Coping With Conflict and Confrontation

Updated on August 14, 2017

Contrary to popular belief, conflict isn't necessarily bad. In fact, conflict can be a powerful tool for strengthening relationships and solving problems. Many positive results can emerge if those involved understand how to manage conflict in a constructive way.

Conflict is painful. It brings out anger, fear, and anxiety, and most try to avoid it. However, it can be a positive experience when handled correctly. It's a natural part of an imperfect world. For example, we see creative constructive conflict in the Scriptures by the apostle Paul. He wrote many letters addressing conflict in the church. Without conflict, those letters of the New Testament might never have been written.

Problems can be creatively solved by merging points of view by all sides. All can learn to appreciate, understand, and accept other points of view. Relationships can be reinforced as tensions fade, giving way to harmony and understanding.

In Paul's life we see conflict between two great men of faith, Paul and Barnabas. These two argued over the next step in their missionary journey. Out of their conflict came a creative solution: Paul went one way, Barnabas the other. They didn't see eye to eye, but agreed to disagree. And because of this decision, the gospel spread in two different directions.

By generalizing, people find it difficult to understand what is expected of them in behavioral change. By being more specific, they will have something concrete to deal with. Never go for a quick, one-sided victory. Seek genuine peace and understanding in relationships.

Rules of Positive Confrontation

Learn to separate major issues from minor ones. Conflict sometimes gets out of control because people argue over minor issues, overlooking major ones. Life is too short to fight over inconsequential problems. When we become entangled with minor issues, often more important ones go unnoticed. For example, a husband and wife argue when the husband fails to take out the garbage. The garbage is a minor issue, and is only a symbol of the real, but hidden issues each have. The husband feels his wife is pushing him around by nagging him about the garbage. Deep down, he feels his prerogatives are being taken away from him and is being treated like a child. Although he doesn't realize it, he unconsciously views the situation in symbolic terms: his wife assumes a parent role and he becomes a little child whose own agenda isn't important.

On the other side of the conflict the wife spends hours arguing about garbage, how it smells, and unsanitary it is. She feels her husband doesn't have any pride in keeping their house clean, but never talks about the real issue...her feelings and needs are not valued by her husband. Not only in the kitchen, but in many other aspects of their marriage.

The issue isn't garbage, but ignored feelings and unmet emotional needs. Until the couple realizes this, they will continue arguing over infinitesimal problems.

Often groups get involved in inconsequential issues. Churches, businesses, and families become embittered in major battles over insignificant issues. Why? Is there a hidden issue everyone fails to recognize, or is there an issue everyone knows about, but dreads to discuss? For such conflicts to be solved, someone must have wisdom to recognize the real issue. They must have the courage to say it in an appropriate manner to withstand the inevitable group denial sure to erupt.

When conflicts arise, confront them as soon as possible. Once it is clear a conflict exists, it needs to be confronted head on immediately. By procrastinating it only becomes larger and more unmanageable. Feelings surrounding these conflicts tend to be intense. When major issues are confronted quickly, a lot of misery and grief can be avoided.

In times of conflict, be specific. Avoid words such as “always” and “never.” It would have been more constructive for the wife to have said, “I was disappointed with the way you cleaned the garage yesterday. The floor wasn't swept and you left a pile of trash in the corner.” Generalizations tend to be received as personal attacks about one's character. They also cause defenses to go up. However, if you make specific statements, people are often able to be more objective by reflecting on the issue at hand.

Avoid personal insults and character assassination. Keep conflicts focused on issues, not personalities. Focusing on personalities puts others on the defensive. Seek to care more for a person you are having a conflict with than what the debate is about. No matter how intense a conflict, people should should never leave a discussion feeling they aren't valued by the other.

Express real feelings; avoid intellectualizing. Many retreat into philosophical exchanges of ideas in times of conflict. They retreat into a philosophical, masking of their feelings with intellectual sounding theories such as: “I think you are projecting your hostilities on to my behavior.” Intellectualizing is a form of denial, especially when family or friendship relationships are involved. It's important for feelings be honestly expressed in an appropriate manner. Of course, expressing feelings means taking risks.

Demonstrate unconditional love and affirmation, but avoid patronizing. One of the biggest mistakes people make in times of conflict is trying to be affirming but coming off sounding patronizing and condescending. For example, Pastor Jones is in conflict with Elder Smith. After a church board meeting, Pastor Jones takes Elder Smith aside and begins by saying, “There's something I need to talk to you about, but first, I want to tell you I think you're really doing a great job on the church board. You're doing one terrific job. Meanwhile, Elder Smith's defenses are going up and he's waiting for the other shoe to drop.

A better approach would be to meet the issue head-on, while affirming it with a commitment to their relationship: “Elder Smith, I have something to discuss with you. This won't be easy for either of us, but I respect you enough to give it to you straight. I'm committed to our relationship as Christian brothers. Here's the problem I have…” Notice, there is no patronizing attitude, only a clear statement of respect. With this approach, Elder Smith leaves with his dignity still intact.

Demonstrate empathy and reflective listening. Put yourself in the other person's place. If you must confront another, imagine how you would feel in the same situation. Concentrate on what they are saying, while endeavoring to understand their feelings. Seek to be responsive to their issues and emotions. When someone speaks, truly listen, don't just think about a point you want to formulate. Listen and reiterate back what others say to you in your own words: “I hear you saying you are angry because you feel it wasn't right to frivolously spend money when our budget is so limited.” This serves two purposes:

  1. It helps others feel they have been heard.

  2. It helps you to understand others thoughts and feelings.

Affirm publicly, confront privately. Avoid raising difficult issues in front of others. Confronting people publicly brings humiliation, embarrassment and shame while destroying self-esteem and relationships.

Confront to heal, not win. Seek growth, not intimidation. There is a saying, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The word “convince” comes from a Latin root word meaning “to conquer.” If you are trying to “convince,” you are trying to win, conquer, or destroy your adversary. Even if you win the argument, you might lose the relationship. Seek solutions where both sides are winners. Seek a stronger relationship, greater understanding, and healing resolution. Learn to grow from the conflict as much as you want others to. As a conflict nears resolution, tell opponents what you have learned about the issue, the other person, and about your own mistakes.

In any conflict, the only real winners are those who learned how to manage conflict to bring about a positive, constructive resolution. When we approach conflict with courage, honesty, and love for our adversary, conflict is no longer our enemy. It becomes our ally.

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