There is a reality in the universe—tension and release. Storms show their fury, but soon all is calm. The wind blows, though it cannot be seen, and then it too calms. Rainstorms pelt against the ground, but offer much-needed water to the earth. Fires get out of control, burn everything in sight, and are later extinguished. Our bodies are injured, and then healing takes place. Even in movies, the music often gets frenzied and then resolves to calm.
In almost every process or seeming conflict, there’s always potential for resolution. In fact, resolution is what God intended for all of creation.
Perhaps the reason many organizations, including churches, are often not good at resolving conflict is because they’re too often surprised by it. My experience has revealed that senior leadership often assumes that their staff members are good at conflict resolution, so they avoid or overlook the importance of rehearsing these skills within their organization. Even Teddy Roosevelt said, “The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.”
Here’s a recent conflict I was asked to resolve between two staff members.
An executive leader (let’s call him “Bob”) was fired for personal reasons, so a new staff member (let’s call him “Steve”) was hired to take his place. Bob, the former leader, had a strong following with other staff members on the team, so his exit was painful for many of them. The new hire, Steve, made the mistake of declaring that he was confident that God had him in this role for this very season—not something the other staff members wanted to hear. They were hurting and needed the new leader to listen and demonstrate empathy toward them. Steve overlooked the important reality that Bob had a strong following.
This attitude caused immediate tension and conflict between Steve and another important staff member who had worked closely with Bob (let’s call him “Trent”). Expecting things to resolve over time, nothing was done to remedy the situation. But the tension between the two quickly escalated.
I was called in to try to resolve the conflict between them. I used Ephesians 4:31-32to guide my thoughts as I walked into the situation: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
During my first meeting with Steve and Trent at a coffee shop, the tension was obvious. Both were very quiet and knew I had been asked to help them resolve the issue. We spent about an hour discussing the situation, but I could tell they weren’t in a good place. We met a few more times and the situation intensified—reaching a point where Steve was ready to fire Trent. He insisted that Trent be more cooperative and have better team spirit. But putting pressure on Trent, who had a great relationship with Bob (the previous leader), wasn’t going to work.
The Scripture that came to mind as I tried a new approach was Proverbs 16:23,24: “Winsome words pour from a heart of wisdom, adding value to all you teach. Nothing is more appealing than speaking beautiful, life-giving words. For they release sweetness to our souls and inner healing to our spirits.”
Here was the breakthrough. Addressing the two, I said, “I realize you’re both not in a good place with this. You’re close to parting ways, and even attempting to resolve this situation has been a difficult process (this was followed by a long pause). So, I’m asking both of you to agree to what I’m about to ask (another long pause). This is only a verbal contract, but here’s what I’m asking: For 30 days, will you be kind and helpful to each other? Kind and helpful. That’s all I’m asking. There are no expectations beyond this. You guys are working in the same ministry and you’ll have to communicate daily as you work on projects together. Whether you realize it or not, other staff members are watching how you interact. Your actions are hurting the entire team.”
Southwest Airlines employs a similar strategy. They ask people in the emergency rows to agree to help in an emergency by having them confirm with a verbal “yes.” If you don’t say yes, the flight attendant will move you to a different seat. That’s exactly what I was asking them to do. I said, “All I’m asking is for you to be kind and helpful to each other. I need a ‘yes’ from each of you.” With some reluctance, they finally each said “yes.”
I had no idea whether my idea would work—in fact, I’d never tried it before. Not immediately, but over about a two-month period, Steve and Trent gained some positive traction in their relationship. They began to collaborate. They had healthy, productive conversations that gave them new momentum. They began to build a good working relationship, and today, they’re friends in a very successful ministry. It took a lot of time for them to rebuild their relationship, but it worked.
Romans 2:4 reminds us that God’s kindness is what draws us to repentance. Kindness puts us all in a posture for conflict resolution.
In the book, “The Coaching Habit” by Michael Bungay Stanier, he says,“People don’t really learn when you tell them something. They don’t even really learn when they do something. They start learning, only when they have a chance to recall and reflect on what just happened.”
As I reverse engineered this process, I learned some valuable lessons:
- Run to the pain. State the bad news first, and don’t delay the obvious.
- Determine what went wrong. Invite each side to state their case.
- Express humility. What are you willing to own?
- Utilize indirect influence. Use metaphors or examples to help the conversations move forward.
- Don’t expect results by a specific time. Have patience along with accountability and expectations.
- Remind people what’s at stake. Fights are harmful to everyone involved, their respective families, and the larger team.
I learned this great lesson many years ago: “The right decision equals the right results. The consequences are a separate issue.” Deciding to put things in action is precisely what needed to happen—the consequences would have to be faced regardless of the outcome. It’s the fear of consequences that often shackles us from doing the right thing.
The biggest lesson I learned? Run to the pain—not away from it—and you’ll be well on your way to resolving whatever conflict you’re facing.