What No One Tells You About Conflict That You Need To Know

What No One Tells You About Conflict That You Need To Know

Most people hate conflict and will do anything and everything to avoid it.  But if you are like me, conflict finds you anyway.  It happened to me yesterday and everything I knew about relational intelligence and conflict went out the window – until I remembered some essential truths that most people don’t know or forget.  I hope this story will help you when conflict finds you.

I received a message on my phone from someone I haven’t talked to in over 30 years.  It was nasty and accusatory in tone and was meant to sting.  And it did.  What happened that I deserved such a tongue thrashing?  Apparently I didn’t call them after they experienced a severe loss in their family (yes it was tragic).  It should be noted that we haven’t had contact in over 30 years!  I don’t have a phone number or email address.  They have never reached out to me in all these years – not even after I had a severe heart attack that may have taken my life.  They never let us know about their loss but somehow I was responsible for the pain they were now experiencing because I was insensitive, uncaring, and pre-occupied with other things.

Being attacked like that clear out of the blue caught me off guard.  It came right out of left field and I didn’t see it coming.  My first response was disbelief.  Who in their right mind would write such a message when no relationship has existed for 30 years?  Where did they get my phone number to send a message?   Then my emotions kicked in – anger.  How could anyone expect someone in another state who has been gone for decades with no contact know what is going on in their separate lives?

I wanted to respond immediately to justify my “failure” and tell them why their expectations were out of whack.  Fortunately, I was driving at the time and chose to think more deeply before responding.  Before responding to a conflict before you, it is good to know some things.  Here are four things that helped me in this situation that may help you in your situation.

  1. Understand why you are in conflict.  Conflict happens when our self-worth is threatened.  I see myself as someone who is caring and at the same time accomplish things.  In SDI we call that a Red-Blue.  We all have conflict triggers, but they are not the same.  When someone views me as uncaring it can trigger a conflict response in me.  I value caring for others.  I also get triggered by feeling incompetent or being viewed as ineffective.  When I looked at this message, I can see that my self-worth was being threatened.  I wanted to defend who I am.  I don’t want people thinking badly about me or telling others that I am insensitive and uncaring.  At the same time, I realized that my self-worth isn’t dependent on this other person.  My worth and identity is in Christ as a child of God.  If that wasn’t true of me or I wasn’t consciously finding my identity there, I think I might have responded back immediately in self-defense.
  2. Know why the other person is in conflict. What is triggering their conflict?  What is happening in their soul that is being threatened?  It takes some discipline to hold off your own response until you have thought about the other person, but this step is critical to knowing how to respond to them.  As I thought about my situation and the letter, it was clear that they felt lonely and abandoned by other people in their time of need.  Their identity was being threatened by the lack of response they expected from the people that knew them when they were in crisis.  Of course I wouldn’t know the details, or how this came to be, but the limited communication was pretty clear.  My response to them would need to address that they really were conflicted about.
  3. Understand what they want from you.  If you know why the person is in conflict, you will be able to reason what they want from you.  In this case, they wanted other people to empathize with their loss and grieve with them.  Perhaps many people didn’t know what to say or how to react.  Many people find it difficult to be around pain and simply avoid the awkward situation.  I don’t know exactly what they were going through, but my response to them would be shaped by what they need from me.  What they didn’t need from me was to justify why I didn’t reach out earlier.  That would be more about me and not what they even wanted.  What they wanted was to know we did care.
  4. Respond appropriately. Rather than respond defensively or react emotionally (anger), try to address the need behind why they are now in conflict.  In this case, I simply responded by saying that we are deeply concerned for them in this tragedy and loss and we are able to reach out to them if they could provide a phone number.

When people go into conflict they don’t all act the same.  Some assert very directly like the situation I just presented.  They can be the most challenging for other people because their direct approach can be intimidating.  Our desire to defend ourselves often kicks in and we get into deeper conflict.  When someone is direct and assertive initially in conflict, they simply want you to engage with them so don’t retreat or beat around the bush.  Respond to what you perceive their need is rather than being defensive.  Some people when they go into conflict want to process everything that happened and consider different options for a response.  If that is the case, you want to give them space before asserting.  Others may try to reconcile the relationship by trying to accommodate what you want.  We don’t always recognize these people as in conflict because they are accommodating, but in reality, we should read between the lines and see what is really happening.  Affirm the situation, but don’t ignore the issue that is behind the conflict.

You can’t control the outcome of any conflict with another person.  In this story, the person graciously thanked me for responding and gave me their phone number so I could reach out.  There were no further attacks on my character or self-worth.  But we aren’t guaranteed that kind of response.  If we go through the conflict using these steps outlined, we will be addressing the needs of our own souls, the needs of others, as well as addressing the problem between us.  That will give us the best opportunity to find peace and harmony.

The verse that I hold onto is, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18).

Bruce Terpstra

Our President, Dr. Bruce Terpstra, has 36 years of pastoral ministry experience. He is a veteran of 17 years in denominational leadership and developed more than 70 new churches in the New York metro area and has given oversight to almost 400 pastors. He holds a doctorate in Leadership Development and is also the founder of 3KeyCoaching and the author of Three Passions of the Soul.