Road to reconciliation
Is conflict just a way of starting a good fight and being the victor, or is it the first step toward reconciliation?
As a child of age 10 or 12, I always had to make a decision about how I would deal with the schoolyard bullies. I felt that familiar knot in my stomach. My palms would sweat. I felt I had only two responses: to run away or (at the advice of my parents) to stand my ground and fight back.
Neither alternative ever felt quite right or satisfying, but those were the solutions that were set in my mind about conflict. These examples also set up a scenario for viewing conflict as something that is bad and should be avoided at all costs. If you see conflict coming, run in the opposite direction, I told myself.
Most of the people I have encountered through the years have used pretty much the same technique. They have gone into a conflict situation to win—to vanquish the “enemy.” Or they have seen conflict as something to avoid and get rid of.
But for the last six years I have been on a journey to re-examine the whole idea of conflict. I have learned that scripture has quite a bit to teach me about conflict and reconciliation.
In Matthew 18:15–22, Jesus speaks directly to us about the process of becoming reconciled. The following passage outlines a transformation in the way conflict was addressed in the early church: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or more witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’” (Matthew 18:15–22)
This scripture reading gives us insight into how conflict can be transformed. It includes negotiation through a congregational mediation team, a judicatory mediation team, professional mediators and arbitration. It offers a process that helps us see how to move toward conflict, instead of backing away or avoiding it.
Members of the early church are being called to be peacemakers. The Matthew 18 passage tells us that “…if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” Some early forms of mediation are taking place—beginning with two people who are in conflict and incorporating more listeners (mediators) who can assist church members who seek reconciliation. They are not just finding the answer, but creating a process that will restore harmony.
The next time you encounter conflict, ask the question, “I wonder what God is up to now?” Conflict is often an opportunity to learn something new about God, through forgiveness and reconciliation.
I have learned how to turn conflict and confrontation into opportunities to resolve differences. Just imagine a scenario where there is neither victor nor vanquished. Imagine living in a world where a disagreement—whether it be an argument with a stranger on the street; a congregational conflict; an ethnic, racial or cultural conflict; or two nations waging war—can be resolved through the process of peace-making through conflict mediation.
Sitting side-by-side instead of sitting as opposites allows the possibility that there can be a win-win. Neither side wins a total victory. Each side feels that they negotiated and their main concerns have been addressed and satisfied.
Tools for transformation
First and foremost, I have realized that conflict is normal. It is not something that can be eliminated completely, but we can make it a constructive process. We can certainly disagree without being disagreeable. We can develop and use helpful strategies and skills, and work to incorporate these into every interaction we have with others in the world.
Listening is the most important tool for mediating conflicts and differences of opinion. Trust is built between people only when those with whom you are dealing believe that you have listened and understood what they are communicating. Pay attention to the speaker’s experience. During the conversation, be aware of the other person’s facts and feelings. Summarize empathetically, but don’t judge or evaluate.
Being hard on issues and soft on people helps get to the core of the conflict more quickly. Dealing with the causes of why a person constantly gets to the committee meeting late will help in resolving the issue rather than making that person feel irresponsible.
Concentrate on interests, not positions. Positions are most often the means used to address your interests. Do you ever feel that groups in the United States sometimes come up with hard and fast positions without really negotiating their interests? One issue we face as individuals and as a nation is how to protect the rights of individuals and also protect all U.S. citizens from gun violence. A better way to address the many hard and fast positions is to identify common interests that can be agreed upon. It’s not an easy task, but I think it can be done.
“I” messages should always be used in all conversations. Taking ownership over your own feelings—without using language that blames others—goes a long way toward opening up a free-flowing conversation. Here is a sentence that blames another person: “You make me angry when you come late to the committee meeting.” Now here is a sentence which does not blame another person: “I feel angry when you come late to the meeting.” There is a significant difference here. It may seem like a small gesture, but in the long run, it can give the other person a chance to respond without feeling that they are being blamed.
Using “I” language continues to be a challenge for me personally. But it has been a challenge with many rewards. Many people over the years have opened up and engaged me in meaningful conversation, simply because “I” statements take away the stigma of blame.
I am a work in progress. I continue to work on separating crucial issues from the personalities of people with whom I disagree. On a very good day, my “I” statements will communicate how I think and feel, without presuming to represent what is going on in someone else’s head. I demonstrate caring confrontation of others, and open myself up to be confronted. I talk with others—not about them.
I also work hard to be the non-anxious presence in the room. Staying calm in tense situations is not always the easiest thing to do. However, I continue to be surprised by what I can learn from just listening to someone who has things to get off his or her chest.
I look forward to meeting all of you on the road to conflict transformation.
Rosemary Dyson is a freelance writer and editor. She also has training in conflict mediation and experience in facilitating conflict resolution workshops.
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