Resolving Conflict Creatively (How to Fight Fair)
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 requires 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 thus 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!"
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