Faith and Family — Conflict inevitable; communication key when dealing with differences


October 27, 2016

By Carrie Brown McWhorter

Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

Conflict is an inevitable part of life. Unrealistic expectations, fears, competing desires, ambition, unmet needs and jealousy are just a few factors that often lead to conflict within relationships. When strong opinions and emotions are at odds, effective communication strategies are perhaps the most essential element in resolving the issue in a healthy way.

According to Gary Chapman, author of “The 5 Love Languages” series of marriage and family books, conflict is more than a difference of opinion or preference. Chapman defines conflict as a disagreement in which both parties “feel strongly and their differing opinions affect their behavior, causing disharmony in the relationship.”

Especially harmful

Within the family, conflict can be especially harmful because the individuals have a strong emotional attachment and interact frequently. But even within an organization like the church or in interactions with friends and coworkers, there is still a high level of emotion and regular contact that can make a difference of opinion evolve into a full-scale conflict.

When a disagreement simmers into a boiling battle, anger, frustration and hurt feelings often result, which may take days or weeks to heal. In too many situations, relationships are never restored.

It doesn’t have to be that way, writes Ken Sande, author of “The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict.”

“Conflict is an opportunity to solve common problems in a way that honors God and offers benefits to those involved,” Sande writes.

Depending on the situation, the individuals in conflict may never agree. However, they can find common ground, Sande says. Listening is essential.

“When you are talking with another person, first listen for the truth, resisting the temptation to defend yourself, blame others or focus on points of disagreement. Ask yourself, ‘Is there any truth in what he or she is saying?’ If your answer is ‘yes,’ acknowledge what is true and identify your common ground before moving to your differences. Doing so is a sign of wisdom and spiritual maturity,” Sande writes.

Careful listening acknowledges the value of those involved in the conflict, writes Deborah Smith Pegues, author of “Confronting Without Offending: Positive and Practical Steps to Resolving Conflict.”

“By listening, we create a context or environment where people feel they have been heard and their thoughts or feelings have been validated. This is half the battle in resolving any conflict,” she writes.

Listening is not a passive activity, however. It begins with preparing oneself to listen. Physically, this includes sitting face-to-face with arms to the side (not crossed), removing distractions like music or television, taking deep relaxing breaths and making eye contact as the other person is talking. It also means keeping an open mind as the other person talks.

“Good listeners do not ‘turn off’ what they do not want to hear and ‘turn up’ what they do like to hear,” writes Kenneth Gangel, author of “Communication and Conflict Management in Churches and Christian Organizations.”

“Good listeners understand what speakers say from the speaker’s perspective, not just their own.”

Validating others

Validating the other person’s concerns also is a helpful strategy, according to Lisa Keane, clinical director of marriage and family for Pathways Professional Counseling. Even if a solution seems far away, a sincere and respectful expression of appreciation in the form of statements like “I really appreciate that we are talking about this issue” or “I am glad we are trying to figure this out” can convey a powerful message, she said.

When it is your turn to speak, avoid sarcasm, which is especially damaging in difficult conversations between individuals with an emotional connection, such as spouses or parents and children.

Dale and Jena Forehand of Stained Glass Ministries say, “Sarcasm is much like a bee sting. When a bee stings, the direct hit of poison causes immediate pain and inflammation. Sarcasm does the same thing.

“Sometimes we use sarcasm to voice harsh words we otherwise would not say, often intentionally hurting others. Once the pain is inflicted, however, we retreat, saying, ‘Oh, I was just kidding.’ But the sting of our words hurts so much that those we have injured withdraw. Our words don’t feel like jokes at all.”

Psychologist and marriage counselor Susan Heitler writing at PsychologyToday.com cites research that suggests sarcasm directed toward a spouse is a leading predictor of divorce.

“A dismissive tone … may be what some folks want to listen to on TV, but it is rarely appealing to friends or a spouse,” Heitler writes.

To avoid escalating the emotional intensity of an exchange of differing opinions, Heitler suggests that individuals keep tone in check as well.

Tone matters

“Friendly dialogue proceeds in gentle voice tones. As folks get increasingly adversarial, their voices get louder and the words flow faster. Unpleasant volumes and high-risk speeds make continuation of the discussion, and maybe even of the relationship, feel unsafe,” she writes.

Instead she advises using questions to keep a conversation moving in a positive direction. For example in conversations about political candidates, questions that begin with “how” or “what,” such as “What is most important to you as you pick whom to vote for as president?” give people an opportunity to explain their concerns.

Begins with desire

“In addition, understanding their concerns enables you to focus your comments on the information that might make a difference to them,” she writes.

Ultimately conflict always begins with some kind of desire, Sande writes. Though desires like vengeance, lust or greed are inherently wrong, other desires, such as peace and quiet, respectful children or a loving spouse, are good.

“If someone is standing in the way of a good desire, it is appropriate to talk together about it,” he says. “As you talk, you may discover ways that both of you can grow and benefit each other.”

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