“She’s a liar,” he yelled, staring at me super-intently, as if intensity would convince.
“Do you have any issues?” I asked as calmly as I could manage.
“We all have issues!” he yelled back in a tone that implied, “You are so stupid for even asking me that; everybody knows that we all have issues!”
I paused thinking fast, taking a slow-fast motion pan over the entire scene in front of me.
It is interesting how much tone communicates.
It is also interesting how we can speak to it without even conscious awareness of what we are doing. In my brain there was a kind of automatic voice that told me, “He just deflected your attempt to help him, so you better try again.
I asked, “Might your issues be affecting your relationship with her?”
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fun, and what he said next wasn’t true.
Standing there in the doorway of the church office, looking out at him — him so angry, in attack mode — it was vaguely clear to me that he was trying to get some truth out. So I helped him.
“I think she’s doing a good job,” I said, keeping my voice quiet. He waved me off, frustrated, threw up his hands, turned his back on me and strode off across the parking lot.
“Bless you!” I called after him. He just kept walking. I felt kind of stupid saying that, it was so cliched, but I was grasping for some way to end this well, to show that I wanted his good, that I wasn’t really mad at him, and that he did belong in our organization. I got it that he so badly wanted a bit of power and dignity. Who doesn’t? I don’t want him to lose value.
It was a conflict. I was mildly rattled — not much.
I have been thinking about this kind of thing lately. I want to learn how to go through conflict like I go through a good night’s sleep — turning over softly — so as not to wake my wife — breathing regularly, resting on my own firm but comfortable relational mattress.
How do I manage conflict well? How do any us?
First, in conflict with someone, it is essential to remain calm, so that we might do our best to bring them and ourselves no harm — or as little harm as possible — by always offering up careful, simple, helpful words — mostly questions.
We must figure out the truth together, gently, so we can at least remain at rest. And we must not duck, the way most humans instinctively do, and go get other people to do our work for us. We are responsible to enter into our own conflicts, thinking well.
This week I sat in my office looking at a letter I had just received from someone I am trying to help. Here it was again. Conflict. This person had their own issue to work out, but they were turning on our organization!
It’s interesting. If you try to help some people, they bite you! You become the problem — so they can avoid their problem.
In the moment, in the first wave of emotion, harsh responses to them easily come to mind. I am learning to dismiss those.
If I have learned anything about conflict, I have learned that my first reaction to people is usually one that needs some work. I am responsible to do well by them, no matter how hostile I initially feel.
In conflict, at first I am upset. That’s normal. I have learned not to act on that kind of normal. My upset needs time, and self-coaching — sometimes just seconds, sometimes days — to cool. I need just a bit of time to sort out how I should best respond.
I am learning, slowly, through managing conflicts in several organizations which I now help lead — churches and counseling entities– how to do the work, in the moment and later, required to stay calm and clear-headed.
Having a good conflict is like repainting an old room — the prep, the self-prep once you get going, is the biggest part of the job.
This week a high-level leader I work with made a decision that limited another one of the many young leaders I oversee. I was frustrated by how this might cause several of our organizations to lose traction.
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I shared the issue with several of my colleagues, several wise, business-savvy, senior leaders. It was good. Nothing is yet settled, but we are starting some good process to bring a win-win solution to the many different professional organizations these matters effects.
A big part of the work needed in successful conflict resolution comes in creating calm space in which we can all clarify the real issues, focusing only on the areas that really need renewing, and then proceeding very carefully, with the good of all in mind — and with lots of clarifying questions handy.
In conflict, I must ever remain the learner, learning as I go how to bring healing words to everyone.
In tension with people, back-door work, stair-work, padded-room work, reflective-work protects us and everyone else from the stupidity of blaming and shaming each other.
Good process, in the midst of conflict, process well done, with skill, is something that minimizes harm, maximizes healing and becomes something we can later stand back and admire.
I’ve seen poor conflict resolution. The root issues were never even mentioned. People didn’t process their own emotions or each other’s. There was only an effort to blame each other for some superficial problems, to cover up the real problems and to ultimately create a loser and a winner. Nobody took much responsibility for themselves. I hated it. I think it can go better than that.
It helped me, however, learn to adore slow-motion, good-outcome, self-reflective, completely candid, win-win conflict resolution.
Here is the bottom line. To have a struggle between us go well, we must first do the work inside ourselves, we must take control of ourselves, and we must learn to sit back — in a relational easy chair that we pull up to the conflict — and relax, and gather self-knowledge and wise words and discover good questions.
In tension with others, we must first cover, we must first softly blanket the struggle with the gorgeous, quilted masterpiece our own self-quieting work.