Monday, January 23, 2012

Conflict Resolution

People all over the world, throughout history, and from many faith backgrounds have acknowledged the genius of the man Jesus.  For the record, I believe Jesus to be more than a man; He is the God-man, the unique Son of God, and the only hope for people to find peace with the one, true God.  My point however, does not depend on you believing the same as I do.  In my experience, Jesus' practical wisdom is displayed, perhaps better than anywhere else, in His teaching on handling conflict.  Jesus' teaching goes to both the offender and the offended. 

Jesus instructs the offender to go to the offended as soon as possible to make it right (Matt 5:23-24).  Don't wait till someone tells you that you have hurt their feelings.  Go when you have even a suspicion of trouble brewing.  It is far better to show concern over your relationship with a friend when it is unnecessary than to ignore a situation that needs attention. 

Jesus also gives a simple process to follow when we are offended by someone else (Matt 18:15-17).  While it is true that Jesus uses the church as the final authority, the first two steps are applicable to everybody.  These first two steps are simply, go to the person who offended you privately first and, if that doesn't work, go with two or three friends to settle this dispute.  It is clear that Jesus' goal in this is reconciliation and it is my experience that sincerely following Jesus' first step solves 95% of all conflict.

I certainly have nothing to add to Jesus' instruction but I would like to offer a few observations of what He doesn't say and how our usual practice differs from His instructions.  Jesus does not suggest that we will live a conflict-free life.  Indeed, the fact that He gives this instruction to His followers strongly implies He believes they will have conflict.  Conflict happens in any close relationship!  The only choice we make is how we handle it.

Most conflict could be solved before it happens but not the way we usually go about it.  People who don't naturally speak up hold their opinions and suggestions to themselves for fear of disagreement.  People who do naturally speak up (they usually wind up being leaders of various groups) assume that silence means consensus or assume that if no one else is willing to speak up then I can do it the way I wanted to anyway.  That "I" in the last sentence is not accidental!  It is true that great leaders will draw out the input of the group but great friendships can only be built on trust and open, honest communication.  Be honest with yourself first; if the opinion you are holding is going to continue to hold your attention, it is worth bringing up.  It still may not go your way but having "everything on the table" is the only healthy way forward.  Of course, how you say something is as important as what you say but this post is long enough already!

Once we're in conflict, Jesus tells us to go directly to the other person in conflict.  Don't "share" with three friends first so you can get their opinion (read, get them on your side).   I have discovered some helpful assumptions for that first conversation through trial and error.  Assume that what was said or done has been misunderstood by you.  Most people do not get up in the morning and try to find ways to irritate you!  If your offender was particularly nasty, assume it was because of some other factor.  Everybody has, at least, one story of being short-tempered because of fatigue or stress and taken it out on the wrong person.  Finally, assume that your offender said what they said for reasons that are not obvious to you.  Unfortunately we usually underestimate the kindness of offenders and overestimate our ability to discern their motives.

A final note:  some folks who know me well will think I wrote this post to them.  Recent events just remind me that most of us need help dealing with conflict.  Nothing here is new, just a reminder of what you already know.

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