They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Carl W. Buechner
Loving completely involves managing conflict. Conflict is inevitable in relationships; when two unique and imperfect people come together, they simply won’t agree about everything. That’s why it’s critical that we learn how to deal effectively with relationship issues. No one really teaches us how to confront and resolve the impasses that life inevitably brings, especially in marriage. I think there ought to be a law that, before you get married, you have to take a class on resolving conflict. But, even in friendships, teams at work, committees, and extended family, it’s tough to know when to hold your ground and when to throw in the towel. If you only had one month to live, you would want to know how to push through those lingering issues and finally resolve conflicts with the ones you love.
The Bible provides us with principles for a fair fight. These principles apply to marriage, business partners, co-workers, and friends. They don’t guarantee you’ll win or be right every time a disagreement flares up, but they do ensure you’ll grow closer to those you love through the process of confronting conflict.
One guideline that sounds simple but can be the most difficult to maintain: determine to work through an issue rather than walk away from the relationship. Sometimes, the conflict gets a little heated and messy; but, in our primary relationships, we have to have enough courage to stay at the table until we come to a resolution, no matter how long that takes. If we really love someone, then we must summon the stamina to confront and push through the unpleasant emotions that come with conflict. Those feelings can be so powerful and nasty that we work hard to avoid them. Men typically withdraw when faced with strong emotions because they feel uncomfortable dealing with them. Consequently, some men get out of the combat zone when problems begin to surface because they’re committed to avoiding an argument at all costs. Few things are more frustrating to a woman than when her husband dodges a conflict and goes into his cave where he becomes distant, detached, and aloof.
We’ve all devised conflict-management tactics that reflect our temperaments, our experiences, or the examples we had growing up. Most of us have embraced one of five primary styles for handling conflict.
1. Avoiders – They avoid conflict, refuse to engage, and retreat when emotions arise. Their number one rule is avoiding conflict at all costs. You see the problem, though. Avoiding conflict at all costs may produce a fragile peace, but it undermines the relationship, keeping it shallow and fear based. Without resolution, the relationship stays at a surface level and never develops the intimacy that comes from working through tough issues.
2. Winners – Their goal is to win at all costs. “It’s my way or the highway” with them. Their mantra is “I’m always right, and I want my way every time.” The trouble with winners is they usually wind up losing the relationship by forcing their victory.
3. Martyrs – They’re always the first to give up. They become doormats allowing others to walk all over them. Martyrs simply roll over and play dead. This usually creates deep resentments and bitterness in the person who always gives in and dangerous pride in the one who doesn’t. It’s not a healthy way to manage conflict.
4. Compromisers – They’re committed to a give-and-take resolution. You win half, and I’ll win half. I give in sometimes; you given in sometimes. This style can be healthier and more effective than the others because there’s at least a willingness to stay at the table and an expectation that either can win.
5. Consensus Builders – They’re committed to the relationship regardless of how unpleasant it becomes. They stay at the table until they come to a mutual decision that they feel is best for both. They realize the relationship is more important than the issue and they understand that the process is usually more vital than the outcome.
If time was running out and you were counting the remaining days, wouldn’t you want to achieve real peace with those you love? The only way to do that is to be committed to the relationship and establish some ground rules for a fair fight. Determine the limits that will not be exceeded. Before you have a confrontation with a co-worker, you must remind the other person that you’re committed to finding a solution together, not creating a scapegoat. Before you sit down to resolve an issue with a dear friend, you need to restate your commitment to them and to the friendship. The friend or mate needs to know you’re willing to endure the unpleasant feelings that come with confrontation because you value the relationship and want to preserve it.
The first boundary you should establish is one with your mouth. The Bible says,
“Do not use harmful words, … only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed.” (Ephesians 4:29 GNT)
Words cut deeply, and the wound can linger and fester for years. We must be willing to take control of our language, especially in the heat of the argument, if we hope to build the relationship beyond the present conflict. It has been said that the real art of conversation is not only saying the right thing at the right time but also learning to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment. This doesn’t mean we avoid talking about the heart of the conflict. We don’t ignore it or neglect it, but we honestly reveal our true feelings, even though sparks may fly. Agree at the start that some words are off-limits. Don’t throw out the d word, divorce, as a live grenade in the middle of an argument with your spouse. Express the intensity of your feelings without profane or abusive language. These words only clog the real communication that will get you through the conflict.
The next boundary is to attack the issue, not the person. Never say, “You did this. It’s all your fault. You’re such a liar.” When you attempt to blame and name, the other person’s walls go up, and you won’t get anywhere. You’ll never move to reconciliation when you’re both on the offensive. Instead of attacking, try to own your feelings. If both of you will accept responsibility for your mistakes, then you’ll be able to come to a consensus sooner. So, start with your feelings. No one can discount your feelings; they’re valid simply by being yours. The key is expressing them without letting them consume the conflict.
Another Biblical strategy for managing conflict is to avoid dragging history into the current conflict. The Bible says,
“… (love) keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV)
It can be so tempting to unroll the laundry list of offenses, grievances, and disappointments that you’ve documented throughout your relationship with the other person. This only diverts attention from the conflict at hand. Decide to focus on the immediate issue and stay at it until you reach resolution. When you get historical, don’t be surprised if the other person gets hysterical.
Still, there will be occasions where you can’t agree. In these situations, focus on reconciliation rather than resolution. Remember that your relationship is more important than agreeing on every single thing. So, disagree agreeably. You can walk hand-in-hand without seeing eye-to-eye on every single thing. James 3:17 says,
“Wisdom … is peace-loving and courteous. It allows discussion and is willing to yield to others.”
In those issues, it may not be a matter of seeing right and wrong, but a matter of seeing life from different perspectives. If you’re committed to keeping an open mind, to accepting the other person’s point of view, then you can maintain respect for each other even when you agree to disagree. This is not compromise, at least not the negative, quick-fix kind that agrees to disagree just to keep the peace and move on.
The most important thing you can do in resolving conflict in any relationship is to bring God into the conflict resolution. He is the Prince of Peace. You don’t just bring Him into the conflict and say, “God help me win this argument.” No, you invite Him into the whole situation because He’s the only one who can meet your deepest needs. He’s the only one who can see each of the perspectives honestly and help reconcile the relationship. The amazing truth for Christ followers is that He has given us the ministry of reconciliation according to 2 Corinthians 5. With His help, we can work through, rather than walk away, from conflicted relationships with those we love.
- What is your style of managing conflict? How is it working for you?
- If you had one month to live, what would you change about the way you handle conflict?
- Which of your present relationships involve conflicts you need to confront but have been putting off? How could you re-engage the relationship with God’s help?