The ominous moment has arrived. For some time, you have been concerned about the behavior of an employee and how he or she is affecting the performance of your team. Other team members have been complaining and you notice their eye-rolling and exasperated sighs whenever his or her name is mentioned. You’ve been anticipating that a difficult conversation is coming, but you keep hoping that somehow, he or she will catch on before the awkward conversation begins. This individual would otherwise have great talent, but this “one thing” (or perhaps several things!) seems to get in the way of truly unlocking the value they can bring to the team. You know that, as anxious as you feel, a heart-to-heart conversation is inevitable and necessary to realign this individual to the team’s core values and reinforce your expectations of their performance. You know that if you truly care about this individual and the team, you must have that hard conversation.
A few years ago, I had to have a hard conversation with a colleague who had generated much angst in the organization because of his inconsistent responsiveness. It seemed that anyone who depended on him for their work often experienced frustrating silence on his end. In fact, I often wondered if my emails to him ended up in a black hole! Often his colleagues would resort to contacting members of his team to get some kind of answer – any answer! – to at least take a next step. But even they would usually respond with the dreaded words, “You’ll have to talk to him about that.”
Now, confrontational conversations are not my forte. I would rather suffer in silence than to face the emotionally-laden conversations where the other’s response is unpredictable. I can usually tolerate a high level of ambiguity and inconvenience. But to my detriment, I will let my unspoken annoyance fester over time as the anger stretches taut like a rubber band. With one simple trigger, all that latent anger snaps.
For years, I avoided an honest conversation with him about this behavior and its effect on the wider team. I made excuses for him while, at the same time, tried to speculate what was the problem. But with only speculation to go on, I began to craft my own mental narrative of the behavior. This person who I respected very much suddenly became an obstacle to me and to the organization’s goals. I assumed that he was inconsiderate and obtuse to the needs of the wider team; that he refused to empower his own team to act; and that he was simply doing too much on his own. Over time, the story became so deeply entrenched in my imagination that I was actually incapable of conceiving of any alternative possibility.
Unfortunately, the rubber band snapped! In a moment of triggered frustration and careless anger, I attacked him with a pronouncement of his faults. And with that spark, the culmination of years of frustration exploded for me in one unfortunate flashpoint. Needless to say, this reaction did not foster dialogue, empathy, and resolution that one generally hopes to achieve in difficult conversations! The result was hard feelings, contempt, and a broken relationship.
What went wrong? I failed to handle the confrontation in three ways. First, I failed to ask for his perspective of the behavior I and others has observed. Second, I failed to appreciate what was truly good about him – his talents, intellect, wisdom, and successes – and affirm his contributions to the organization’s mission. And finally, I failed to understand and appeal to what he really desired his leadership to be for himself and others.
Why Does Conflict Matter?
Most people experience conflict as an unwelcome distraction at best or a disastrous obstacle at worst. Conflict seems to come out of nowhere and threaten our idealized sense of order, of ourselves, and of progress. Conflict happens – it is inevitable. Yet, when it happens, we often feel surprised, perplexed, and baffled. Why did this happen? Why me? Why now? Sometimes we regard conflict as something we must get past so that we can get on with what we wanted to do in the first place. Or worse, we regard it as a hazard that will leave us bruised and bleeding.
But isn’t it interesting that conflict provokes such heightened emotions and strong reactions? Conflict has the power to engage our whole selves – heart, mind, soul, and body. How do we account for this phenomenon? I believe it is because conflict gets to the core of what makes us truly human. Conflict management is a creational activity rooted in our God-given calling to bear his image and to be fruitful and multiply.
Consider the first chapter of Genesis. The biblical text introduces to us the original world we inhabit as formless and void (Gen. 1:2, English Standard Version). But within that context, we see the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2). Throughout the Bible, “the waters” is associated with chaos and disorder, an “uncreated” state. But out of this disorder, God begins to create order and fill that order with sun and moon, seasons, fish, birds, animals, and finally people. But God’s creation of people is special – he pronounces something unique over them. He makes them “in his image” and blesses them with a mandate:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on earth. (Gen. 1:27-28)
Author Andy Crouch writes that the God we meet in Genesis 1 is a source of limitless creativity whose ordering carves out a habitable space so that his image-bearers can continue his creative work. The man and woman find themselves in the midst of a world already created, and consequently, in the midst of a story already unfolding. Every day, by our design and vocation as God’s image-bearers, we take the world as its given to us and continue to weave a story that reflects the creative glory of our Creator.
And it is a love story! Love constitutes our essential nature and how we orient ourselves to the world we live in – the meanings and passions that give us a sense of purpose. Philosopher James K. A. Smith argues that humans are primarily “desiring animals.” He concludes that what makes us who we are is formed by what we ultimately love and envision as a flourishing life. So primary are our hearts and affections that they serve as the basis for how we take the world around us – our worldviews – and how we live in it. What we love spins a rich story upon our lives – full of heroes, villains, and happy endings – and moves us to creative activities that act out that story in the world we inhabit. No wonder God commands his people, his image-bearers, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5)!
When a story so captures our hearts that it fuels our dreams, desires, and priorities, it must be expressed in the day-to-day ways in which we order our lives and relationships! Therefore, love-driven creative activity requires courageous heroism. It compels a journey of adventurous risk-taking to seek out what our hearts ultimately desire. Leadership author and consultant Chris Lowney proposes that love-driven leaders “image an inspiring future and strive to shape it rather than passively watching the future happen around them.” This same passion and commitment must drive our hearts in the daily pursuit of what we love, but even more so when the lurking shadows of disorder and chaos threaten to undo what we’ve created. Far from being a distraction or an inconvenience, then, conflict provides opportunities to rally all our creative energies to seek resolution that fills our culture with a beautiful and redemptive new arc to the unfolding story – an ever-clearer vision of a flourishing life and how we get there.
Where There is No Vision…
Such a lofty vision of conflict management may seem unrealistic when we find ourselves in the messiness of real-life conflict. All the formulas, three-easy-steps, or best practices seem empty when the complexity of emotions, personalities, relationships, and competing values or priorities converge in a perfect storm of chaos to which any prefabricated answer feels one-dimensional and trite. Yet, a grand vision is necessary to promote conflict management that creates healthy cultures and builds healthy teams.
Let’s consider what happens in our brains when conflict occurs. Our mental life is constructed of two different ways of knowing. Our rational minds operate out of the brain’s neocortex and give us the capacity for awareness, logical analysis, and reflective thought. Our emotional minds, on the other hand, are ruled by the more primitive part of our brains – the limbic system, and more precisely, the amygdala. The amygdala acts as a storehouse of emotional memory and allows us to gauge the emotional significance of events. When our rational and emotional minds are integrated and work in harmony, they allow us to navigate through the world successfully. The hippocampus, associated with learning, takes in the dry facts of a situation and allows us to overlay both rational and emotional significance to those facts. However, when we find ourselves in emotionally charged circumstances, such as conflict, the amygdala takes over and primes our bodies to devote more of its resources toward either fight, flight, or freeze reactions. The amygdala immediately hijacks our hippocampus so we “think” in a disintegrated way with more energies devoted to reaction than to learning. Consequently, a more emotionally intelligent response to conflict requires us to reintegrate our rational and emotional minds so that we can learn from the conflict and set our course once again toward our bigger goals.
This is where a strong vision is so important. In Philippians 4:2-3, the apostle Paul wrote to the leaders of the church in Philippi urging two women in conflict, women with whom Paul deeply respects as co-laborers in the Gospel, to agree in the Lord. And he encourages the other leaders to help them find that agreement. But Paul did not provide step-by-step instructions for how they should handle the conflict. Rather, he appealed to a grander vision of the Lord’s nearness:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippines 4:4-9)
Paul told them to keep their eyes on the bigger picture – to remain emotionally and rationally integrated – so that the conflict did not narrow their perspective and affect their capacity to respond creatively. The anxiety he instructed them to reject would only limit their vision. In neurological terms, it would hijack their physical and spiritual resources and devote them to fight, flight, or freeze reactions. If indulged, these reactions would destroy their emerging Gospel culture and sacrifice their vision of community life as God’s people. Paul’s sage advice to think on everything just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise would have effectively reintegrated their rational and emotional minds so that they would retain a sharper vision during their conflict and steward it toward the peace that makes for a flourishing culture.
So, vision is the important first step in approaching those hard conversations. Vision allows us to think and communicate in an integrated manner – rational and emotional working together in an effective harmony that brings the best out of the conversation and in each other. More specifically, the vision provides the master story which can anchor the conversation and focus dialogue on together creating a fresh arc to the master story.
Effective conflict stewardship, then, is essentially about rewriting the script together. When emotion-laden conflict emerges, the amygdala triggers its emotional memory databank to pull up the predetermined script of what’s happening so that it can command the body to react. But stepping back a moment to reflect on the situation allows the mind to reintegrate. We can identify the script motivating our reactions, sometimes even dredging it up from our hidden subconscious, and reflect on its potency over us. The time of reflection reintegrates our emotional and rational minds to gain productive learning. From this reintegrated vantage point, we can re-enter the conversation with the goal of rewriting the script together.
A script had formed in my mind about my colleague, and it was reinforced over time. This is called the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to blame others’ actions on their personality (“he didn’t respond because he is inconsiderate”) while we blame our own actions on our circumstances (“I didn’t respond because I was in meetings all day”). The fundamental attribution error is disintegrated thinking that sabotages effective conversations during conflict.
The following are a few ways to re-integrate your emotional and rational minds to avoid fundamental attribution errors:
1. Getting the log out of your own eyes. Begin by focusing not on the other person’s behavior but on your own. Consider in what ways you may have contributed to the conflict, whether in thought, word, or action. This may include fundamental attribution errors you may have made about them! Be prepared to admit your contributions to the conflict specifically and honestly. And be ready to confess humbly to the other person with a commitment to change.
2. Ask questions rather than make statements. Making statements can come across judgmentally and can risk the safety of the conversation. Remember, you want to rewrite the story together. You need their perspectives to rewrite a better story. Important questions to ask include what the other person wants from the conversation, from your relationship, and from your work together. Understanding the other’s interests opens up awareness of areas of agreement and shared goals upon which a stronger relationship can be built.
3. Focus on the “Third Thing.” If not well stewarded, conflict can easily degenerate into a contest between you and the other person. Instead, fruitful and creative conflict resolution focuses on “us” language – what “we” can build together. Focusing together on a “third thing,” such as a mutual goal, vision, or desired relationship allows “us” to move toward the same side, rather than opposing sides, to get what we both want.
Peacemaking as Culture-Making
When I think back on the conflict with my colleague, I realize that I had an opportunity to create understanding that strengthened our relationship and our mutual desire to make our organization’s mission successful. Thankfully, we have reconciled the relationship. Yet, through this painful encounter, I have learned that communication in conflict requires the utmost vigilance to write a better story together, one that calls out the highest in each other so that we can aim toward the vision of the Gospel for which God calls us to creative culture-making through a peacemaking community. Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), p. 22.  Ibid.  Robin L. Routledge, “Did God Create Chaos?: Unresolved Tension in Genesis 1:1-2” Tyndale Bulletin 61 (no. 1): 85-87.  Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), Kindle edition, p. 21.  Crouch, Culture Making, p. 22.  Ibid.  James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), Kindle edition, p. 26.  Ibid.  Ibid.  James K. A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), p. 59.  Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World (Chicago: LoyolaPress, 2003), p. 33.  Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (New York: Bantam Books, 1995), p. 8.  Ibid. p. 8-12.  Ibid. p. 10, 15.  Ibid. p. 15.  Ibid. p. 9.  Ibid. p. 20-21.  Ibid.  Andrew Johnston, “Making the Most of Conflict and Difficult Conversations.” Workshop, Christian Leadership Alliance Outcomes Conference, Dallas, April 18, 2018.  Enyonam Kudonoo, Kathy Schroeder, & Sheila Boysen-Rotelli, “An Olympic Transformation: Creating an Organizational Culture that Promotes Healthy Conflict,” Organizational Development Journal 30 (no. 2): p. 55.  Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, & All Switzler, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), p. 98-99.  Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007), p. 42.  Sande, The Peacemaker, p. 234.  Andrew Johnston, “Making the Most of Conflict and Difficult Conversations.” Workshop, Christian Leadership Alliance Outcomes Conference, Dallas, April 18, 2018.