like, "I understand that you feel that way"
or "I see." We are often chary to express ourselves this way,
fearing that we are inadvertently conveying agreement. But
acknowledging your friend's statement of position shows them that
you are listening and conveys honor.
Ask Clarification Questions
Step #3 is probably the most
valuable of all these steps. For someone with an open heart and
mind, it is here that the greatest learning is apt to occur. You
basically want to ask enough questions to understand your friend's
reasons for believing what she believes. You should ask
questiosa with the same thoroughness and intensity as if you
yourself were going to have to stand as the advocate for your
friend's position. You should be able to make their
arguments. When I do conflict mediation, I require each side to
summarize the otherís position and then side B must sign off that
side A has correctly understood side Bís position. This is step
Confirm Your Understanding of Your
After you have asked a sufficient
number of clarification questions to ensure that you understand not
only your partner's position but also the reasons that they have
chosen that position, the next step is to summarize for your friend
their position and their reasoning. After such a statement, you
should ask your friend if you have in fact understood what they have
been saying. If they say no, then you go back to Step #3. If the
answer is yes, then you can move on.
An individual open to change at
this point in the midst of conflict sometimes says, "I believe you
have convinced me of your position."
In a heated conflict, however, it
is the rare individual who is capable of such maturity.
Request Permission to Reveal Your
Unless you have been convinced to
capitulate your position, the next step involves asking your
opposite permission to reveal your thoughts on the subject at hand.
It is the rare individual that after you have shown the patience and
respect to listen, then ask clarification questions and then to
confirm that you understand their position will not then allow you
to state your position on the topic at hand.
State Points of Agreement
First of all, detail what you agree
with in your friend's presentation. Note the continued rigorous
focus on your opposite's point of view. This is reflected by the
fact that even after you've secured permission to share your point
of view, you honor your friend by first of all stating your
List Points of Disagreement
Only after you have listed all of
the points your friend stated with which you agree do you now detail
the matters about which you continue to disagree. Because you have
taken so much time to focus on your friend's point of view, they are
now much more likely to listen to what you now have to say.
The Heart of These Techniques
Most of us have what I call 6b
Addiction. That is, when someone states something with which we
disagree, we immediately run to state our disagreement and our
reasons. That is our typical left brain mistake. Analogously, as
I've indicated, when we are in the midst of disagreement, it is also
our tendency to shy away from sustained emotional-empathic
interchanges - beyond - at times - a perfunctory "I'm sorry to hear
that" - and prematurely attempt to drive the conversation to a
rational-logic interchange. But the heart of Listening Beneath
the Words and Listening To the Words is a rigorous focus on the
emotions and the perspective of the person with whom we
disagree. Accordingly, I'll suggest a 7th step that not only
applies to the steps of Listening to the Words (focusing on your
opposite's perspective), but also applies to the principle of
responding to every emotional statement with an empathic response
(what Stephen Covey calls Listening Beneath the Words).
Through the process of working
through a conflict, it is critical that you - as it were - follow
the lead of your dance partner. When they bring the focus of the
conversation back to their perspective on the matter, follow them
there. Acknowledge what they've expressed, ask clarification
questions until you understand what they're saying and then confirm
that you indeed heard what they said by rephrasing it. This will
usually not happen just once in the course of your conflict!
Though you are not focusing on their position to manipulate, it is
nonetheless true that your mature focus on their position is a
powerful inducement for them to reciprocate and think more seriously
about your opinion on the matter at hand.
Similarly, throughout the process,
when your opposite expresses themselves emotionally, do not be
distracted by any illogic that's within their words, but focus
on their emotions with empathic responses. This serves to build the
relationship and empowers your friend to be able to transition the
conversation from an emotional-empathic interchange to a
rational-logic back-and-forth where you can effectively address the
substance of the issue at hand. But it is critical to remember that
even after you believe you have made that transition don't
forget to respond empathically to any further emotional statements
your partner might make.
Conclusion: The Heart of
Conflicts are a necessary part of
human existence. But they can become destructive when divorced from
trust. In my personal experience, most of the time destructive
conflict is the result of distrust falsely assumed for the
other side. Maintaining a trusting heart will burn you
sometimes, but maintaining a destructive spirit will burn you a lot
more. And - for the Christian - there really is no other alternative
(1 Corinthians 13:7).
For the concept of Listening
Beneath the Words, I'm indebted to Stephen Covey. For a method of
Listening To the Words, I've adapted an approach advocated by Dr.
Sharon Crain. For the motivational impetus empowering both
techniques (an altruistic focus) I'm indebted to the Scriptures!
The Bible Stephen Covey's
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline
Myers Briggs Personality Type Theory
Sharon Crain, Ph.D. of Crain and Associates
is a Technology Manager with
a free lance writer, and formerly a bi-vocational pastor with
Cedar Ridge Community Church,
founded by Brian McLaren. His work there focused on leadership
development, small groups and teaching. Stephen also does
occasional consulting work in customer service, conflict
resolution, and developing personal and corporate mission
statements. He lives with his wife Bethany and three daughters -
Michaela Siobhan, Skye Teresa, and Alia Noelle - in the
Baltimore-Washington corridor. Stephen is the webmaster and
principal of a new venture,