Dealing with Conflict

Working conflictI had a student ask me for tips on how to handle conflict. I thought I would share my thoughts here.

First, let’s be honest. If you haven’t dealt with a lot of conflict it has the potential to make your palms sweat, your blood pressure rise, and your brain malfunction. You must control your emotions rather than have your emotions control you. Conflict is inevitable. Handling it well can make the difference between a successful resolution or a nervous breakdown. Here are some tips.

1.         Eternal Perspective:

This is the most important part to handling conflict in a way that glorifies God. At home when disciplining the kids, it must be about shepherding their heart toward God and not satisfying your anger. At work, you have a responsibility to disciple or impart spiritual wisdom into those around you. You can help an employee improve or recognize a weakness. If you are past that point, then you can help them understand their gifts and what job would allow them to succeed. Everyone wants to succeed which sometimes means moving to a different and more satisfying job.

2.         The sooner you handle it the better:

Now if you have lost your temper, can’t think straight, or know you will blow up, then you’re not ready to handle the conflict in a God glorifying way. You need to start by praying and getting your mind right. Once your mind is right, then handle the conflict as soon as you can. Don’t let it fester and create a root of bitterness in you and don’t allow multiple offenses to build up. Addressing multiple offenses all at once has the unintended consequence of the person feeling ganged up on or they respond with a legitimate, “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” Not to mention the fact that sometimes a legitimate explanation exists. Why fret over something when you could have had a reasonable explanation earlier?

3.         The power of a question:

Jesus asked a lot of questions. Those questions allowed him to examine what others thought and correct their understanding. Remember some questions Jesus asked to get at more important issues?

Why are you anxious about clothes? (Matt 6:28)

Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye yet fail to perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? (Matt 7:2)

Who do people say the Son of Man is? (Matt 16:13)

What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life and what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:26)

What did Moses command you? (Mark 10:3)

What is written in the law? How do you read it? (Luke 10:26)

If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest? (Luke 12:26)

For who is greater, the one seated a table or the one who serves? (Luke 22:27)

Why are you sleeping? (Luke 22:46)

And remember that first question to Adam, “Where are you?” God knew the answer, and Jesus knew the answer to the questions above. Unlike God and Jesus, we may not know the answer and using a question can start the conversation in a non-threatening way. You might try: Can you tell me what happened with _____? Or I’m not sure I understand everything here. Can you explain it to me from your point of view?  But I would encourage you to avoid, “What on earth were you thinking?” Bad questions probably won’t help resolve anything.

4.  There are two sides to every story:

Before you pass judgment, make sure you have both sides of the story. Remember Proverbs 18:17:

Prov. 18:17, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”

God knows all and sees all. We do not. So we have to do whatever we can to make sure that we have good information before making a decision. If you are unsure whether you have the facts, I suggest giving grace or continue investigating. If it’s a problem at work and the situation is not clear-cut, then explain yourself clearly to the employee and lay out clear expectations for the future. An employee that needs disciplinary action will usually mess up again, and if they don’t then you have accomplished what you needed. When they mess up again, you have confidence in taking the appropriate action. Ultimately, think about giving account to God for how you handled the situation and let that guide your actions.

5.  Reconcile when possible:

At home, you have no option. No matter how long it takes you must reconcile. When disciplining a child, you may have to give them some time, but reassure them of your love for them and your unconditional acceptance of them.

At work, it may not always be possible, but you should make the effort. I have had employees that I let go who saw the necessity of it, but I have had others who had no desire to reconcile. I had to do what was right before God and letting one employee do harm to the institution while others work hard is not just. If you genuinely care for the people through the process and you show your concern through verbal and non-verbal communication, then perhaps you can reconcile. Your ultimate goal must be to do what is right before God, which means you should always be willing to reconcile when possible.

6.  Pray:

Pray at home with your children, which reemphasizes your belief in God. Our task is to train our kids to become mature adults and grounded followers of Christ. This should include your children seeing you pray for them, and praying with them after a confrontation.

At work, when confronting an employee, dismissing an employee or exercising student discipline, I always pray to end a meeting. You may or may not be able to do this in a secular work environment, but if you ask them if you can pray and they agree, then it may help. Not only does it bring proper closure to the meeting without the awkwardness of what to say now, but it also allows you to demonstrate true concern for them. In discipline cases, I pray that God uses this in the student’s life to get him where he needs to be and I pray for his future prosperity. When dealing with employees, I handle it as pastorally as HR rules will allow and pray for their future. You must be sincere at this point or others will know, but if you have maintained an eternal perspective and your heart’s desire is to do what is right before the Lord, that will show in your prayer even if the other person doesn’t like what is happening.

I know there is much more to cover, but a good blog post can only be so long, and I have probably already crossed the length limit. My experience comes from a Christian work environment at a seminary so confrontation in a secular environment would look different. Perhaps you have some tips that you would add from your experience with handling conflict?

1 Comment

  1. Thomas, good post and good things to consider. I work in a secular environment (a chemistry manufacturing company). I am blessed to have a Christian boss, but it is still a secular environment.

    When dealing with conflict, I pray, but not out loud and not with coworkers who may or may not share my faith and who may or may not appreciate being prayed for.

    Asking questions, trying to understand the situation from the other person’s point of view, and trying to find a mutually acceptable resolution to the conflict are all very important. Empathy is a key thing to strive for. If I can’t feel what my coworker feels, if I can’t understand how my coworker views the conflict and why he or she views it that way, then resolution of the conflict isn’t going to be easy.

    Most importantly, I want to make sure that in resolving conflict my coworkers know that I have a genuine interest in resolving the conflict. I don’t want them to think that I’m just going through the motions because I have to. I want them to understand that I genuinely want this conflict resolved in a way that is mutually satisfactory. From my perspective, I want the conflict resolved in a way that glorifies God, but again, in a secular environment, I have to tread carefully on what and how much I say about matters of religion and faith.

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