Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Resolving Conflict

"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
   Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  
   Love never ends...  For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end...."   -- 1 Corinthians 13:1-6, 9-10

I just finished reading an interesting book on leadership.  "Leadership and Self-Deception" by The Arbinger Institute deals with the fundamentals of leadership:  how we think about other people, and how we think about ourselves in relation to other people.  Effective leadership is all about maintaining effective relationships.  The advice found in this book applies to all our relationships, whether they be at work or at home.  For, how we think about other people, and about ourselves in relation to other people is the key to all of our relationships.

It seems too obvious to be worth much thought:  if we think well of other people, then we have a good relationship with them, we are able to work well with them, and we can achieve the best results; if we don't think well of other people, then we don't have a good relationship with them, we don't work well together, and we don't achieve the best results.  End of story.

True, but how do we always think well of other people?  Clearly that is the goal because that will always achieve the best results.

Is this possible?  What about conflicts, differences of opinion?  What if we think they are wrong?  How then do we maintain our good opinion of them?

That is the challenge.  Because, very often, when we are in conflict with someone, we tend to defend our opinions, our person, and, simultaneously, we tend to judge their opinions and them.  Even if we do this only in our own heads, and never once voice our opinions to the other person, just thinking this way colors how we interact with them.  In our tone of voice, in our body language, and facial expressions, we will convey our opinion of them just as clearly as if we had spoken our thoughts aloud.  If the other person responds to conflict with the same defensiveness and judgmentalism, overtly or covertly, then there will be no end to the division.  It will just get worse and worse, until the relationship breaks down altogether.   

According to the Arbinger Institute, it is possible to get out of this mess, but very often, what we think will alleviate the situation doesn't help at all.  Trying to change the other person, doing our best to "cope" with them, leaving them, learning skills and techniques for better communication, even changing our own behavior, does not help the situation.  For one, thinking that they need to change or that we must learn to put up with them just continues the blaming attitude that is causing the trouble to begin with.  For another, since the essential problem is how we think about the other person, leaving them isn't going to change that -- we will take that with us wherever we go.  And while better communication techniques sound good, they won't ever work as long as we maintain our negative opinion.  It doesn't matter if we speak kindly, if we use "I" language, if we go out of our way to tell them how important they are to us.  If we do not truly care about them, as fellow human beings just like ourselves, these strategies will not make a difference.  We can't even make a difference by changing our own behavior.  For it is possible to change our behavior while still maintaining our poor opinion of someone.  When it is our attitude that needs to change, nothing else will matter.  The only way to resolve a conflict with someone is to see them as a real person, worthy of respect.  We must actually understand that they may have good reason for thinking the way they do.   

Many examples come to mind, but one particularly resonated as I read this book --  perhaps because I tried all of the ineffective ways to alleviate the situation before seeing the light.   My husband and I have very different parenting styles.   A few years ago, there seemed to be no end to the conflict between us when it came to our children.  He thought I was too lenient.  I thought he was too harsh.  He wanted me to be stricter.  I wanted him to be more patient.  When I tried to be as tough as he wanted me to be, I ended up hating myself and resenting him for it.  When he tried to be as patient as I wanted him to be, he felt like a pushover and blamed me even more.  I remember praying to God to either change the situation, or help me cope with it.  I frequently thought of leaving, but fortunately knew deep down that even divorced we would have to come to some agreement on how to raise the children or face unending trouble over them.  What seemed like a solution to both of us, learning how to calmly discuss our grievances with each other, also didn't help.  It just made us feel more divided.  The only thing that has helped in any way is acknowledging that my husband is correct.  We are both partially correct.  I do have a tendency to be too lenient.  I do let our children get away with more than they should.   To their ultimate disadvantage.  I am learning, with each new situation, to honor both ways, to find a common ground between his way and my way.  It helps me to know, and to keep in mind, that we have a common goal.  We both want our children to grow up to be confident, responsible, and loving people. 

The resolution of this conflict, and the readings lately, makes me wonder if many of the conflicts that seem unresolvable could begin to be resolved if both parties were able to accept and respect, at least in part, the sentiments of the other.  Would the division between those who want gun control and those who want to protect the right to bear arms be eased if both parties could honor the reasons, the needs, and the fears of the other side?  Would a compromise be reached?  Would the division between those who want equality of marriage for all and those who think same-gender partnerships are a sin be eased if both parties understood the great desire of both sides of the conflict to love and honor God's word to the best of their ability?  Would greater acceptance result?  As I said, there are many conflicts that come to mind.

Conflicts, in general, come about because we like to simplify our world into black or white, right or wrong, us versus them.  But in reality, the world is not so simple, not so clear cut.  The only way through conflict is to acknowledge that we hold part of the truth, and our neighbor (or enemy) holds part of the truth.  Paul's Ode to Love, written to stem the divisions forming within the church in Corinth, teaches us to love even in the midst of conflict.  For nothing we say, nothing we know, and nothing we do, will make one bit of difference, if we do not first love, honor, and respect, the truth in the other person.  Like faith in God, love of neighbor, not works, is all that is needed.

Dear God, thank you for your loving guidance every day, through every question.  I am grateful for your care of all people.  Help me to see them as you see them, as you see me.  Love always, Pam


marie said...

It is so hard to see the other's point of view, especially when we "know" we are right. I hope we can get to the compromise with guns.

Pamela Keane said...

Me too. And whatever it is, I hope it makes sense and makes a difference.