Americans have a love/hate relationship with conflict. We love to sit in the spectator seat and watch conflict unfold. We’ve watched thousands of hours of reality TV from Jerry Springer dysfunctional families to Honey Boo Boo to Survivor and Big Brother. We sit and ravenously eat popcorn and purchase stock in the exploitation of the broken and emotionally unstable for their entertainment value. We post authoritative political comments on Facebook and verbally assault anyone who disagrees with us hiding behind our screens with pompous indignation (guilty). And it’s all fun and games until someone disagrees with us in a board meeting, church committee meeting, or at home.
One of my fondest memories of church relationships was on an interview weekend with my husband in Detroit. If you’ve ever been on a ministerial interview weekend, you know it usually includes food. At the beginning of this long interview weekend, the entire search committee took my husband and our family out to dinner at a hole in the wall Chinese food restaurant. We all sat at a long table in the middle of the small seating area. At one end of the table were the two obvious leaders of the group. I noted how loudly they laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. It was a good first impression. In the middle of meal (around the time I was begging my 4 year old to eat his food and not embarrass us) the two men at the end of the table began to raise their voices. It startled my daughter. She nearly jumped out of her seat and my family all stared at the loud-mouths. It’s notable that no one else at the table seemed moved by the elevated conversation, but kept their attention toward their fried rice while asking us questions about family, our goals, and our educational experiences. The two male voices at the other end of the table grew louder and more impassioned in dispute. My husband and I exchanged glances smirking at the interchange wondering what was going on and if the argument would come to blows. Finally, in one final outburst, both men laughed and one smacked the other on the back and shouted “ah, you know I love you, man! We may disagree, but I love ya!” It was that singular moment that sold us on moving our family 3000 miles to work with a small church outside one of the most dangerous cities in our country. That one moment showcased open and honest discourse and disagreement, even a loud public interchange, between Christians that ended in laughter and love. It was a sight seldom seen among church people: conflict enjoyed. For people in Yankeedom, this is normal behavior. In some places in this world conflict is approached, appreciated, anticipated, and always allowed. In others, conflict is avoided at all costs. To date, Michiganders hold a special place in my heart for being the most honest and open people I’ve ever known.
Most interpersonal conflicts occur when someone is bold enough to disagree and share a differing thought or idea. In a safe place, where altering opinions are appreciated and counted as productive, this is a great benefit and offers unprecedented growth. Conflict can be used for good where it is appreciated. In offices and homes where disagreement is interpreted as a personal attack or a negative experience, then growth is stunted, the conflict is swept under the rug, and voices are silenced neglecting beneficial discourse and relationship-building.
The popular notion today is to create “safe spaces” where you can gather with people who only agree with you and stagnate in a cesspool of common frustration and bitterness congratulating each other on mutual shared beliefs. I suggest it is healthier to create safe places where you can learn and grow while embracing conflict instead.
In a country that works so hard to achieve diversity of skin color in the workplace and in the church, then diversity of thought and opinion should also be paramount if personal growth is truly our goal. Otherwise, we simply create echo chambers that are personally comfortable but not sustainable.
Here are five reasons why we shut down conflict and dissenting dialogue around us.
1. We take disagreement personally. Some of us immediately interpret any disagreement as an attack upon us personally. Our feelings, often worn on our sleeves, can be damaged if everyone doesn’t agree with our amazing ideas. We assume that when someone disagrees with us that must mean we are not liked or appreciated. Our ego takes a hit. This conflict over-sensitivity can trigger the fight or flight response thereby heating up a discussion into an argument rather than propelling dissenting ideas into fruitful discourse or simply shutting down the discussion altogether to avoid personal discomfort.
Try to remember that conflict is not always about you and your ideas. Try to separate yourself from the issue at hand. Differentiate. A disagreement is not an affront to you personally. Additionally, someone else’s opinion does not define you, nor does it say anything about you personally. Listening and striving for understanding is the embodiment of good leadership. Welcoming discussion, even hearing dissenting ideas, leads to achieved common goals which only can benefit your home, your church, and your community.
2. Better ideas demand change. Change is not fun and sometimes it hurts. Change is uncomfortable, takes work, and requires flexibility which is precisely why conflict is not fun. Better ideas demand that we change. Sometimes even when we see that change is necessary, we will find a way around it simply to save ourselves the hassle of making adjustments to our habits, traditions, ideas, and plans. It is this reason, however, why conflict is necessary for growth. Without change, growth never happens. Without adversity and struggle, people do not learn and systems stagnate. Change begets discomfort which, in turn, can mean the difference in whether your system is successful or not.
This is all fine and good to say until change is required in the church. You’ll never find a biblical mandate for carpet colors until someone suggests that we replace the old shag rug in the sanctuary! Change in the church is especially painful because faith is extremely personal to the heart of a spiritual people. One of the reasons churches struggle within conflict and change is a past, albeit a heritage, that is rich in the habitual stifling of new ideas, interpretations, or dissenting voices. We don’t talk about issues. We don’t feel comfortable when others disagree around us about issues we hold dear. We have believed the lie that the definition of peace is everybody listening to the guy with the fattest pocketbook or the loudest voice OR peace is simply the absence of conflict entirely. Neither of these definitions are true, by the way. Change in the church requires constant communication, understanding, and a leadership that encourages flexibility from everyone including themselves, and is proficient in listening skills even when it hurts. Change in the church also necessitates the evaluation of our beloved traditions and the revisiting of long-held beliefs. It takes a lot of patience, flexibility, and endurance if done well.
3. We are right. Everyone else should shut up. Being right feels great! Unfortunately, everyone believes they are right most of the time. It is important to remember, being heard is often more important than being right in times of conflict. When amidst an argument or conflict, often the opposing party simply needs to be affirmed and heard. When we shut down an opposing opinion, we essentially are expressing that the other side doesn’t matter to us. However, if you love Jesus, people should matter to you. Others’ thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, should matter especially within the church. It’s been two thousand years since Christianity hit the ground running. A few more discourses on church issues won’t end Christendom in one final swoop. God is bigger than our disagreements with each other. Further, a system never failed due to a listening leadership. I have, however, witnessed systems fail with the opposite.
Shutting down a dissenting voice says a lot about you. It can be interpreted as controlling, selfish, bad-mannered, or even fearful, and it definitely does not define quality leadership. If you wish to sit at the helm of a ship, listen to your passengers. Affirm them. Who knows, you may hear good ideas, discover essential information required for growth, and improve relationships all at once.
4. I’m in control of this power trip. Unfortunately, one of the biggest reasons we hate conflict is control. Often listening to a heated debate can cause so much discomfort that we envision it spinning out of control and insist upon reigning it in before resolution is even close. Often conflict can spin out of control. This is true. But conflict where all voices are heard and the agenda is set to reach a resolution, can only lead to positive results. Some personalities require a louder discussion. This is neither unhealthy or healthy. It just is. If you are a leader in this situation, encourage the participants to avoid making personal attacks, otherwise keep the discussion going. Be ready to sit back and listen even if the moment is uncomfortable for you.
5. Conflict can be cultural. Did you know that in the United States alone there are at least eleven different cultural regions? Business Insider contributor, Matthew Spicer, wrote an article outlining the distinctly different cultural systems that exist in our country alone. Different from our experience in Yankeedom, often expressing opposing viewpoints can be interpreted as personal attacks to folks from the deep south. And to be successful when speaking to groups in this region, the dissenting voice is expected to carefully dance around issues in order to preserve the ‘face’ or comfort level of the hearer. The same trait can be stated for asian countries and their keen sense of honor. Unfortunately, the amount of time and subtlety used to avoid hurting someone’s feelings can take a toll on those from outside the region and isn’t always beneficial when time is of the essence. On the other side, yankees are often seen as rude and loud and are expected to proceed upon eggshells in southern cultures often failing at doing so. Whereas, southerners sometimes appear insincere and disingenuous to northerners who are accustomed to open, more robust, dialogue. Do you see how this cultural difference alone could cause more conflict?
A step beyond culture variances are generational differences. Generation X longs for completely open and honest dialogue and is renowned for its distrust of institutions who appear too slick or too political in their discourse. Whereas millennials and their parent counterparts are more careful in their approach to conflict or discourse often neglecting it entirely to maintain the comfort levels of all involved.
Remember these potential differences when communicating with someone who may be displaced or when you travel. Honesty is always the best policy, but a little tact never hurts. Remember, the heroes in all stories are often the ones who boldly spoke up when no one else dared.
As a Christian, I believe I am called to be honest. Honesty is required with the gig. And sometimes that honesty leads to disputes. I also believe I am called to be a comfort to others. In leadership, these two qualities, honesty and comfort, are essential, but they may irritate the people around you for the reasons listed above. Be honest with the people around you, at the same time, create a safe place where all voices feel comfortable enough to be heard. Welcome challenges to your ideas. Listen to others. Allow yourself and others the opportunity to learn and grow.