Conflict in small groups is not the least bit amusing. We don’t like conflict for some very good reasons and for some very shaky reasons. Take a look with me at some of those good reasons. Then we’ll examine some strategies to deal with conflict.
- Conflict is plainly unsettling for many of us. When differences arise, we begin to dislike each other and suspect other people’s motives or agendas. We even lose our tempers. Then we begin feeling distant from others we once liked or with whom we must relate. Sometimes interpersonal communication seriously dries up.
- Conflict, we’d like to believe, should be avoided, especially among believers and surely among people who are psychologically, romantically, or spiritually close. Early in their marriage, one couple declared they would have no differences. To them, differences were too painful. When those inevitable differences did begin to emerge, they thought their relationship was defective. Their thinking was defective—defective in believing the myth that conflict is to be suppressed and seldom acknowledged.
- Conflict is someone else’s fault. Blaming someone else preserves our own ego, so we do it with some ease. When we automatically look for a culprit rather than examine the disagreement at hand, we’re being naive and unfair. Anytime we have a small group or committee of just four or five, we can predict that differences will emerge. And why not? Our diversity marks and preserves our uniqueness and value.
- Conflict can be resolved. Honestly? Sometimes it can’t. For that matter, some differences can quite easily remain unresolved. I think that’s especially the case in matters of preference, policies, or plans.Those are all negotiable—compromisable. Matters of value and belief, of course, are not.
- Balance is best. When one person happens to have a preference over matters of choice, that settles it. Eating out is a perfect example. If one has a choice, why argue? But consider this caution: If the preferences of one person are consistently honored, a kind of subservient imbalance in the relationship may exist. Worse yet, one person in the relationship may have no opinions at all. That may be an unhealthy imbalance, too.
Conflict is not an amusing experience. It’s painful; but it’s manageable. Conflict management is part of successful leadership.
A good resource is Discovering the Leader Within, by Randy Fujishin (San Francisco: Acada Books, 1997).
Given those views of conflict, can we discover some understandings and strategies that help us manage those moments of inevitable conflict? I think so. Let’s review some that work:
- Recognize. It’s useful to recognize that people in a small group who insist on resolving differences may feel an inordinate need to be controllers. Perhaps another explanation for this behavior is that unresolved differences are just too painful to deal with for some of us. This may be more true of women than men.
- Unearth. Consider that conflict may arise as the result of someone’s “hidden agenda.” The term refers to the private or unspoken wishes of a group member who may have something to gain from the group process and decision.
I recall working at a General Conference session with a major church broadcasting figure. At our first staff session, he virtually insisted on having a prominent office on site in the auditorium. His reason? “To have access to daily happenings,” he said. Later, it became clear he wanted to be in a spot easily located when and if he were elected to a major post. He wasn’t.
- Defer. Not all differences have to be settled now. Hot issues and hot people often need cooling off. Getting an agreement to do so usually can be achieved by group consensus.
- Reframe. In touchy situations, try a famous technique. Paraphrase or restate in other words what you’ve heard a person say. Leaders, do this accurately and briefly—no long explanation. I’ve found it helps defuse tense moments in small groups and tense interpersonal interactions.
- Respond. Ask the person (with whom you or others in the group have a difference) to offer a solution. But keep the voice and tone as neutral as you can. Pushing or forcing a solution or compliance may demean some group members or even alienate others.
The point is not to avoid conflict but to manage differences. And an optimum way to manage, according to contemporary group practices, is to work for win-win conditions. This means the group reaches members’ goals without compromising them. While not always practical, it’s a goal nonetheless.
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists