Mentoring – Dealing with Conflict or How to Have a Fair Fight

Humor in Western media is often built on conflict and the mismanagement of conflict.  We have a generation of leaders who grew up watching television and cinema personalities using sarcasm, pithy comebacks, personal attack (emotional and/or physical), and clandestinely-getting-even as a cultural norm for dealing with conflicts involving family, friends, workmates, and strangers.   These methods of dealing with conflict may be humorous on the screen, but the results in real life are disastrous, ranging from strained relationships to devastated relationships to broken relationships to revenge (the intentional harming of another because of perceived or real harm from him/her).

Conflict is a normal part of human interaction.  It’s going to happen!  We make mistakes that impact others.  We choose to misbehave or sin in a way which results in hurting others emotionally and/or physically.  How we respond to conflict or events that may lead to conflict defines who we are.  How we respond to conflict will determine if we grow as leaders or not.  In fact, dealing with conflict appropriately is a prerequisite for deepening and maturing relationships, and growing as a leader.   Inappropriately dealing with conflict causes loss of trust and a pulling away from the relationship.  Appropriately dealing with conflict builds trust and leads to deeper, more meaningful relationships.

Some inappropriate ways of dealing with conflict or problems include:

  • Ignore the problem. Problems won’t go away, ignoring them makes things worse.
  • Disrespect the other person.  Disrespect begets disrespect, closes down communication, destroys existing trust and builds mistrust.
  • Complaining.  (Everyone needs a place to vent.  This is not the same as complaining.  Venting is a verbal process that allows us to put things in perspective and in order.  Venting should be done in private with a trusted person who will keep information confidential.  I don’t generally vent to my wife because she becomes protective and it causes her to dislike or have reservations about the person who is the other side of the problem.  If the other side is a friend or a colleague you can understand why this can be a problem.  I cause her to have negative feelings about the person based on my venting, not on a rational evaluation of the problem in the context of the whole relationship.)
  • Delay dealing with the problem. (It only gets bigger)
  • Being indirect in your reactions, actions, and communications.  This leads to misunderstanding, dragging others into the problem, and slows resolution of problems if they are solved at all.
  • Retaliate! (This starts feuds)
  • SHOUT loud enough so that sensible people will go away and avoid the confrontation.
  • Resort to personal attacks instead of dealing with the issue(s) at hand.
  • Anything physical, including rude gestures.
  • Being critical.
  • Don’t listen.  Just make your point as forcefully as possible.
  • Don’t listen.  Think of a good comeback for the last statement.
  • Don’t listen.  You don’t like what is being said.
  • Don’t listen.  Do all the talking so you don’t have to listen.
  • Build support for your side of the argument.
  • Drag others into the argument.
  • Don’t let others have their say or share their side of the issue.
  • Assigning motives for another’s behavior. It is not possible for us to know another person’s motives until and unless they share them with us.  (Even when there is a history of bad behavior or bad decisions we must never assume we know the motives behind the behavior or decision.)
  • Sarcasm of any kind never communicates properly.
  • Dealing with a problem during the heat of emotion.  (High emotion causes high emotion which stops listening and causes bad decisions and bad behavior.)
  • Drag past experiences into the argument instead of dealing with the current issue.  (This is less likely to happen if we have dealt with previous issues appropriately.)
  • Using superlatives like “always” and “never”.
  • Using threatening or defensive body language.
  • Using insulting, abusive and/or profane language.
  • Taking the fight public.  (Having a third party present during serious discussions is different from taking the fight public.)
  • Using email, instant messaging, or text messaging to address any problem.  (In person is best, video or audio conferencing is acceptable if a face-to-face meeting is not possible.)

I’m sure you can add to this list from your experiences.  Please leave comments to update this list.

Sometimes we react confrontationally, aggressively and openly (name calling, embarrassing another, arguments, shouting matches, nose to nose stare downs, gathering allies, and even physical violence).  Sometimes we take action passively (defensiveness; avoiding contact; snide,  mean or cutting remarks; sarcasm; spreading rumors; gossip; back stabling or back biting; attacks on another’s integrity; sabotaging projects; or causing physical, economic, or emotional harm indirectly in a way that cannot be traced back to us).

A common phrase I am hearing more of lately is, “He threw me under the bus!”  I have a problem with this statement because:

  • It’s violent
  • It assigns negative motives of intentional harm to another
  • It suggest little possibility of recovery from the event
  • It is almost always followed by a declaration of how to throw the other person under the bus

Anger, embarrassment, frustration and disappointment are all honest emotions.  But, we must understand that we may be mistaken about what caused the emotion.  And, even when we have a legitimate reason for our emotions, we can choose how we deal with them.  Dealing with these emotions appropriately is the first step to a fair fight.  When we deal with these emotions inappropriately through ineffective communication (which includes not dealing with our emotions), we elevate the emotion to a point of willingness to fight or cause harm to another directly or indirectly.  Our emotional energy has to go somewhere.  The more we don’t appropriately deal with our emotion(s) and the situation that is causing the emotion(s), the more likely our emotional energy will erupt in an inappropriate and untimely manner, causing harm to relationships and resulting in conflict than will be more difficult or impossible to resolve.

Some ways to deal with our emotion appropriately include:

  • Owning the emotion.  Identify and accept that we are angry, embarrassed, frustrated, or disappointed. I am emotionally handicapped.  I am a thinker not a feeler.  When something gets bad enough or good enough to force emotions from me I have to spend a lot of time sorting out the feelings and work on how to communicate what I am feeling.  This takes time.  Feelers often tend to dump their emotion on others quickly, without analyzing what caused the emotion and why they are feeling the way they are, or what the results the dump will be.  Feelers need to process before spilling their guts or they will exacerbate problems.  Both feelers and thinkers need discipline when dealing with emotions and difficult situations.
  • Ask help-me-to-understand questions, don’t assume or assign motives.  Assuming motive is never appropriate. Don’t assume motives.  Ask!  Don’t use the “Why?” question, because it communicates accusation.  State, “Help me to understand your thinking in this.”   I was on the freeway one night and the car behind me was following with its high beams on.  When I slowed down to let the car pass, it would slow down and stay behind me.  Soon there was a fuel stop and I exited to get away from this guy, but he followed me to the fuel stop.  With a little fear and a lot of anger I jumped out of my car ready for a fight, but decided to ask if there were a problem as politely as I could.  A little old lady got out of the car and exclaimed, “I’m so sorry about my headlights!  They’re stuck on high and I was looking for the next place to get help.”  We must not assume we understand why people are acting in a way that irritates, frustrates, or makes us angry.
  • Discuss the problem with a trusted ally who will help you through the issues, and keep your confidence.  With serious problems this may mean a professional counselor who is impartial and will help you deal with your stuff before you try to deal with the problem.
  • State your problem, and then give the other person time to deal with their emotions before you continue.  You may have to ask, “Do you need time to process this?”  If they are demonstrating high emotion or are trying to hide their emotions, you may need to say, “I want to give you time to process this.  Let’s meet and talk in an hour or so.”  High emotion ramps up the situation and makes it hard to hear what the other person is saying.  High emotion often causes us to think and/or say things we will regret.  High emotion is a component of fighting, but is not good for problem solving.  Cool heads solve problems.  Hot heads cause problems.
  • Give meaningful feedback regarding emotions.  Don’t assume you understand or are being understood.  Use sentences like “I’m frustrated because…” or “I’m angry about…”.  Be reflective in regards to another’s emotions.  Use sentences like “I understand you are angry about…” or “Can you help me to understand your frustration regarding…?”

 I would appreciate your comments on how you deal with negative emotions.

Another problem I have observed in disagreements (fights) is the well-meaning third party who wants to defend one of the participants in the disagreement or who simply jumps in to defend a friend or teammate.  Fighting for or defending others impairs their development in leadership.  Don’t do it and don’t allow it.  When there is disagreement, only the parties involved should be addressing the situation unless the situation has degenerated to a point that no one is listening, and then a mediator may be appropriate.  (Mediators are impartial)  People who are not a part of the problem and who infuse themselves into defending or trying to solve the problem on another’s behalf actually compound the problem.  Now there are three, instead of two, involved in the problem.  The person who isn’t represented becomes more frustrated, and the person who is being defended can take a passive role, which will stunt his/her leadership development.  Leaders must learn how to deal with problems on their own.  They can seek advice, but they must deal with the problem on their own.  Defending or representing a person in a fight takes away their opportunity to grow, even if the fight isn’t fair.  Third parties can debrief the fight, but should never participate in a fight.  Debriefing is a learning activity.  Participating causes more problems.

It is important for leaders to understand that mistakes are always in the past.  Solutions are developed and are always in the future.  We cannot change the past, but we can influence the future by the decisions we make.   Accountability and problem solving are about the future, not the past.  When there is a problem we must seek solution, even when the problem is repetitive bad behavior or poor decision-making.  Try to state the problem as simply and directly as possible.  The fewer words used to characterize the problem, the more likely we are to quickly and efficiently solve the problem.

It is important to find ways for both sides of the problem to be valued and have a voice in the problem-solving discussion. We must watch ourselves to determine if we are unresponsive and/or uninterested in the other’s perspective. This can manifest itself when we do more talking than listening. Other ineffective ways of communicating include being dishonest, hostile and/or critical. Avoid controlling or manipulating another while communicating. Remember!  The goal of communication is to make our thoughts and feelings known and understood. We cannot control the other person’s response or actions.  We need to remember that attempting to be right and to win the argument is ineffective. It may be tempting to try to “win”, but the relationship will lose.

Good communication is honest, open, and direct.  It leaves no doubt as to the purpose and the meaning of our words. We have to overcome our cultural bias and/or fear of stating our true thoughts and feelings.   This should be done in a gracious and respectful way. Allow the other person to speak and respond while we listen. Listen to what the other person is saying and try to understand and interpret it correctly.  Ask questions for information and clarity when you don’t understand or doubt what is being said.  Good communication requires us to make sure others understand us and that we understand them.  Good communication leads to trust, which is a primary ingredient for problem solving.

The Bible has a lot to say about how to avoid problems and how to deal with problems.  Take a look at the following.  As you read through them ask God to show you how to apply them to your current problems with other people.  (All Scripture quotes are from the NIV)

Rom 15:7             Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.  

1 Cor 1:10           I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.

Col 3:13               Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  

Phil 2:3                 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  

Eph 4:29              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.

Gal 6:2                 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Gal 6:4-5              Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.

1 Cor 12:25-27   … there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 

James 5:16          Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

Gal 5:15               If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Rom 12:10          Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Gen 42:21            They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.”

1 Th 5:11             Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

Heb 3:13              But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

Heb 10:24            And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.

Mat 18:21-35  Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”  Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.  “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.  “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’  The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.  “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.  “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’  “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.  “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.  “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

James 5:9            Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

Rom 12:16          Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

1 Pet 3:8              Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.

Blessings!

David Watson
Irving, Texas

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