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Understanding Conflict and Confrontation

Updated on June 12, 2015

Conflict and Confrontation

Contrary to popular belief, conflict isn't necessarily bad. In fact, conflict can be a powerful tool for strengthening relationships and solving problems. Many positive results can emerge if those involved understand how to manage conflict in a constructive way.

Conflict is painful. It brings out anger, fear, and anxiety, most try to avoid. However, it can be a positive experience when handled correctly.

Conflict is a natural part of our imperfect world. For example, we even see creative constructive conflict in the Scriptures. The apostle Paul wrote many letters specifically addressing conflict in the church; without conflict, those letters of the New Testament might never have been written. With practice, conflict management skills can be mastered.

Problems can be creatively solved by merging points of view of all sides. Both sides can learn to appreciate, understand, and accept other points of view. People can grow and change.

Relationships can be strengthened as tension and distress give way to harmony and understanding. In the life of Paul we see conflict between two great men of faith, Paul and Barnabas. These two Christian brothers argued with each other over the next step in their missionary journey. Out of their conflict came a creative solution: Paul went one way, Barnabas the other. They didn't see eye to eye, but agreed to disagree. And with them, the gospel spread in two different directions. Out of their conflict came an expanded influence for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When you generalize, people have a hard time understanding what you want them to change in their behavior. But if you are specific, you give them something concrete to deal with. Whether the other person agrees with you or not, you can help focus and manage the level of conflict by being specific. Don't go for a slam-dunk, one-sided victory. Seek genuine peace and understanding in relationships.

Rules of Positive Confrontation

Learn to separate major issues from minor ones. Conflict sometimes gets out of control because people major in the minors. Life is too short to be fussing over inconsequential problems. Furthermore, when we get embroiled in conflict over minor issues, often the real issue is hidden from view. For example, a husband and wife get into an argument when the husband fails to take out the garbage. The garbage is a minor issue, and is only a symbol of the real, but hidden issues each have. The husband feels his wife is pushing him around by nagging him about the garbage. Deep down, he feels his prerogatives are being taken away from him and is being treated like a child. Although he doesn't realize it, he unconsciously views the situation in symbolic terms: his wife assumes a parent role and he becomes a little child whose own agenda isn't important. On the other side of the conflict the wife spends hours arguing about garbage, how it smells, and unsanitary it is. She feels her husband doesn't have any pride in keeping their house clean, but never talks about the real issue...her feelings and needs are not valued by her husband. Not only in the kitchen, but in many other aspects of their marriage. The issue isn't garbage, but ignored feelings and unmet emotional needs. Until they get in touch with the real issues, they will continue arguing over minute problems.

Groups also often get mired down in inconsequential issues. Churches, businesses, and families become entangled in major battles over insignificant issues. Why? Because there is a hidden issue everyone fails to recognize consciously. Or because there is an issue everyone knows about, but dreads to discuss. For such conflicts to be resolved, someone must have the wisdom to recognize the real issue. They must have the courage to say it out loud in an appropriate manner to weather the inevitable group denial sure to result.

When conflicts arise, confront them as soon as possible. Once it is clear a conflict exists, the issue needs to be confronted, and dealt with openly head on. The longer one waits, the larger and more unmanageable it becomes. Time tends to magnify reconcilable grievances to unsolvable ones. Feelings surrounding these conflicts are often very intense. If issues had been confronted as soon as they appeared, much misery and grief could have been avoided.

Stick to the subject at hand. In times of conflict, people want to make their case as strong as possible. They gather all the ammunition they can, dredging up old past problems and character issues. Soon the issue is a confusing tangle of accusations and counter-charges. By the time the conflict has collapsed of its own violation but still completely unresolved, both sides are morose and bitter. Often, neither side can remember what the argument was about. Undoubtedly, they will be more conflict to come. Conflict can't be constructively solved by jumping from one issue to the next. Stay focused on one issue, resolving it before moving on.

In times of conflict, be specific. Avoid words such as “always” and “never.” It would have been more constructive for the wife to have said, “I was disappointed with the way you cleaned the garage yesterday. The floor wasn't swept and you left a pile of trash in the corner.” Generalizations tend to be received as personal attacks about one's character. They also cause defenses to go up. However, if you make specific statements, people are often able to be more objective by reflecting on the issue at hand.

Avoid personal insults and character assassination. Keep conflicts focused on issues, not personalities. Avoid behavior or comments putting others on the defensive. Demonstrate allegiance to relationships, not issues. Seek to care more for the person you are confronting than what the debate is about. No matter how intense the conflict between you and another, that person should never leave feeling they aren't valued by you.

Express real feelings; avoid intellectualizing. Many in times of conflict, many retreat into philosophical exchanges of ideas. They mask their feelings with intellectual sounding theories: “I think you are projecting your hostilities on to my behavior.” Intellectualizing is a form of denial, especially when family or friendship relationships are involved. It's important feelings be honestly expressed in an appropriate manner.

Of course, expressing feelings means taking risks. We make ourselves vulnerable to those who think we have a right to our own opinions. In this type of situation, calmly assert your right to have them. For instance you might say, “I'm not asking you to like or identify with the way I feel. I'm hoping you will be considerate enough of my feelings to make an attempt to change your behavior in this regard. I care about your feelings, I want to hear how you feel, and I hope you will care about my feelings as well.”

Demonstrate unconditional love and affirmation, but avoid patronizing. One of the biggest mistakes people make in times of conflict is trying to be affirming but coming off sounding patronizing and condescending. For example, Pastor Jones is in conflict with Elder Smith. After a church board meeting, Pastor Jones takes Elder Smith aside and begins by saying, “There's something I need to talk to you about, but first, I want to tell you I think you're really doing a great job on the church board. You're doing one terrific job. Meanwhile, Elder Smith's defenses are going up and he's waiting for the other shoe to drop.

A better approach would be to meet the issue head-on, while affirming it with a commitment to their relationship: “Elder Smith, I have something to discuss with you. This won't be easy for either of us, but I respect you enough to give it to you straight. I'm committed to our relationship as Christian brothers. Here's the problem I have…” Notice, there is no patronizing attitude, only a clear statement of respect and unconditional love. In this approach, Elder Smith doesn't feel he's been “setup.”

Demonstrate empathy and reflective listening. Put yourself in the other person's place. If you must confront another, imagine how you would feel in the same situation. Concentrate on what they are actually saying, while also making an attempt to understand their feelings. Seek to be responsive to others issues and emotions. When someone speaks, truly listen, don't just think about a point you want to formulate. Listen reflectively by mirroring back what another says to you, restating their feelings in your own words: “I hear you saying you are angry because you feel it wasn't right to frivolously spend money when our budget is so limited.” This serves two purposes:

  1. It helps others feel they have been heard.

  2. It helps you to understand others thoughts and feelings.

Affirm publicly, confront privately. Avoid raising difficult issues in front of other others. Confronting people publicly brings humiliation, embarrassment and shame while destroying self-esteem and relationships.

Confront to heal, not win. Seek growth, not intimidation. There is a saying, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The word “convince” comes from a Latin root word meaning “to conquer.” If you are trying to convince, you are trying to win, conquer, or destroy your adversary. Even if you win the argument, you will probably lose the relationship. Seek solutions where both sides are winners. Seek a stronger relationship, greater understanding, and healing resolution. Learn to grow from the conflict as much as you want others to. As a conflict nears resolution, tell opponents what you have learned about the issue, the other person, and about your own mistakes.

In any conflict, the only real winners are those who learned how to manage conflict to bring about a positive, constructive resolution. When we approach conflict with courage, honesty, and love for our adversary, conflict is no longer our enemy. It becomes our ally.


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