RESOLVING CONFLICT CREATIVELY (HOW TO FIGHT FAIR)
By Richard (Dick) Innes
I recall hearing the minister of a large church, when celebrating his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, declare that he and his wife had never had a conflict. I didn’t believe him. Wherever there are two people, there will always be some misunderstanding, difference of opinion, or conflict. About the only way to live without ever having an open conflict is to live in isolation as a hermit or have one partner become a doormat who chooses “peace at any price.” But neither of these is actually conflict-free. The conflicts have just gone underground or escaped.
Handled creatively, conflicts and disagreements can lead to growth and increased mutual understanding. But to make differences of opinions productive, we need to learn to disagree agreeably and to value the other person’s perspective in the process. So how do we do this?
First, and foremost, listen…listen…listen—not only with our ears but even more so with our hearts. We need to hear what other people are really saying—not just what we think they are saying. We need to listen to their feelings as well as their thoughts. Good communication and conflict resolution require listening beneath the other person’s words to their sometimes hidden emotions and unspoken needs or wishes.
Careful listening ensures that we won’t distort what the other person is trying to say. This is necessary because we each tend to interpret messages through our own lenses. If we are extremely sensitive to criticism, for example, we may interpret our spouse’s potentially helpful suggestion as a criticism. The more our seeing and hearing “lenses” are distorted by our problems, the more likely we are to twist the messages people are giving us to try to make them match our perception of reality.
Second, always strive to speak the truth in love. Remember that “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”1 We, too, need to precede truth with grace; that is, to always give loving, gracious acceptance. Some of us are long at speaking the truth but short on love. Unless we speak from a point of sensitive caring, people will not feel safe enough to share openly. They will hide or become angry or defensive. And unless they can share their thoughts and feelings there can be no resolution.
“Anger is often a defense
against feeling our fear.”
Third, we need to be aware of our own true thoughts and feelings. If we feel angry, for example, it will be important to acknowledge our anger. But we should also be aware of what feelings and thoughts lay beneath our anger. Anger, for example, often covers anxiety or fear. Instead of being aware of our fear, we get angry. That feels safer. But it only makes matters worse.
Other times we use anger to stop others from getting close because we fear intimacy. Equally destructive, we deny our feelings altogether and pretend to be something we are not. Each of these reactions prevents conflict resolution. Unresolved conflicts create resentment and festering resentment breaks many relationships.
Author John Powell expressed this attitude poignantly when he said, “We defend our dishonesty [denying and not sharing our true feelings] on the grounds that it may hurt another person. And then, having rationalized our phoniness into nobility, we settle for superficial relationships.”2
Fourth, use “I” messages. Instead of saying, “You make me mad,” or “You really hurt my feelings,” say words to this effect: “When you say (or do) things like this and so, I feel hurt and/or angry, and I need to talk to you about it.” This helps you take responsibility for your own feelings and avoid blaming others. Many of us are like the lawyer in the Bible who, “wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'”3 This was when Jesus told him that the greatest commandment was to love God and your neighbor as yourself.
Blaming others blocks resolution. As difficult as it may be, I need to admit that nobody causes my hurt feelings or makes me angry without my permission. As my colleague Dr. Narramore puts it, “The other person is responsible for their action. We are responsible for our reaction!”
For instance, if I had a perfect self-concept—which I don’t have—my feelings would rarely be hurt. What the other person said or did wouldn’t upset me. But if I feel inferior or have low self-esteem I will be easily wounded and/or angry. To the degree I overreact, that is my problem not theirs.
Overreactions happen when unresolved issues or wounds from our past are triggered. So the more I have resolved my issues from the past, the less I will overreact when negative things happen to me. This isn’t to say that we won’t get our feelings hurt or that we shouldn’t feel angry at times, but we need to learn how to react in the right manner at the right time in the right proportion to what has happened, not in proportion to our hypersensitivity.
Fifth. Working with several hundred divorced people over the past decade, I have found that the majority blame their former spouses for the breakup of their marriage without taking a serious look at what they contributed. Conflicts can only be resolved and we can only grow when both parties acknowledge their contribution to the problem or misunderstanding. Yes, it is true, some people are belligerent, dogmatic, and abusive. Even the Bible implies that some people are impossible to get along with.4 But even then there is something we can do. It may be standing up for ourselves—that is, overcoming our overly passive or overly dependent, or super-sensitive style by saying “No more.” and exercising tough love. But there is always some responsibility we can exercise.
Sixth, stick to the subject at hand. Oh boy, when people stuff their negative feelings and sit on their hurt and anger, look out! They will eventually either implode (turn their emotions inward and get sick) or explode. And it may be the “smallest” little thing that triggers the explosion, so beware. They may also go back to unresolved grievances from decades ago! To resolve conflicts, it is imperative to deal only with the issue at hand. Period. The other issues can be discussed at a different time.
Seventh, give up the right to always be right. People who have a compulsion to always be right tend to be insecure and immature. Be willing to say, “I was wrong. I apologize.” As the Apostle Paul points out, we are not only to speak the truth in love but also to grow up and mature in all areas of our Christian life.5 That includes humility and respect for others and their viewpoints.
Eighth, as the Bible also teaches, “Don’t sin by letting anger gain control over you. Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a mighty foothold to the Devil.”6 Resolve conflicts and angry feelings as quickly as possible. When we resolve our anger, the devil loses his foothold.
‘sins’ but your own.”
Ninth, speak softly. Most of us tend to raise our voices when we are upset. Research has shown that one effective way to handle yellers is to speak softly. This tends to make them lean forward and speak more softly so they can hear what you are saying. Yelling begets yelling! As Michel de Montaigne said, “He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.” The Bible says, “A soft answer turns away wrath but grievous words stir up hostility.”7
Tenth, pray. First, pray about yourself. One of the most powerful prayers I ever learned to pray was when I was at wit’s end in a seemingly hopeless conflict. In utter frustration, I begged God to face me with the truth of what I was still contributing to a seemingly hopeless situation. Within two weeks I saw my hopeless co-dependency (even though I hadn’t even heard of the word at the time).
Once I saw the reality of what I was contributing, I was able to resolve my part in the conflict. I wish I had learned to pray this prayer years before—even in Sunday School. Had I done so, I could have saved myself years of needless pain and frustration.
Then pray together. When two people are willing to face the truth about themselves, accept responsibility for their part in the conflict, and pray accordingly, there are not too many conflicts that can’t be resolved. Remember, “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.”8
1. John 1:17.
2. John Powell, Why I Am Afraid to Tell You Who I Am.
3. Luke 10:29, (NKJV).
4. Romans 12:18, (NIV).
5. Ephesians 4:15, (NASB).
6. Ephesians 4:26–27, (NLT).
7. Proverbs 15:1.
8. Psalm 145:18, (NIV).