Fostering Healthy Conflict

Conflict can be productive instead of destructive. Here's how to keep it that way.

man and woman arguing

Sometimes when speaking of conflict, we jump to speaking of the need to de-escalate it, but we should make a distinction between healthy, natural, productive conflict and toxic community-destroying conflict. Conflict is human. We each have our own perspectives, our own hopes, dreams, experiences and values. Emotions run high when those things do not line up.

When there are two or more people and we do things together, the idea that there would not be conflict or disagreement is unreasonable and probably indicative of an unhealthy culture. An unhealthy culture is where a lot of things are being suppressed for a faux peace. In healthy communities people can question, disagree and find resolution. 

What is your experience with conflict? 

Some leaders have had traumatic experiences in their lives which leads them to want to avoid conflict at all costs. Some leaders have not had experience with healthy conflict and the creative energy that it unleashes, so in every situation of conflict, their instinct is to placate and smooth things over to get through the day conflict free. They might do this through humor or caretaking or even just “tabling it for a future meeting.” This response has a dark side for leading a community.  Leaders who are not comfortable with any conflict at all will inadvertently teach people to keep emotions and disagreements hidden and suppressed. This type of leader can go home at the end of the day feeling like they did a good job of steering their meeting or their community around conflict, but inevitably the un-expressed thing festers and ultimately becomes something bigger and uglier than it originally was.  

The true task is fostering healthy conflict and inoculating against toxic conflict.  

We don’t need to look further than social media or cable news to see how rampant toxic, unproductive community-destroying conflict has become in our world. As a Church, one of our primary goals should be to practice in a different way. One of the ways we can do this is to teach our congregations that conflict is normal, expected and creative, but for us to experience its benefits we need to follow a few simple guidelines.  

Here are some easy guidelines for how to benefit from disagreement and what to avoid:

Speak for yourself

Every voice is important but no one gets to speak for someone else. Every pastor has had the experience of someone coming to them and saying, “Pastor, some people are saying…..” Those are five of the most unhelpful words any pastor hears begin a sentence. Pastors and others need to learn to smile and say, “I really want to hear more about that, can you ask them to please call me so we can talk directly?”

“Help us connect the dots for why this matters to you.”

When someone is speaking for themselves, draw them out even further. Your goal is to hear what is underneath their idea or their opinion. That’s where the gold is!  

I remember once in my first parish I clumsily suggested clearing up a few unnecessary things out of the sanctuary, including a hanging plant holder that I thought was way past its prime and probably should not have found a home on our altar in the first place, in my opinion. The blowback from this suggestion was fierce and seemed way out of proportion. What I didn’t know was where that plant holder had come from. It turns out it was built by the deceased husband of one of the pillars of the congregation and offered as a gift years back. I decided to spend some time with that man’s widow. She told me so many stories that I came to love this man I’d never met. I was ready to defend the placement of the plant holder myself! At the end she said, “I’m so glad I got to tell you all of that. I understand there has been some question about the plant holder in the front of the church. I think it’s been there long enough and if it’s okay with you I’d like to take it home now.” This was never about a plant holder. It was about honoring a man and his memory.   

Never succumb to character assassination 

This is a good rule in all of our relationships but it’s an easy one to break. Ever present social media shows this all the time and it has been slipping off the screen and into our real lives more and more frequently. How often do you hear a criticism of the president that starts with “I’m not comfortable with the president’s approach to the economy, I don’t think he has enough emphasis on __________?”  Not often, right? Yet, all too common are conversations ending in character assassinations like, “The facist/socialist/communist/whateverist in the white house _____.” We too often do the same with each other. Instead of disagreeing about a plan or an action we go after the character of a person.  

In faith communities we see this happen right to people’s faces, but even more often behind their backs. This practice is so toxic that one of God’s top ten commands is about bearing false witness. Character assasination can never result in the resolution of a conflict because it makes the nature of the conflict not about an idea but about the character of a person. In truth, when we participate in this we are not trying to solve a conflict. We are asking people to choose sides.  

These three practices are foundational but they only work if they have been built into the culture.  Preachers can preach about them over months and years.  All leaders can practice them and talk about them in neutral non emotionally charged settings to build expectations into the community about how we talk with one another. This is the long term plan and while there is a lot more we could say, building these simple practices into your own way of ministering and expecting them from the members of your congregation is foundational to building an emotionally healthy congregation. They are foundational for building a culture where conflict is healthy, creative and productive.  

When toxic conflict has emerged

You may be thinking, “Well it would have been great if the last three pastors would have built such a culture, but here I am in the midst of conflict and, believe me, it’s not the healthy kind!”

Sadly, this is a common experience. As beautiful as they are, there is something about our faith communities that also unleashes the worst of human behaviors.  

There is no sugar coating this. It is a difficult situation but it is also an opportunity. If you’ve been in toxic conflict or even just observed it play out among others, you may have noticed that the conflict is almost never about what the people in conflict are saying it is about. Even the emotions around the conflict can be deceiving. Many of us, especially men, might observe that anger is often not a core emotion. Underneath anger there is often something deeper like fear or disappointment or hurt. Our job in addressing toxic conflict is to find and speak to the core emotion or experience underneath the presenting one. In my simple story above, I realized there wasn’t a single person who cared about that planter, but there were people who were afraid that the woman who had donated it would be hurt. She didn’t care about it either, but she was sad that no one took the time to listen to the story of her life with her husband.  

In addressing toxic conflict, we have to reverse how these emotions have gotten all mixed and tied together, until the real issue is so clouded over that even the people who are upset don’t know what they’re upset about anymore. Here’s a place to start. Ask some questions, maybe even one-on-one away from the conflicted situation. Also, be ready to listen, really listen. Don’t make yourself part of the conflict. 

Start here:

  1. Help me understand your frustration/anger/hurt/point of view better.
  2. What is the most important thing to you in this conflict?
  3. What makes that the most important thing to you?
  4. Are there other things that are making this feel particularly poignant for you?

There is no quick fix to any of this, but most of us respond very well when someone is willing to listen and ask questions that show they really do want to understand. You can lead a church without having the wisdom of Solomon if you have the willingness to ask questions and really listen. People’s hurts, fears and anxieties play out in church sometimes more than anywhere else. That could be an opportunity for us to be church for one another and not just something to dread. One more thing, find a partner or a coach whom you can process this with you when you feel really stuck. It will help you sort things out and even more importantly help you avoid becoming part of the toxicity. 

  • Grant Stevensen

    Grant has served as a pastor in the ELCA for 30 years. He has served congregations in rural WI, Taiwan, Papau New Guinea and St. Paul MN. Grant works now as an organizing and congregational consultant, training in leadership development and vision implementation, often in the areas of climate justice, healthcare and housing and conflict management.

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