leadership and conflict...it's going to happen

I know that some of you break into hives and get the shakes when you hear the word “conflict".  When you think of someone being upset with you, your heart rate goes up, the adrenaline starts pumping and you are on high alert. 


Personally, I don’t mind conflict with another person. I have started to accept that it is going to be a part of my life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not pleasant to feel like there is a disconnect with my wife, friend, colleague, or child.  I am usually a happy, positive person. I like to be in surroundings where there is peace, love, and contentment.  Nonetheless, I have chosen to acknowledge that conflict is going to happen from time to time in my life.  Instead of fearing it, I am trying to get better and better at it. 


Because we are people, we have preferences, opinions and a past.  All of those ingredients collide from time to time in our homes, in the work place and definitely within leadership.  Sometimes this collision causes pain, stress and hurt.  I found early in my life and career that I wasn’t really prepared for the heartache that comes with conflict.  I read tons of books and practiced genuine care in hard situations.  I didn't always get the outcome that I had hoped for.  I hope some of these thoughts are helpful for you in your current reality.  


When conflict arises, I believe, it is up to the leader to lead and help others experience resolution in the relationship.  Handling conflict is experienced in two facets: principle and process.  The principle in which we handle conflict is always the same for the person of faith: Matthew 18:15-17.  If you are not a person of faith, I still believe these wisdom principles will help you in your life, friendships and work place.  


In Matthew, we have been given a Biblical principle and a “process” (how) to live out the Biblical principle.  This truth is what guides us and helps us as leaders, parents and friends.  In the Scripture, after we experience conflict or disagreement we: 


  1. Go to the person privately and talk with them sharing our hurt and the offense.
  2. If unsuccessful in resolving the conflict, Scripture encourages us to take another person to the meeting to help and possibly confirm, mediate and resolve the offense.
  3. If resolution still has not taken place, take it to the church and church leadership (in the work force this would be your supervisor, HR representative or whatever level of leadership has been established in your place of work).
  4. If resolution still has not taken place after the above leadership has decided what is right, treat the person as a corrupt (hard-hearted, stiff-necked or un-teachable) person.


I know, this sounds so simple, a cut and dry approach.  It may also seem harsh. Remember, it is a process based in wisdom from our Creator.  What might also help is our perspective on understanding people.    


There is a certain lens we need to look through when leading others, particularly when it comes to this topic of conflict.  This view may give us the confidence and the grace to lead others.  Leaders lead and take the responsibility to bring about resolution in a relationship. Here are some things to consider or steps in a process to help bring about a resolution.  


1. Conflict is Accumulative. That is, when a person is expressing hurt feelings it is a compilation of many hurts from the past.  These hurts accumulate and intensify the emotions that they are experiencing. Knowing this may enable you to approach the meeting with more grace towards the individual and not to take everything that has been said personally.  This also helps us have a level of trust with one another. If you are not being verbally attacked and feel the need to protect, this perspective helps you have compassion.  Life is hard.  Sometimes we just need someone else to acknowledge our emotions. 


2. Listen.  Listen to what they are saying by asking the question in your mind, “Why are they saying what they are saying to me?”  I have found that it is helpful to try and understand why a person is hurt, what they are trying to express through their hurt and why they are so upset.  Allow the person to be heard and understood.  Because conflict is accumulative, there is always more to the story…more assumptions, more information to be revealed.  Finding out more helps fill in the blanks. 


3. Process.  Process in your mind what they are saying to you, how they speak to you and how you are to speak to them.  Take time to process what is said for understanding and how to approach them in the future.  Thinking is somewhat of a lost art.  This is an opportunity for depth and growth in the relationship.  It’s a gift to be known by another human being. Take time to think critically about what is going on and understand their feelings and emotions. 


4. Follow-up and Resolve.  Apologize where necessary, and ask for forgiveness.  State the hurt and not the anger. Affirm the relationship.  Remember, resolving is not an event but a process.  Follow up by contacting the individual after a few days or so and affirming them and the value of the relationship that you have with them.  Trust is rebuilt as affirmation and time have taken place in the relationship.  Obviously, you may come to an impasse and "agree to disagree."  Sometimes the relationship is toxic and should no longer continue.   Use wisdom and the counsel of trusted friendships to help you navigate what you should do.   


One last thing I would like to share with you. Often, there are three types of viewpoints to understand in resolving conflict.  Most people fall into one of these  three preferences.  Knowing this will guide you in the “timing” of helping yourself and others reconcile. This topic is always entertaining for my wife and me.  Of course we are opposites!  So we have to come up with a way that works for both of us.  You may need to do the same with those you work with or lead.  Yet, it’s still good to have these perspectives. 


Instant Resolvers. There are those who want to resolve the conflict instantly and talk about the relationship right away.  There is a need to have the relationship the way it was and at peace.  They have to resolve the relationship the sooner the better.  There is an inability to handle ambiguity and disagreement.  They have to talk now


Eventual Resolvers.  Those who need time to think about what has just happened and desire to process before they communicate their thoughts or position.  There is a need to understand what has just taken place in order to resolve the relationship. Eventual Resolvers will eventually get around to talking about the relationship.  They can handle ambiguity and will find a time to talk when they are ready….eventually.


Never Resolvers.  Those who after conflict will not resolve the relationship.  There is an inability to have a relationship after a disagreement or there is no care to continue the relationship.   So the individual dissolves the relationship.  Never Resolvers do not want the relationship anymore or are not willing to reengage.   In this case conversations cease.  It’s unfinished and probably will not get ironed out. 


In case you were wondering, in my marriage, my wife is an instant resolver and I am an eventual resolver.  You can guess how that goes if we don’t work at it…. 


I know it’s not pleasant if there isn’t harmony in relationships.  I hope these thoughts help you in your leadership and in your life.  


It’s my heart and passion to help leaders live out their calling and thrive.  I want to be one of those leaders, too. I believe that your best days are before you.  We all need a little coaching, encouragement, wisdom, and help.  We can’t accomplish our goals in isolation or always on our own.  We need each other.  It’s time to thrive.  Let’s do it together.  You are not alone. Click here to set up a Discovery Coaching call.        


- Rick