We all experience conflict throughout our lives. Conflict with colleagues. Conflict with friends. Conflict with family. And that conflict really affects us, it gets inside our heads and gnaws away at us when we would rather be focused on other things.
Simply put, when conflict isn’t properly addressed, we aren’t able to give the best version of ourselves to our family or friends, our work or our clients.
I recently read a guide to conflict resolution by Mary Yerkes for Focus on the Family, looking at all different kinds of conflict, case studies in conflict resolution, and specific strategies for resolving our interpersonal conflicts. Settling these conflicts is important: she quotes from the Sermon on the Mount that “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you…first go and be reconciled to them” before you do anything else. So today I want to share the 7 practical tips for actually doing that.
First, define the problem and stick to the issue. When you’re trying to work out a conflict with someone else, you need to stay on topic. You can’t bring in a host of other issues, past problems, or even brand new disagreements. To resolve a specific conflict, you have to focus on that specific conflict.
Second, pursue purity of heart. What she means here is that you need to examine yourself first before you confront the other person. Has anything you’ve done contributed to the conflict? Have you made the same mistake? Don’t approach conflict resolution from a place of self-righteousness.
Third, plan a time for the discussion. This is going to be a serious conversation, so make sure you’re both able to dedicate the time and energy you’ll need. Don’t try to do this when either one of you will be distracted by other obligations, or under stress that could exacerbate the problem.
Fourth, affirm the relationship. Don’t just launch into an attack. Make it clear at the very beginning that the reason you’re having this conversation is because you care about the other person and your relationship with them. Aim for mutual understanding, not to “win.”
Fifth, listen carefully. You already know your own perspective on the conflict. But be open and listen to the other person’s perspective as well. Make it clear that you’re engaged with what they’re saying, and try to repeat in your own words what they say, so that you can get further clarification if there’s still a miscommunication.
Sixth, forgive. If you’re going to resolve a conflict, then everything needs to be forgiven and truly put aside. You can’t continue dwelling on the problem even after you claim to have resolved it. You can’t keep bringing it up with others. You can’t store it in your mental record book and pull it forth again the next time you have an argument. If something is forgiven, it must be truly and completely forgiven.
Finally, propose a solution. She quotes Philippians 2:4 – “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Find a resolution that acknowledges both sides and is satisfactory to everyone involved.
Now this process will be effective with most people. But sometimes, there are toxic people in our lives. They don’t respond when we try to engage. They don’t change their behavior. They blame others rather than listening. They’re consistently hurtful, abusive, neglectful, deceptive—and don’t seem to care. Mary Yerkes discusses a three-step process developed by clinical social worker and author Leslie Vernick for when you encounter and have conflict with people like that.
First, speak up. This is going to involve a similar process to what we already went over—or at least an attempt. Go with gentleness and humility, but also be honest about the problems you’re seeing.
Second, stand up. If the other person refuses to listen, get additional help. Find other people who are important to them, one or two, who will stand alongside you and back up what you’re saying.
Finally, if they still refuse to listen and change, then it’s time to step back from the relationship. It’s the strongest way of communicating that what’s happening is unacceptable and wrong. That will limit the damage to your own life, but also send a clear message encouraging the other person to finally make changes and improve their own life, too.