Conflict can be a good thing!

Dr. W. Craig Gilliam JustPeace Staff CollectiveOne of my problems is that I internalize everything.
I can’t express anger;  I grow a tumor instead.

~~Woody Allen

All the arts we practice are apprenticeship.
The big art is our life.

~~M.C. Richards

As we explore and invite conflict transformation, what is the core metaphor bubbling up from which we imagine such a possibility? What do we imagine?  Are we after unity and harmony or a large enough space and strong enough container to hold variety and multiplicity?  It seems to me that unity and harmony are boring, while variety and multiplicity are ripe  with struggle, exploration, excitement and evolutionary possibilities.

~~Craig Gilliam

In his national best-selling book, The Advantage:  Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, Patrick Lencioni reminds us that “Once organizational (community) health is properly understood and placed into the right context, it will surpass all other disciplines in business as the greatest opportunity for improvement.”  (p. 4) Watching how congregations, communities and other organizations deal with anxiety, conflict and differences is a key indicator of their health and vitality.

Because dealing with conflict and perceptions of threat are so deeply wired into our and the collective psyche of a community or congregation, it takes great awareness, effort and intentionality to change the way we are and function during those challenging times.

Transformation through conflict in congregations, communities and other organizations can happen.  I have seen communities move up on the scale of self-differentiation and become healthier and more impacting on the community within and the world around them. I have experienced those communities who can navigate those difficult waters; who can engage conflict well and allow it to invite them to a deeper way of being as a community.  But too many times, I have encountered congregations and communities who do not engage conflict well; who reactively fight, flight or freeze.

In reaction to the anxiety, too often, I have found congregations obsessively avoiding conflict and striving for harmony at all cost, which is never or rarely on the side of building deeper, healthier communities. In Lencioni’s words, “The fear of conflict is almost always a sign of problems.”  (p. 38)  Granted, timing and context are critical to dealing with anxiety and conflict, and sometimes temporary avoidance can be an acceptable and wise strategy. But the phrase used above is “obsessively avoiding conflict” to the point that the time and context never arrive to name the elephant, deal with the issue(s) or have the difficult conversation.

Many people, ministers included, do not like conflict and disagreement. When confronted with personnel conflicts, mistakes in judgment, differences of opinion, or straight-on failure, too often we try to manage the situation by bringing about agreement, order and “peacefulness.”  At first glance, that seems appropriate—even obvious.  Who wouldn’t want some calmness instead of frustration, and agreement instead of discord?  But more often than not, what is needed when dealing with conflict is courage, not harmony, and the strength, integrity and humility to care deeply and to walk responsibly.  In a spirit of calmness, attentive presence, compassion and awareness, leaders are to speak the truth (or their insight) in love (Ephesians 4:15).  Or in Arrien Angeles’ words, to “speak the truth without blame or judgment?”

In his book, Managerial Courage, Harvey Hornstein concluded from his research that seeking harmony in communities and organizations (and congregations), while worthy at times, is often a primary killer of innovation, initiative and creativity.  I would add that seeking harmony at all cost erodes trust and deep connections between and among people in the congregation or organization. He writes:

In an effort to achieve harmony, groups often homogenize individual behavior and opinion into undifferentiated, pale, inoffensive substance.  In this way, consensus replaces diversity as a characteristic of the group’s life. . . .Through a succession of concessions, prompted by the desire to avoid conflict and achieve harmony, each person yields a little so that the agreements which result are no one’s and everyone’s.  What often emerges under the pressure to get along, be nice and work and play well together is an uncontroversial package of rules about how to act and what to think, distinguished only be their blandness . . . . Individual acts of managerial courage often require “breaking step with the troops.”  They challenge popular, established practices and familiar routines.  Courageous initiatives frequently spark conflict, disrupting organizational harmony.  Such conflict is one of the principal organizational benefits of managerial courage.  When properly managed, conflict focuses choices, aids commitment, elevates thinking and sharpens issues.  Productive conflict, by continually juxtaposing organizational options, can be an enormous aid to organizational growth and progress. (pp. 98 – 102)

In short, when we overlook, avoid, or even dismiss the intelligent edge of conflict, we find ourselves allowing harmony to anesthetize our creative thinking, clear seeing, and skillful action.

In Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations, David R. Brubacker points out,  “Some disagreement and conflict provides energy and generates ideas, but too much conflict becomes destructive.  When an organization has too little conflict, it may need to be encouraged, and when an organization has too much conflict it may need to be reduced.  In the middle of this curve, however lies an optimal level of conflict where most organizations seem to thrive  (Alban Institute, 2009, p. 106).  In an anxious, conflicted congregation with which I was working one of the leaders commented, “Our homeostasis is conflict.  We are always in severe conflict; that seems to be how we relate.  What we need is a new homeostasis or at least some time of peaceful waters to catch our breath.”   In other words, balance and blend of conflict and calm times are optimal for any congregation and other organizations.

Rushing toward harmony and avoiding conflict can have a dire impact on how we grow, develop and deepen as a community of faith and other organizations as can rushing to it too quickly and often.

My son told me a story of him and a group of associates at his workplace being given a high level project.  The team was in a room together when given the assignment, told by when it was needed, which was quickly, then left to come up with a plan to carry out the project.

All of them began to struggle for the best plan.  He said that all in the room were high achievers, A type personalities, and the tension was thick.  People were arguing, debating, and suggesting ideas and ways forward.  Even when the temptation was to walk away, they stayed with it.  Finally, in time, they agreed on a process and plan.

The next day after they had finished, the supervisors brought them together to debrief.  My son said, “The first thing the supervisors said was that your being frustrated and the tensions high was expected.  In fact, we would have been more concerned had you not had the tense engagements and debates, for the heat tells us that you are invested in the outcome; it suggests that you care.”  (He was normalizing the anxiety.)

The supervisor continued, “You are some of our brightest and best achievers.  Anyone of you could have probably come up with a good plan or process that would work in this situation, but we believed that together, your plan would even be better.  As you stated your ideas and were challenged by each other, it made you rethink your own stance.  As you talked and argued, a third other idea began to emerge that was better than any of the original ones coming from you by yourself.  The collective wisdom is greater than the mind of one.

Our greatest concern was not conflict, anxiety and disequilibrium.  Those are natural when you are honest, invested and care.  Granted, we have to be responsible in how we express our feelings.  Seeing how deeply you all cared and wanted to succeed is something on which we knew we could build.”

The supervisor commented that our greatest concern was that after you decided your path that you could walk out of here and support each other on the decisions and continue to adapt to the changing phenomenon as they arise.

You walked out of here closer and in a deeper place with one another than how you entered and it happened because of the courage you had to stay at the table, speak your insights and see the project through.

This story is an example of a group who was willing to risk superficial harmony for deeper, bolder, more courageous intentions.  They believed that the answers they were seeking were already within their midst.  They simply needed to have the time, space and a strong enough container to hold as it emerged.   Variety and multiplicity were invited.  Granted, some overt agreements about how they would be together might have helped, but they got to where they needed to get without them.

Avoiding conflict produces harmony of sorts, but not without its shadow side.  When being predictably polite, avoiding honesty and candor is like placing plastic flowers in a hotel room.  We buy into a phony sense of prettiness and relief.  Authenticity and genuineness are lost.  We settle for comfort and being free from irritation rather than positive, soulful impact, transformation, being agile and fostering creativity.  Over time, the shadow side is that complacency lulls us to sleep, and we become increasingly willing to ignore what needs our attention, avoid what needs to be said, avoid naming the elephants in the room, and discourage what needs encouraging.  Honest relationships become lost and superficial or disingenuous connections become the norm.

When we find the courage to create a culture where conflict is accepted and engage others and ourselves constructively with dignity and respect, we discover that having an edge is an asset.  Rather than accepting a false harmony where frustrations languish just below the surface, our edge reveals a fearless, courageous harmony—a spacious kind of joy and dignity arising out of hard work, respectful candor and belief in the collective wisdom.

Well beyond the mere comfort, this fearless harmony and courageous way of  being together is about appreciating and living the human edge—the richness of harmony that grows out of diversity accepted and struggled through, the “I” and the “we” interacting, strengthening, broadening and deepening– the fleeting joy of harmony, the lusciousness of harmony and its many nuances.  To live at this edge invites us to engage elephants, ironies, complex duplicities, paradox and conflict and attend to what needs our attention in the moment, speaking skillfully when we need to be heard, listening deeply to both what is being said and what remains unsaid, and encouraging what is healthy, mature, responsible and inspiring.

As we explore and invite conflict transformation, what is the core metaphor bubbling up from which we imagine such a possibility? What do we imagine?  Are we after unity and harmony or a large enough space and strong enough container to hold variety and multiplicity?  It seems to me that unity and harmony can be boring, while variety and multiplicity ripen us for exploration, excitement and evolutionary possibilities.  As my friend and colleague Stephanie Hixon, Executive Director of JustPeace, says, “God’s embrace is wide enough, strong enough and tender enough to hold us, our conversations and this space.”

Two theological images that support a strong enough container to hold and a diversity and multiplicity in the midst of oneness are, first, Jesus and the disciples.  The band of people Jesus gathered at the last meal were of different backgrounds, ideologies, cultures, strategies, politics, agenda’s, etc.  Yet, those are the ones to whom Jesus turned and the ones he believed could help continue the way. Their variety and multiplicity model a broad and deep enough space and strong enough container that holds, even as it is shaped and reshaped by the fires of difficult human experiences.

A second theological image that contains and holds multiplicity, variety and complexity together is the Trinity.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three and one is a depth theology, a kind of theo-poetics.  When the early church chose this image of three and one, it was the most complicated and difficult to explain, but it was true to their experience.  As an image rooted in our collective theological imagination, the Trinity gives body to those paradoxes unknown and unknowable all held together in one image or container.  It holds a different dimension, a dimension of otherness, of soulfulness and of depth that can hold tensions, opposites and polarities.  This complex image that is rooted in our Christian theology and human experience holds oneness in the midst of complexity, diversity, variety and multiplicity.  The space is large enough and the container strong enough to hold.  This Trinitarian image can inform the way we live in community, have difficult conversation and engage conflict constructively in all of its and the peoples’ conscious and unconscious intentions, variety, complexity and multiplicity.  The container can hold.

Creating and living in a culture that engages conflict well reminds us that living is not about being free from tension, anxiety, complexity and conflict but about being free to live life fully and to engage deeply in it.  The mysterious God is at work in the betweenness of our deep engagements, relationships and connections.  Thou meets us in this space and invites us to this holy other way—a soulful way of variety, complexity and multiplicity, not just unity and harmony.

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation.


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