Handling Conflict – Part 3

I have been encouraging you to think about conflict in my last two posts. I have encouraged you to keep the line between what happened and your interpretation of what happened clear. I have, also, encouraged you to try your best to interpret the actions of other people (even when they hurt you) in the kindest way. I have, lastly, encouraged you to think about what I’m calling your End Game. Is what happened to you the result of what happens when two less-than-perfect people interact with each other and step on each other’s toes, or is what happened to you the result of ongoing physical or emotional abuse? If you have decided that you want the relationship that you have with another person to continue as you travel through a time of conflict, Jesus has some wonderful words of guidance to offer you.

Jesus lays out a path toward conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-20.

Jesus speaks, firstly, about going directly to the person who has hurt you before you drag other people into the conflict. As I’ve mentioned before, there may be a difference between what happened and how you have interpreted what happened. You may discover that the person who has hurt you realizes that he/she has done something wrong and wants to apologize. You may discover that the person does not even realize that something has gone wrong. It’s always best to go directly to the person who has hurt you during a time of conflict (unless some sort of emotional or physical abuse has occurred and you have a reason to fear for your safety). And remember: When Jesus lifts this first step toward conflict resolution before you, the End Game is to “regain” your brother or sister. Most people appreciate honesty and being given the chance to apologize when they have done something wrong, and most people will become defensive when they know that you have been talking about them behind their back. And so, if you are moving through a time of conflict and if you have been hurt or put off by the actions of another person, try going to that person first.

Jesus, then, speaks about what we should do if talking with the person who has hurt us does not work. Jesus tells us to take one or two other people along with us when we talk with the person who has hurt us. But even this sage advice can become problematic. Think about this second step as a paring knife. Paring knives can be used to pare a piece of fruit or to slice an apple. But a paring knife can also be used to open an envelope, to open a cardboard box, or even to cut plastic. The second step that Jesus recommends is just like that. We can reach out to one or two people who are level-headed and fair, or we can search for some allies. We can reach out to one or two people who are willing to listen to all of the people who are involved in the conflict, or we can select one or two other people who will simply take our side. When you try to get someone involved in a conflict that you are having with another person and to simply take your side, it is called “Triangulation.” And the neutral person can be one of your friends, your spouse, your pastor or even a counselor. But “Triangulation” does not work; in fact, “Triangulation” usually paints the person that you have asked to help you into a nearly impossible corner and will, most likely, deeply affect your relationship with that person, too. And so, if you believe that the person who has hurt you isn’t taking you seriously, you may need to take one or two neutral people along with you the next time that you talk with the person who hurt you. And please remember, again, that this step in the process is designed to help you to “regain” your brother or sister.

Jesus, lastly, talks about what to do when the first two steps in the process fail. Jesus talks about taking it to the Church; and, by “taking it to the Church,” I don’t think that Jesus means that we should stand up in the middle of a worship service and create a stir. Congregations have councils and elders who can provide a listening ear during times of conflict. Many Christian congregations have Mutual Ministry committees that can be consulted during times of conflict with church staff members. Many Christian congregations are a part of a larger denomination and have a bishop or president who can be consulted if an alleged incident of clergy misconduct occurs.

The road back to reconciliation becomes more and more bumpy as more and more people become involved in the conflict. If your End Game continues to be reconciliation and the restoring of the relationship, this final step should be considered as a last step in a longer process. People tend to become more and more defensive as more and more people are pulled into conflicts. The option of gracefully apologizing and searching for a path forward may disappear if too many people become involved and the person who has hurt you feels like he/she is being painted into a corner. But, sadly, there are times when things need to be taken to another level and when the relationship itself may need to end. And that’s why Jesus includes this step forward in His teachings about conflict.

In closing, I would like to lift one last idea before you.

Conflict can be difficult and can involve many different dynamics. But, at every step in the process, we need to ask ourselves: Will I be satisfied if the person who has hurt me apologizes? It is hard for us to open our hands and to let go of things that people have done when they hurt us. It is always going to be tempting to talk about other people behind their backs and to search for allies when we believe that we have been treated unfairly. But, sometimes, people are genuinely sorry about what they have done. People who have hurt us may offer an apology at any point in the process that Jesus provides. And so, as we move through the process that Jesus describes, we need to ask ourselves whether an apology is sufficient. Porcupines cannot unstick each other. A piece of fine china can be glued back together; and, while it will never be the same, it can be good again. And so, again, you need to ask yourself: What is my End Game? Do I want to be right, or do I want to be reconciled? Am I willing to let go of the hurt and disappointment that I’ve experienced, or does the path back no longer exist? Will I be satisfied if the person who has hurt me apologizes and is sorry about what happened? These are all questions that only you can answer. Jesus provides a process that we can use during times of hurt and conflict, but the process will only work if we are willing to allow it to work.

Handling Conflict – Part 2

I began this series of reflections on conflict by stating that conflict is a normal part of human living. We do not always agree with each other. And even when we do agree with each other, we can still step on each other’s toes. I mentioned in my last post that we need to be careful in times of conflict because we can begin to confuse our interpretation of and our feelings about what happened with what actually happened; and, when we do that, conflicts and disagreements can blossom and grow.

We are all going to face times in our lives when other people hurt and disappoint us. We are all going to need to choose a path forward after we have carefully reflected upon what happened and have tried to interpret the actions of other people in the kindest way. We may decide that the relationship is still important to us and that we want to find a way to be reconciled, or we may decide that the relationship has been too badly damaged by what has happened and that we need to walk away. The process of deciding which of these is true is what I am going to call: Choosing Your End Game.

Let me lift two images before you that may help you to choose your End Game.

I have often heard people described as porcupines on a cold winter night. Porcupines can crawl through the snow and stay in their dens during particularly bad weather. Porcupines tend to hunker down when the weather turns fowl, and they spend their time in hollowed logs, under rocks, in abandoned burrows that other animals have created, or even under buildings. But just imagine a porcupine on the coldest night of the entire year. A couple of porcupines might decide to curl up with each other, so that they do not freeze to death. A couple of porcupines might decide to share a little bit of body heat in order to survive. But there’s a problem, isn’t there? Porcupines sometimes stick each other with their quills when they get close to each other. Porcupines sometimes do the sticking; and, sometimes, porcupines are the ones who get stuck by the quills on other porcupines.

Now think about your relationships with others. You might be able to find total peace and calm by going off to a deserted island and by living by yourself. Porcupines normally do not stick themselves with their own quills, right? But if you don’t do that and if you choose to live your life in relationships with other porcupines, you need to realize that you’re going to get stuck by other people’s quills once in a while, and you are probably going to stick other people with your quills once in a while, too. Welcome to life! I truly believe, as I’ve said before, that most people are trying to do the best that they can do; and yet, we still get stuck by other people’s quills and we, sometimes, do the sticking ourselves. And that’s why, when we find ourselves embroiled in conflict, we need to ask ourselves: Have I simply been stuck by the quills of a porcupine who is trying to do his/her best? Is this conflict being created by the fact that none of us can go through life without stepping on other people’s toes and without having our own toes crunched, or is something bigger going on?

Now, keeping that in mind, let’s move to another image.

Picture your relationships with other people as pieces of fine china and picture times of conflict as times when the fine china is dropped on the floor. A piece of fine china is changed when it breaks, and it will never be what it once was. However, two different things can happen after a piece of china is dropped on the floor: (1) the piece of china can be glued back together, or (2) the piece of china can be thrown in the garbage. This important distinction needs to be a part of choosing your End Game.

I have a piece of pottery in my home that was once broken, but the piece of pottery has been mended using the Japanese art of kintsugi (also known as kintsukuroi). Kintsugi in an artform where Japanese artists mend broken pieces of pottery by using lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. This approach to mending pottery isn’t designed to hide the fact that the pottery has been broken just as conflict resolution isn’t designed to say that what went wrong in the relationship isn’t important. We need to honestly admit that we’ve been hurt during times of conflict in order to be both open and authentic. What happened to us matters. However, during times of conflict, we need to assess the damage and decide whether the relationship can, or should be, repaired. That is the question that you’re always going to need to ask yourself and that only you can answer.

And so, it seems to me that there are at least three different kinds of conflict: (1) there are conflicts that arise simply because porcupines can’t help but stick each other once in a while, (2) there are conflicts where the relationship has suffered damage but can be repaired, and (3) there are conflicts where the relationship has been so severely damaged that there’s not a road back. Thus, when we find ourselves traveling through times of conflict, we need to step back, and we need to separate what happened from our interpretation of what happened. And then, when our minds are clear about what happened, we need to assess the damage that has been done and choose our End Game.

I need to lift one last thing before you while we are talking about choosing your End Game.

There are, very sadly, many relationships that are deeply scarred by physical and emotional abuse (we will look at that important truth in more detail in a subsequent post). People who are being abused can find that choosing an End Game is nearly impossible. Many people who are being abused have been convinced that they deserve to be abused by the person who is abusing them. Sometimes, there is nowhere to go. Sometimes, it is hard to leave the relationship because there are children involved. Sometimes, the decision is based upon available financial resources.

But, please, let me be clear. You do not deserve to be physically or emotionally abused. Many people who abuse others promise that their abusive behavior will stop, but it rarely does. Some abusers use something called “gaslighting” to confuse the people they are hurting and to make their victims doubt their own good judgment. Others try to blur the line between abuse and times of unavoidable conflict.

You are precious. You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We all have times when we are stuck by the quills of other porcupines and when we do the sticking ourselves. We all have times when the fine china plate has been broken and when it needs to be repaired or discarded. But, as you think about your End Game, please remember that there are times and events that break relationships in a way that repairing them is no longer possible. In many cases, damaged relationships can be repaired by separating what happened from your interpretation and your feelings about what has happened. Conflicts can, also, be resolved by deciding to grow through what went wrong. But there are also times when the piece of fine china has been broken beyond repair and when discarding what’s left is the best option. And, when that is the case, you may decide to walk away from the relationship for your own physical and emotional health, and for your own safety. Choose your End Game wisely.

Handling Conflict – Part 1

Conflict is something that has always been hard to handle.

Almost all of us are both tired and frazzled these days. The coronavirus has dramatically shaped our lives and our ability to interact with others, and the political atmosphere in our nation has deteriorated to the point where we’re being asked to take a side and to define everyone on the other side as our enemies. Many people are facing unemployment and are finding that their best path forward is not clear. Other folks have taken to the streets and have joined in peaceful protests, while others are looting businesses and burning buildings. History indicates that, in times of upheaval and uncertainty, caregivers and other people on the front lines begin to hit walls about six months after a disruption or disaster occurs, and that caregivers often respond to the burnout that they are experiencing by pulling back, by quitting their jobs, or by simply choosing to plod forward silently in the gray funk for another day. I read a story, just last week, about a 70-year-old man being dragged through a store by his hair and being thrown to the floor, where he was punched and kicked many times, because he asked another customer in the store to wear a mask.

Conflict is something that has always been hard to handle.

We tend to withdraw and to hunker down when conflict is swirling around us. We have the tendency to believe that we are totally right and other people are totally wrong. I suspect that we all find it easier to talk to our friends and family members about things that are going wrong in our lives than to talk directly with people who have stepped on our toes. Some people simply become silent during times of conflict, especially in times like these, because they just do not have the energy to walk a different path.

I am going to be exploring the issue of conflict in my next few posts because I believe that the teachings and principles of our faith are important in times like these. And I am going to start this series of posts by exploring the Eighth Commandment because I believe that the Eighth Commandment can help to unravel many of the conflicts in our lives long before we get to the point where hurts and disagreements become more difficult to handle.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

Have you ever considered the fact that it is easy to bear false witness in times of conflict? Most of us want to believe that we are right in times of conflict and that other people are simply wrong. Many of us hunker down during times of conflict and withdraw from people who hurt or disappointed us because our first instinct is to believe that those who hurt and disappointment us are enemies. But one of the lessons I’ve learn in life is that, in one way or another, I interpret everything that happens to me; and sooner (rather than later) my interpretation of what actually happened becomes even more important to me than what happened itself. This can create a challenge.

How I feel about what happened can become more important to me than what actually happened.

Read those words carefully once again; and then, think about how your understanding of the Eighth Commandment can shape your thinking in times of conflict. Our interpretation of what happened may be true, or our interpretation may be false. The man who blows the horn on his automobile as soon as the stoplight turns green may be acting like a jerk, or he may be in a hurry to get to a hospital emergency room before his mother dies. And so, when we’re trying to make sense of things that happen to us, we need to step back for a moment and allow our interpretation of what happened to soften.

I still believe that most people are trying their hardest to do their best these days and that most people are not intentionally trying to make the lives of other people more difficult. But relationships can easily become strained when we are tired and frazzled. Little things can become big things and big things can become monstrous things. We tend to magnify things that happen when we are weary and exhausted; and, when we do that, we need to be careful that we do not break the Eighth Commandment.

Martin Luther, the 16th-Century Protestant reformer, offers some sage advice to us in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment in his Small Catechism (1529). Martin Luther wrote that parents should teach their children that the Eighth Commandment means: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”

What would times of conflict in your life look like if you stepped back and intentionally tried to interpret the actions of people who step on your toes in the kindest way possible? What would happen if you installed an “Eighth Commandment Firewall” in your mind; so that, long before you start to interpret the actions of others, you remembered to be both charitable and kind?

Perhaps the tension and stress in our lives would begin to decrease if we learned to separate what is happening in our lives from our feelings about what is happening in our lives? Perhaps even the weary and frazzled could find a sense of peace by stepping back and by trying to interpret the actions of other people in a more kind and gentle way?
And today, I want to lift those thoughts up as the first step forward in times of conflict. What happened and our interpretation of and our feelings about what happened may be different; and, when we keep that in mind, many conflicts in our lives can be unraveled before they grow and become unmanageable.