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Coping with Conflict

Since the beginning of time conflict has been part of the human story. It happens between individuals and nations, it happens in our homes and it is a fact of business, industrial and commercial life where there are differing understandings of corporate vision, product design and quality, marketing strategies, possible buy-outs and struggles between management and the work force over pay and conditions.

There are clearly a whole range of issues which cause conflict in the world of work. One of the most obvious is leadership styles. Hierarchical and pyramidal models of leadership are felt by many to be the most efficient way to accomplish set tasks and short term goals. The difficulty however is that top down leadership is often detached, exclusive and controlling and can easily result in resentment which then causes others to dig themselves into entrenched positions. In contrast, a consensual style of leadership which embraces other senior colleagues or middle management is more likely to create a sense of ownership and shared vision thus avoiding factional strife. On the other hand corporate styles of leadership that seek to get everyone on board can often be costly in time and energy and a cause frustration and emotional tension.

Another frequent contributor to tension is the lack of clear communication. Nothing causes conflict more quickly than a confused agenda or vague instructions. Objectives need to be stated with unmistakeable clarity such that there can be no doubting what is intended. Qualifying, small-print footnotes at the bottom of contractual or purchase agreements are a common source of legal struggles between company lawyers.

Other factors leading to friction and frayed relationships include people being unacknowledged, unaffirmed or unjustly passed over in the matter of promotion. Such is particularly true for women who are often left aside when it comes to appointments being made to senior management and executive positions. It is also well-know that many companies and businesses covertly avoid appointing or promoting women aged between 25 and 35 to key roles anticipating that they may well need time away with paid maternity leave while they have children and commit to family life.

It’s one thing to be able to pinpoint and identify likely sources of criticism and conflict but what is more important is that we handle such incidents in ways that are effective and godly. Some criticisms can of course be ignored. Proverbs 19 verse 11 says, ‘It is a glory to overlook a fault’. As has been frequently said, ‘it’s wise to avoid the custard syndrome and not get upset by trifles’. In other words we ensure we don’t make mole hills into mountains!

It’s vital always that issues are dealt with quickly and not left to simmer below the surface. Management studies have highlighted the increased tension which is often caused by ‘pusseyfoot’. Wounds which are left to drag on unconfronted can produce ugly sores. Jesus was very clear in his Sermon on the Mount that if we are aware of even the smallest festering difference with anyone, sorting it out is an immediate priority. Such action must always be resolved before we attend worship. Matters of conflict are always best done in person (see Matthew 18:15-17). It’s best to avoid Email, letter and telephone as these often take longer and can create further misunderstanding.

There are clearly other measures that can be put in place to help resolve conflict. One of the easiest ways to defuse a situation is to get the issue out into the open. Proverbs 27 verse 5 advises that ‘better is an open rebuke than hidden love’. If a matter becomes too hard to handle it may well be wise to submit the matter to a third party. We catch hints of this in Jesus’ instruction and principle that church members who are aggrieved should bring the matter to their church leaders. Finally, clear communication is always vital if conflict is to be avoided. Many public corporations now advocate the practice of ‘mirroring’. This procedure involves repeating back verbally or in writing any given course of action. This enables the one who issued the instruction to see if the recipient has understood the matter in the way he or she intended.

Conflict is a huge issue and a small piece like this can hardly even begin to scratch the surface. That said, if we’re Christians we must be constantly mindful that Jesus, our great God and Saviour, came to overcome and heal up conflict. On the cross he broke the barriers of sin and selfishness which lie at the roots of conflict and divide us. In their place he brought peace and reconciliation. Above all we must pray for the Lord’s wisdom and help in all situations of conflict knowing that he is able to do far more than we can ask or imagine!

Nigel Scotland
Trinity College
Bristol