Friday, June 30, 2006

Understanding Conflict

One day this week I was sitting around a table planning an upcoming workshop on "Healthy Congregations" with a group of leaders in our presbytery. One of the topics includes the theme: "Healthy Congregations Manage Conflict". Looking around the table, I could see that some people were unpursuaded, to say the least.

In most of our churches, one person said, "People avoid conflict like the plague, because they are afraid of what will happen." Another person said, "Yeah, we don't do conflict well." Those aren't surprising statements. And yet, it's rather difficult to be a human being and not experience conflicts or disagreements in the course of life, not just in church, but in our family life and work life and oh yes, out on the baseball or soccer fields. A recent minor league baseball game here in Omaha featured the manager of the visiting team exploding in anger over an umpire's call. So, after a heated dispute, he went and pulled up 2nd base in protest. Needless to say, he got tossed from the game! In reality, none of us can effectively "stuff conflict", but we can learn to better manage our experience of it.

The Latin root of conflict is "confligere" and means "to strike together", which offers the image of flint and stone, sparks, heat and fire. "Heat" is a common metaphor for conflict.

Interestingly, the Chinese symbol for confict combines two terms: danger and opportunity. In this perspective, conflict is not seen in terms of collision, of force and heat, but rather as a challenge.

Some time ago I read a book with the intriguing title, "When You Say Yes, But Mean No," by Leslie Perlow. Perlow offers a number of challenging and ultimately helpful and healing insights about conflict.

First, "Each time we silence conflict, we create an environment in which we're all the more likely to silence the next time."

"Silencing conflict creates resentment, anger, and frustration in a person"

"When there is pressure to go fast, people are all the more likely to silence their differences to keep things moving as quickly as possible."

"When we silence conflict, we may also hinder our ability to be creative and to learn in the process."

"Creativity requires an environment that lets us be ourselves and feel comfortable in taking risks."

A few months ago, I attended a week-long training in Mediation Skills conducted by staff from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. It was an exceptional training event.

We all bring skills and experiences to an understanding of conflict we were told.
The trainer also shared with us that conflict is usually composed of three elements:
people, process, and problems". We were told to be "soft" on people, but tough about adhering to good process and determined in our approach to facing the problems.
That's good advice.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman once remarked that leadership seems to be about "leading people". But it all begins with being able to "lead oneself". I think that's true of conflict. The more confident and healthy we become in facing conflict, the better able we are to help lead others in managing conflict.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a message fundamentally about reconciliation. Reconciliation should be a living dynamic and practice of our faith. The world greatly needs reconciling forces and people, who have the confidence and skill to move toward healing relationships. When you think about it, that's not an optional part of Christian faith. It should describe what Christian community looks like.


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