“When you fight, fight fair.”
That’s one of my favorite lines to deploy at a wedding service. I say it because I want to publicly acknowledge that conflict in relationships is normal and inevitable. I also say it because I’d like everyone to think about stewarding their conflicts—in their own lives and in the lives of their congregations.
Many of us were raised in homes where topics like conflict, sex, and money were not a part of polite conversation. If we did talk about them, we joked about them or spoke of them in the context of others’ stories. As a result, many of us are somewhat ill-equipped to know how to deal with them as grown-ups. Healthy conflict is no exception. Few of us have a reservoir of good models to draw from in times of need.
That’s as true of relationships within the church as it is in a marriage. Conflicts in congregations are inevitable. Church members get angry with each other. They experience disappointment. They are hurt by each other or by their pastors.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the church had a reputation for handling conflicts in a Christ-like way? What if the local church were the only place in town where a community took seriously the ways we are prone to hurting each other? What if congregations were intentional and hospitable about providing space for hurts to be spoken and heard? Such places are ripe for forgiveness and reconciliation. I suspect that people would be drawn to a community that practices this kind of truth-telling.
Since conflict is inevitable, here are some practices that can help us fight fair with each other.
Own the pain. We seldom realize that underneath our anger and disappointment is pain. It’s hard for many of us to engage our pain because doing so acknowledges our vulnerability. Often anger feels like a safer emotion to express. But vulnerability is a powerful place from which to speak of our needs in a relationship, and our needs are easier for others to hear than our anger. Speaking of our needs opens doorways for others to speak of theirs as well. Often we cannot articulate our needs unless we’ve experienced difficulty and pain. For this reason, healthy conflict is an intimate affair that can allow relationships to deepen. Sometimes we avoid conflict because we are afraid of this intimacy.
Avoid avoiding. My grandfather used to say “Let sleeping dogs lie.” In relationships, this is bad advice. Avoiding, delaying, or retreating makes things worse. Hanging on to tension in a relationship is like holding a beach ball underwater: it takes a lot of energy. Eventually that energy is going to come out sideways. Another way of avoiding is blaming. Fixing blame is a lot easier than fixing the relationship. When we blame someone, we are choosing to distance ourselves from that person and from our pain. The antidote for avoidance is caring engagement.
Name the elephant in the room. Most of the time, the elephant of pain, anger, or disappointment is our own. Elephants can be scary, heavy, and unpredictable. They need to be handled with care. Often, however, we euphemize them (perhaps by saying “I was disappointed” when really we were ticked off). Sometimes we joke about them, or we tell ourselves, “It’s not nice for Christians to be angry,” and so minimize the raw truths of our lives. We ought not bear false witness about our pains. Instead we ought to name them for what they are. We may be surprised to find that the elephant was not as big or as scary as we had feared.
Practice non-damaging honesty. “Speak the truth in love,” says Paul. But we ought to name our hurts and angers in a way that does not inflict injury to ourselves or to others. That means discerning whether the relational bridge between us can carry the weight of what we need to say. Speaking the truth in love may mean not saying all of it in one sitting. The best place to start is by using “I” language (“I hurt”; “I am angry”; “I am disappointed”). If we start with “you,” the other person will feel accused and his or her defenses will rise; no one is open when on the defensive. What we say should be our own concern, not someone else’s.
Engage your adversary in a meaningful way. Relationships are more important than issues, and they are worth fighting for. When disagreeing, make sure everyone has emotional safety. Don’t do conflict through email. If the issue is with the pastor, ask for an appointment over coffee or lunch. For some, this may come as a surprise, but after years of pointed emails and hit-and-run comments right after worship, it’s likely the pastor would deeply respect face-to-face disagreement. I have grown the most from parishioners who, instead of just throwing grenades, care enough to make time for dialogue and mutual listening.
Change the goal. In conflict, we often want two things: to be right and to change the other person. Relationships will not deepen unless we surrender these goals. Relationship is a dynamic process in which both parties change; conflict is an important tool for achieving mutual change. Most of our relationships, then, are an act of ongoing negotiation. To insist on being right is to make the goal of conflict scoring points, when what is really needed is deeper understanding. Shifting from certainty to curiosity makes room for mutual learning. Certainty nails things down; curiosity opens them up. When someone hurts us, certainty causes us to assume we know why. That certainty is not helpful when we want to fight fairly. A learning posture challenges our assumptions—and that’s why we generally resist that posture. Starting a conversation with “Can you help me understand?” instead of “Why do you always…?” opens possibilities instead of closing them. Humility, listening, and communicating care are much more fruitful in relationship than being right.
Treat communication as a cross-cultural experience. We shouldn’t presume that our way of seeing and remembering is the same as another’s. Seeing things differently doesn’t mean either party is wrong. I suspect that many conflicts stem from our difficulty in hearing each other and articulating what’s going on inside us. It’s always wise to repeat in your own words what someone else says, and follow up by asking, “Is this what you mean?” This signals that you are listening and trying to understand the other person’s perspective.
Wherever possible, apologize without offering explanations. Nothing ruins good apologies more than explanations. In order to find resolution, our hurts need articulation and validation. Open-ended apologies help that along. Whenever we apologize, we open large doors through which grace can come in and go out. Apologies can lower the drawbridge of even the most fortified castle for at least a moment. And that moment can change everything.
Guard your soul—not from outer attacks, but from within. Recognize your own part in conflict. Don’t enter into a disagreement with high expectations; you may not hear the apology you’re hoping for. Presume and pray for the best for your adversary. Even if you can’t stand a person, let God redeem those parts you can’t handle while he is redeeming those parts in you. Remember that forgiveness is not forgetting; it is remembering differently. As Lewis Smedes once noted, “It is as if God has said to us, ‘Try forgiveness on one another.’ It worked for me.”
Augsburger, David. Caring Enough to Confront. 3rd edition. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 2009.
Kador, John. Effective Apology. San Francisco: Barrett Koehler, 2009.
Rosenberg, Marshall. Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, Calif.: Puddledancer Press, 2003.
Saj-Nicole, Joni, and Damon Beyer. The Right Fight. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.
Smedes, Lewis B. The Art of Forgiving. New York: Random House, 1996.