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some of us are really good at navigating conflict in relationships, but many of us hate conflict. look at a list of “adult children of alcoholics” and you will read my mail! at the top of the list is avoiding conflict. for many of us, we haven’t had a lot of examples of healthy conflict in relationships. we tend to avoid problems and issues and accept “it’s just the way it is” instead of trying to work through differences and get to greater intimacy. often, we think it’s just our problem.
underneath most of our fear of conflict is a fear of being abandoned or rejected. we are afraid if we rock the boat, it might tip over and we’ll lose anything we had in the first place. and the truth is, sometimes we do! if we are in relationship with unsafe people (or unsafe systems), conflict just won’t work. i have learned that the hard way, too.
for the sake of this friendship conversation, we are talking about engaging with people who are trying to get better at it, too.
the truth is that without conflict, we really don’t have intimacy, which is what we long for & are afraid of at the same time.
real relationships will always have some degree of tension in them; that’s what make them meaningful.
- how do you feel about conflict? are you comfortable with it? why or why not?
think of some past friendships that maybe you don’t have any longer for one reason or another.
- did avoiding conflict lead to the shift somehow? If so, how?
- if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
conflict is a skill that is learned and practice over time. each situation is unique. each relationship is different. but there are some practical skills that can help us strengthen our ability to engage in conflict with one another.
the best starting point is to evaluate “what is bothering me in this relationship?” or “what doesn’t feel right?” or “what is sucking life out of it instead of energizing it?”
identifying it is important, because then we need to discern whether any action is necessary beyond just reconciling it in our own hearts. that’s the next question: “what part is ours and has nothing to do with the other person?” “what do we need to own?” “how are our own character defects or woundedness at play here?”
seeking our hearts and asking for God’s help is really important. then, often, we need to get input from another wise, safe person on what some possibilities might be to engage the problem with our friend. every situation is unique, so it’s difficult to say exactly how each hard conversation should go, but we brainstormed together and added to a few ideas from cloud & townsend’s boundaries face to face that can be helpful:
in friendship conflicts, it’s good to:
- remain open and humble.
- stay with “i” instead of “you”.
- be clear in our own mind as much as possible before engaging.
- clarify the problem (the nature of the problem, effects of the problem, and desire for change)
- balance grace and truth; when in doubt, go with grace.
- concentrate on feelings, not thoughts, and identify and own our feelings clearly.
- be specific, be specific, be specific.
- stay away from “always” and “never”
- affirm the relationship.
- apologize for our part of the problem.
- be open to possible solutions.
- clarify the expectations moving forward.
when you read this list, which of these are easiest for you to do in conflict? which are hardest?
in the boundaries face to face material, they also point out the importance of differentiating between forgiveness, reconciliation, and trust in relationships. this was such a good reminder, especially for me because i am notorious for working my-butt-off-to-stay-in-relationships-that-i-probably-should-let-go-of (more on that tomorrow). they say that forgiveness has to do with the past, reconciliation with the present & trust in the future.
forgiveness has to do with the past. it’s about letting go and offering to others what God always offers to us. the Bible does make really clear that forgiveness is not optional (matthew 6:12) and that unforgiveness over time will really do us in. forgiveness does not require both people, just one.
reconciliation has to do with the present. it takes two to reconcile. this is a great question when considering conflict in friendship–is this a relationship worth working on or not? i used to think that every friendship was about reconciliation, but that’s not necessarily true. sometimes we have to learn to let them go and forgive. other times, we need to work in the present toward something better.
trust has to do with the future. trust is something that’s built over time and experience. we have a responsibility in friendship to become trustworthy and to also call for it in the relationships we continue in. trust doesn’t mean perfection, but it means that our actions need to line up with our words and it’s okay to expect that from others, too, in order to deepen the relationship (or not).
in the past, i greatly confused forgiveness & reconciliation. i thought that in order to have real forgiveness, the relationship needed to be reconciled; it caused me to stay in on some not-so-healthy friendships for far too long. and then, i would offer too much trust too fast and end up hurt again. but i am learning!
- what do you think of these three things–forgiveness, reconciliation, and trust?
over the past chunk of years i keep learning to engage in conflict better. it’s not easy for me; my reflex is do-whatever-it-takes-to-keep-the-peace, but i keep learning that my initial reflexes are actually just controlling the relationship and not trusting God, others, or myself.