I grew up in a home where conflict was mostly avoided. Though there wasn’t a lot of fighting, when it did occur it was ugly, scary and destructive. We had no resources for processing it well and as a result I believe that left our relationships shallow, unsatisfying and eventually led to some very serious relational breakdown.
I’ve come to believe that all healthy relationships need at least some conflict in order to grow and develop true intimacy. After all, if two people agree on everything ALL the time at least one of them can’t be trusted to be honest. Through resolving conflict we learn to think about the needs of others as well as to express our own. Conflict can help us to discover things about ourselves and really can bring us closer to God and to others as we learn to handle it well.
With that in mind, I offer the following thoughts about dealing with conflict that I hope will be helpful to you as you encounter this reality in your life.
1. Consider the source of the conflict.
“What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Don’t they come from your desires the battle within you?” (James 4:1)
The source is first and foremost internal (me) not external (them). So, the first thing I must deal with is me. I must ask myself, “What is it that I want that I am not getting?” and “Why is getting that so important to me?” Remember, the problem is usually not THE problem. The surface issue, the thing I want, is usually representative of a deeper desire for love or respect.
2. Ask yourself: “How do I respond when I don’t get what I want?”
“You want something, but don’t get it. You kill (think anger) and covet (believe you need it and demand it) but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.” (James 4:2)
It is OK to desire. Desire is good, often in regards to our surface desire, but always in regards to our deeper desires for love and respect. It is OK to be disappointed when our desires are not met by people. It is legitimate to feel this disappointment that can range from mild sadness to deep grief depending on the situation.
It is NOT OK to demand. When we demand we have crossed over from a normal and legitimate desire to the wrong belief that I NEED what I want. When I am angry that is usually a good clue that I am demanding something from a person or situation rather than trusting God for what is best.
3. Remember who meets your deepest needs for love and respect.
“You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:2-3)
God will always meet our deepest needs. He may or may not give us what we desire depending on what is best for us. We must learn to trust God with what we desire.
Check your motives as you pray about what you want from the other person. Are you able to let what you want be a desire that God can be in charge of giving you as He sees fit, or has it crossed the line to becoming a NEED that you are demanding that others (or God) do something about?
4. Since your NEEDS are met by God, you are able to respond to the other person regarding your desire with wisdom and grace.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
As we trust God for our needs and submit to his control over our desires we are humble people. He will grant us wisdom about how to respond to the situation.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5)
This does not mean that the other person will then respond well. They may not. That is OK. You are not responsible for their response to the situation, you are only responsible for yourself. If they do not respond as you had hoped, you may need to work through these 4 steps again.
Remember, it takes both sides humbling themselves for conflict to be completely resolved. Therefore, resolving the conflict is not totally within your control. You are only responsible for yourself and how you respond.
Additional tips for dealing with conflict:
1. Let your desires be known. Other people can’t read your mind and don’t automatically know what you want. Take the risk to communicate your desires in a clear and respectful manner.
2. Choose wisely which disappointments to address with the person. If the problem is truly getting in the way of having a good relationship with the individual, then talk about it, but every small thing does not have to be addressed. “Love covers a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 4:8)
3. When you do address problems own your own feelings and struggles. (example: ” I am feeling disappointed about…” or “I am struggling with…” vs. “You make me so angry when you…” or “You always….” or “You never….”)
4. Assume the best motive in the other person rather than the worst motive. Sometimes people let us down not because they intend to, but because they are distracted with their own lives and maybe just are not thinking clearly and don’t see things from your perspective. Sometimes we are just unaware of how what we do impacts others round us.
5. Recognize that your current disappointment may be clouded by past wounds. If in the past we have been wounded by others in ways that shaped our thinking about ourselves (i.e. I don’t matter, I’m worthless, I’m not good enough) we may interpret that others do as affirming those negative feelings even though that is not their intent. Dealing with those negative feelings about yourself can help take some of the sting out of present disappointments.
6. Forgiveness is crucial in any conflict resolution. Often this a process that takes time, but we must be IN the process. Remember, since my NEEDS are always met in Christ and his love for me, people can only touch my desires. Since this is true, no person has the power to deprive me of what I really need by their failure, therefore, it is possible for me to forgive them. I need to remember as well my need to be forgiven because I am also the source of disappointment at times.
7. When someone comes to you with their disappointment follow the advice in James 2:19, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” The best thing to do when this happens is to listen and ask questions to get clarity on what the other person is trying to tell you. (example: ” Can you tell me more about how that made you feel?” ”What were you hoping for in that situation?” “Help me understand why that was important to you?”)
8. When someone comes to you with their disappointment, DON’T quickly turn the tables on them and point out areas where they have disappointed you. That communicates that you don’t really care about what they are saying. Save your disappointments for another conversation unless you are invited to express them in the moment.
9. When someone comes to you with their disappointment, DON’T quickly apologize in order to end the conversation. That simply communicates that you don’t want to talk about the situation. DO take responsibility for what you can – your choices, feelings and behaviors – and be willing to ask for forgiveness where you can honestly see that you were wrong. If you cannot see where you were wrong in the moment ask for some time to pray about the matter. Usually there is some way I could have said or done something better even if it is a very small thing that I can own. If after prayer you are still unable to see any wrong in what you have done, you may have to be content with disagreement in the situation. You can still show empathy for the other person’s feelings even if you would not change the way you did or said something.
10. Learn to accept that there will differences and disagreements in the way that you each see and do things simply because you are different people who are uniquely wired in your own way. (example: I am a detail person and my husband is not.) That is OK. You are each allowed to have your own perspective on things and it is not necessary to make the other person see or do things your way. But, by all means, try to understand the other person’s perspective even if you cannot agree with it.
Copyright 2013, Lisa L. Heim, MA, LPC