Is conflict resolution just a fantasy?

by Kristin on January 20, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Mary Bliss

When I was younger (ie: more naive), I thought being a Christian was all about how much you could ooze the fruits of the spirit—you know, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self control, etc. I imagined the fruits of the spirit were weighty, like grapefruit and apples, and somehow God and other Christians could put you on one of those produce scales, to see how much fruit you had. With those statistics, all Christians were ranked, accordingly.

Of course, I didn’t really think that in a literal sense, but I did worry that I was going to be out of luck when it came to my hypothetical fruit weigh-in. I’ve always had a fiery nature that’s hard to smother. At my high school reunion, I was surprised (and, yes, embarrassed) by the number of classmates who told my husband stories about my inability to just let things be. I was the kid protesting unfair decisions in the classroom, advocating for other students, and debating opinions I didn’t share. So many situations felt critical to me—gentleness and self control often didn’t feel like an option.

Conflict: perhaps as inevitable as death and taxes?

As an adult, I still don’t shy away from conflict, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy it. Conflict is stressful and miserable. It can be like a cloud that blocks all of the sun in your day. I would love to live a conflict-free life, but there seems to only be two ways to avoid it: completely master the fruits of the spirit or only spend time with people who think and see the world just like me. That’s just not going to happen.

Plan B has been getting really good at conflict resolution. It’s never a perfect process, but it sure seems better than the alternatives—to keep feeding the fire or to just walk away. So I was a bit miffed when someone at a church meeting a few months ago suggested that the idea of conflict resolution (one of the discussion points on the agenda) was fantasy.

What she was saying, though, is not that the process is false, but that the goal is unrealistic. Just the term “conflict resolution” implies that, if done properly, you will emerge with the conflict resolved. To resolve something is to bring it to an end, or to settle it conclusively. How often is that really possible, when it comes to differing opinions and goals and desires, whether in a business, a church, or a marriage? And should that even be our goal?

Being peacemakers, not conflict resolvers

Recently, I met my pastor to talk to him about a conflict and how I might go about resolving it. He brought up the point that had been made at the congregational meeting—maybe we’re trying to accomplish the wrong thing, which inevitably leads to disappointment and failure. Maybe rather than putting an end to conflict, he suggested, we should be working toward peacemaking, and more liberally offering grace to one another so we can be in true fellowship even within our differences.

After all, what does God really hope for us? I do think he wants me to work every day on those fruits of the spirit, even if it’s hard work and some of them seem to go against the very grain of who I am. But I also think God created each of us to be unique—that he celebrates our differences and wants to see those differences mingling, even when that’s a recipe for conflict. Rather than make our communities more homogeneous and easy, he wants us to work at creating interesting harmonies and finding new ways to work things out.

What do you think?

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  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    What do I think? I think your pastor is uncommonly wise. I also think the Creator has a patient wisdom beyond our understanding; he knew what he was doing when he formed your temperament as well as your body.

  • Kirstin

    I love how I so often start reading one of your posts thinking, “oh, this is going to be one that doesn’t really connect to my life–it’s church stuff…” and then it DOES. My two thoughts, which are really variations on your pastor’s thoughtful theme:

    –Maybe some conflicts *shouldn’t* be resolved? Not that an active state of angry contention is a good thing, but sometimes the friction between competing concerns or aims can be productive. Sometimes the only way to make sure a compromise is fair is to accept that it will involve a continuing series of adjustments, negotiations, tweakings that will sometimes favor one side and sometimes the other.

    –Sometimes two sides that will never be able to meet can find a way to move forward despite the impossibility of resolution or closure, rather than being trapped in a futile search for common ground. “Conflict resolution” implies a great deal of talking–both to set forth the problem and arrive at the solution. Among the prickly, oversensitive, and hyperarticulate people that I tend to spend time with (I am one myself), the effort to state the terms of resolution just tends to take the conflict in whole new levels until both sides are wearied into silence. One thing I’m learning, though, is that silence doesn’t mean that change isn’t taking place. Sometimes you just have to shut up so that both parties can find new ways to behave that take the needs and wishes of the other side into account.

  • http://BlueEyedEnnis Phil Ewing

    Your second paragraph pretty much tallies with me as a student too and I am right there with you on where we find ourselves now as adults too !
    My own experience is similar to you – what I also find now is that I am increasingly nervous and wary of entering conversations with people I know will be in opposition to my views. Whereas once I didn’t hesitateto try and engage people I too find myself now in mid life wearied by the whole process necessary to even start a healthy dialogue and so often just back away. That is why I suppose my blog sometimes is a release and allows me to express some of what I want to sayin a realtively safer environment ( although that too can change). I agree that what your pastor said was fresh and offers hope.
    Thanks for this post and love your blog too.
    Blessings

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    “offering grace to one another so we can be in true fellowship even within our differences.” oh how i love this. peacemakers, yes.

    there is certainly a place for conflict resolution. where there is hurt, we are called to be reconcilers, but you are right: we will never “resolve” inherent differences in opinion and personality, and we shouldn’t–they are the ways we uniquely image God.

    the work is taxing, this living out of grace in community–but it is so much better than the alternatives!

  • http://chadthomasjohnston.com Chad Thomas Johnston

    Having taken Dr. Charlene Berquist’s riveting conflict resolution communication course, I have a few comments. :)

    I think conflict can be resolved in the sense that two people who have locked horns can agree to a ceasefire. A conflict need not be a bloodbath. It may be a state of gridlock that neither of you are able eliminate altogether. But in the absence of conflict elimination, I do think you can agree to let a heated issue rest, acknowledging that neither of you is willing to yield an inch, let alone the mile needed to eliminate the conflict. Choosing to love the other person then, becomes a choice that involves embracing that person without secretly wielding weapons. Like Christians serving coffee and donuts to pro-choice advocates at a rally, chosen love is the only way to take the conflict off of the table and let it be replaced by a chosen agreement to privilege mutual well-being over perfectly harmonious interpersonal interactions. Two people can acknowledge a very real point of disagreement without belittling one another in the process, and without stooping to an interpersonal assault. It can be done.

    By the way, I like your blog. It is thoughtful, well-written, and entertaining. Three great ingredients for any wordsmith’s alphabet soup.

    Be well.

    CTJ

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Ray, thank you for saying that. I am slowly, year by year, having my eyes opened to just why God made me this way and what I might be able to do in this world, with this particular combination of traits. I guess that discovery/refining process is part of the design—slow and hard, but the only way to live with meaning.

    Kirstin, I love that you decide, again and again, to keep reading! Your points are great ones, immediately pushing me to find analogies and examples. I can especially relate to this is my own life: “One thing I’m learning, though, is that silence doesn’t mean that change isn’t taking place. Sometimes you just have to shut up so that both parties can find new ways to behave that take the needs and wishes of the other side into account.” I think that gets at one of the frustrating things about trying to resolve conflict—the trap of talking in circles and getting endlessly stuck, but not wanting to “give up.” Silence can be a wonderful tool for progress, not just a sign of denial or laziness.

    Phil, it’s nice to know I’m not alone regarding my fiery nature! I don’t think I’m necessarily weary, now, of engaging others, but I have learned a lot about “choosing my battles.” I’m better able to discern which conflicts have hope for resolution, which issues and relationships are worth the effort, etc. I would never be able to take on every cause the way I used to, so I’m thankful for that more mature sense of discernment. :)

    suzannah, you are right—”we are called to be reconcilers” and there is absolutely a place for conflict resolution. I guess I’m just trying to think more carefully about what that really means. I was able to touch on what “resolution” means, but the post was getting long so I didn’t get into what defines a “conflict.” A true conflict, as I understand it, is foundational and prolonged. In other words, it’s not synonymous with a “misunderstanding,” which can usually be cleared up by trying to express yourself one more time, with just a bit more care. With a true conflict, I think we need to examine it carefully and decide if there is a possibility of resolution, or if we need to make peace with our differences rather than try to change one another. Does that make sense? (I’m still thinking this through—thanks for being a part of the process!)

    Chad, I’m so glad you have some real knowledge in this area and spoke up! I realize that much of this discussion I’ve started is semantics—ie: my strict definition of “resolution” doesn’t include “ceasefire,” and yours does. Differentiating between a “conflict resolution” and “conflict elimination” really helps me sort it out. And I love how you put this: “Choosing to love the other person then, becomes a choice that involves embracing that person without secretly wielding weapons.” I guess that’s what I’m trying to get at, especially when if comes to a very diverse church community like mine. For many people, resolving a conflict is about finally making your “I’m right, you’re wrong” points convincing enough. I’m pretty sure that’s not the type of “resolution” we’re called to be a part of.

  • http://chadthomasjohnston.com Chad Thomas Johnston

    The “I’m right, you’re wrong” theme is the least creative option because everybody secretly believes it’s true. For many Christians, regrettably, being right is more important than loving another person. I’d rather take the conversation out of the domain of right vs. wrong and place it in relational territory so it serves to preserve existing relationships. In the end, “I’m right, you’re wrong” is unsustainable. “I love you even though we disagree” is, however.

  • Christine (Modernpastor on twitter)

    I remember struggling to perfect the fruits of the Spirit then I reread Galations 5 and God showed me it was not the “fruits of Christine.” My own nature cannot succeed that’s why the whole chapter is about living in the Spirit. When we do that, then his fruits will manifest through us and that’s the true miracle. I found that taking the pressure off of myself to perform and simply started to concentrate on loving God with all of my heart, soul, mind, & strength, then the fruits happen. Things that easily upset me before suddenly had no power. It was amazing.
    As for conflict resolution, I don’t want to get people to back down on their opinions but instead see the other person’s side. For me, it has less to do with fixing the problem and more to do with getting people to work together despite differences.
    Just a thought.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Chad, exactly: “In the end, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ is unsustainable. ‘I love you even though we disagree’ is, however.” Part of what’s sad about this is that most Christians tend to go to churches where everyone pretty much does agree on right & wrong, so they don’t end up having to stretch themselves to the point of loving in the midst of disagreement. How will we ever grow in such monochromatic churches and communities?

    Christine, I needed that reminder! The “Fruits of Kristin” sure don’t do much for me, and it’s silly to think I might sneak them away from the Spirit without the Spirit’s involvement. And yes, understanding where others are coming from—having compassion for them, and grace for their point of view, even if you disagree—is the key to better churches and a better world. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • http://chadthomasjohnston.com Chad Thomas Johnston

    ” Part of what’s sad about this is that most Christians tend to go to churches where everyone pretty much does agree on right & wrong, so they don’t end up having to stretch themselves to the point of loving in the midst of disagreement. How will we ever grow in such monochromatic churches and communities?”

    You know, I’m not entirely sure everyone agrees with everyone at churches even though things may appear to be that way. I’m more of the opinion that people are afraid to rock the boat, and understandably so. Churches split when people vocalize their differences, at least when those differences become significant enough to them. If people felt more honest and open at church in the first place, I doubt we would perceive the opinions held by congregants as being so homogenous.

    Also, when it comes to growing in environments such as these, I cannot help but that our growth is not so much about being “potted” in a church’s “soil” as if the church is the only thing responsible for our growth. We are active participants in our growth as well. Sometimes growing means learning how to vocalize your own confusion, your own questions, etc. Challenging others is something proactive we can all do.

    I say all of this because there are a few gay and lesbian members at my church, and people accept them but do not openly talk about theological differences that might cause friction as a result of their attendance. I am more liberal anyway, so I am not going to be the person who says, “Get out of our church!” But I think there are people who might say just that if the issue arose. And we might end up losing some lovely people in the process. Fred Phelps is 30 minutes away from us, so I cannot help but think about things like this. Silence does not necessarily mean the existence of a homogenous body of beliefs! Silence sometimes means “Let’s not stir things up. We value our community and people in it too much to risk ostracizing anyone.” I think that’s where my church is at, and I honestly think it works. There are times where it doesn’t – we could definitely be more progressive, we adhere to tradition to the point of drooling on ourselves at times. But there is a beauty about it all as well.

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    I think … I like the My Little Pony photo :)

    I think this is very wise. Conflict resolution should probably be more about acknowledging our differences and learning to either compromise or live with the differences harmoniously