“I don’t want to be mean," my client stated with remorse as he reflected on his contribution to interpersonal conflict. I completely related to this sentiment, as I too have looked back on past conversations with regret at how easy it is to respond with a hurtful word or harsh tone.
Even with the best intentions, conflict can arise.
We see the presence of interpersonal challenges, in big and small ways, within our families, friendships, communities, cities, and throughout our society. From a counseling perspective, we can see how the presence of conflict is often linked to factors such as miscommunication, mismatched messaging, personal perspectives, and a lack of active listening skills. These elements, collected through our lifetimes, largely contribute to how we handle disagreements and disputes. Although our upbringing, life experiences, and personality differences mold our unique approach to conflict, we can all agree that when conflict is left unresolved it causes unnecessary distress in our lives and our relationships.
So, the question is this: how do we begin to navigate the tension within topics that trigger us without becoming consumed by the conflict itself? Even more importantly, what does the Bible say about how we are to handle conflict in healthy ways?
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The Core of Conflict
Let’s start by better understanding the biblical root of the conflict. As with any form of dysfunction we experience, sin is the primary root cause. Looking back at the first events of conflict found in Scripture, we see how sin prompts man’s pride by twisting our perspectives (Genesis 3:1-13) and blinds our ability to respond rationally (Genesis 4:5-10). From the very beginning, sin has impacted our interpersonal relationships and caused a disconnect with our Creator.
It is for this reason that Christ came to earth, and with Him brought the gift of peace.
Looking at Scripture, we read of the commissioning of interpersonal peace. In the Psalms, we are told to "turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it" (Psalm 34:14). Jesus implores us to be peace-makers (Matthew 5:9), and the apostle Paul encourages believers to strive to live peaceably with one another (Romans 12:18).
The term “peace” found in these passages signifies more than tranquility or lack of conflict, but unity – specifically, God’s gift of wholeness. It is with this offering of the Holy Spirit that we are enabled to be wholeness-seekers in our relationships with those around us.
This biblical foundation allows us to both acknowledge the sin that so easily entangles our interpersonal relationships (Hebrews 12:1), and allows us to seek to maintain the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). With this in mind, let us look at four conflict resolution skills with backing that can be found in Scripture.
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CALM: 4 Strategies for Seeking Peace
Within crisis counseling, there are many types of methods that are used to reduce high conflict situations. Although intended for therapeutic use, I have learned that many of these strategies can be applied to our interpersonal interactions. Unlike the tactics used in arguments and debates, conflict resolution skills provide a strategy for maintaining structure and self-awareness while seeking to find common ground in our communication. Let’s look at four of these strategies supported by Scripture that can develop our ability to dialogue and deepen our awareness of our internal process in seeking peace.
To help us remember these skills, I will use the acronym CALM:
Connection is the first step in conflict resolution because it creates a path for collaborative communication. In most conflicts, communication is unclear if a connection is not established. Just think about the last time you tried to resolve a conflict over a text message or a phone call, did it end well? Most of the time the answer is no, because, without the human connection, communication becomes complicated. It’s the equivalent of trying to play catch back to back with someone. How will we catch the ball if we cannot see it, watch the process, and interact with the person? The same goes for resolving conflict.
Intentional and disarming, connection simply seeks to be present in the conflict. It does not avoid or minimize, escalate, or excuse.
Linking this concept back to Scripture, I think it's safe to say Jesus was the best at connecting with people. If you have ever read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry, you know of the many interactions where Jesus used connection skills to diffuse defensiveness, comfort those in crisis, and communicate clearly.
In Matthew 5:21-24, Jesus warns us of the consequences of avoiding conflict, and instructs the believer to seek resolution with others before giving offers to the Lord saying, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First, be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
So, if we are to engage in communicating where there has been a conflict, we need to learn how to connect as Christ did; so that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble (Hebrews 12:15).
Here are just a few connection skills that can help us in our communication:
- Set aside a time and place for communication to occur (making time for connection is key).
- Clearly state your thoughts and feelings (When ___ happened, I felt ____, because ____).
- Support the conversation with problem-solving (“What is getting in the way?”)
- Invite collaboration (“Would you be willing to talk through this with me?”)
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When conflict arises, it is also important to assess our perspective of the situation. For it is from our perception that we often will respond. Therefore, learning how to assess the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings associated with conflict can help us communicate more clearly, maintain a connection, and reduce verbal altercations.
Think about the last time you were involved in an argument or difficult discussion. What did you feel physically? Was it hard to communicate your thoughts? What were the beliefs about the person or situation that contributed to the conflict? By learning to assess our visceral and emotional responses to interpersonal stress, we can learn to balance our internal process while keeping the peace.
Scripture encourages this introspective approach to conflict resolution. We read in Proverbs 15 that, “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger … the heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things (Proverbs 15:1, 28). In Proverbs 12:18 we read, “the words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
The idea of tempering our response to conflict is also discussed in the book of James chapter 3. We read of the damage our words can have when we do not actively assess and surrender ourselves to the wisdom of God which is, “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere (James 3:17).
Here are a few skills for self-regulation to help us assess:
- Questions (Ask yourself: What thoughts, beliefs, feelings are present).
- Body awareness (Become aware of how your body holds the stress of tension).
- Relaxation (Breathe, move, count, pray).
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How well do you listen? I have found that listening is key to keeping conflict to a minimum. When we make an effort to simply listen to another person, without interjecting or disputing what they have to say, defensiveness is diffused much more quickly. In my work as a crisis counselor, there are many times when listening is the only skill I use in assisting clients.
But in interpersonal conflicts, listening becomes difficult if we have not established a connection with the other person or assessed our internal perspectives. If we begin a conversation on the defense and with the perception that the other in the conversation is against us, what we hear will reflect those perceptions rather than what is reality. As a result, we can assume another's feelings and distort the message of other words.
This is why James implores believers saying, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
These instructions start by listening for a reason. Can you think of a time when you misunderstood someone due to your lack of active listening? Maybe you spoke too soon, or you became upset over something that was simply not true. When we limit our listening in conflict, we will inevitably become angry. James reminds us that anger does not result in any sort of positive outcome and therefore must be exchanged for God's word, which transforms our souls (James 1:20-21).
In addition to listening to God’s Word and voice in our lives, here are some practical skills for increasing our listening abilities within conflict:
- Reflecting on others’ feelings and thoughts (“Mmm, I can see how that would be frustrating”)
- Asking open-ending questions (“What about our disagreement upset you the most?”)
- Seeking clarification (“So, you are upset because you feel I am ….”)
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Finally, the goal of conflict resolution is to maintain unity in our relationships and restore our connection with others. Yet, I believe it is important to note that there are times and specific situations, such as with patterns of abuse and emotional maltreatment, in which reconciliation may not occur or be prolonged due to a lack of repentance (Luke 17:3).
Scripture commissions interpersonal forgiveness and instructs believers to seek reconciliation with one another quickly. Yet in situations of conflict that result in deep hurt, broken trust, and illegal behavior, the maintenance of unity and restoration may take time, and in some cases may not occur if the offender is unwilling to acknowledge their wrongdoing and pursue change (Matthew 18:15-19).
In most cases of conflict, maintaining unity and restoring wholeness is an achievable goal. The importance of this mindset helps to differentiate the problem from the persons involved and approaching the conflict from a more collaborative perspective.
If our goal is to be on your side and maintain wholeness, we need to work together. The apostle Paul speaks on this concept of maintaining unity saying, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). So, how do we begin to make an effort to maintain this unity when conflicts arise?
“You must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. ‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. … Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:25-27, 29).
Here we are given three great skills for maintaining unity when conflicts arise:
Speak honestly (use openness and honesty when addressing conflict)
Speak quickly (share your frustrations as soon as possible)
Speak respectfully (Speak in terms of “We” versus “You”)
Now that we have several skills to practice and Scriptures to reflect on, I pray we will begin to pursue the peace of Christ’s wholeness in our conflicts and take the first steps in restoring our relationships. Remember, conflict is inevitable, it's how we approach it that makes all the difference.
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Carley Marcouillier: A northerner by heart southerner by choice, Carley currently calls Virginia her home. After completing her Master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, Carley began to develop a passion for integrating the principles of counseling practice with the foundation of Christian theology. In addition to her clinical work, Carley is passionate about discussing topics of faith, theology, psychology, and everything in between on her social media platforms www.carleymarcouillier.com, Instagram, and Facebook