By Garth Gustafson
Conflict is not a problem. Conflict is a reality and therefore it is neither good nor bad, it is neutral. The question isn’t whether we will have conflict or not, but rather how we manage conflict. This will determine if it is destructive or productive, and if it is an obstacle or an opportunity.
Conflict can be an Opportunity for Growth
In over 15 years of ministry I recognized that leadership requires difficult conversations and confronting conflict. No one enjoys these types of situations but I have seen in my own personal life, as well as many other leaders, if conflict is managed well it can actually be one of the biggest opportunities for growth as a leader.
In your leadership have you viewed conflict to be productive or destructive? As an obstacle or an opportunity?
Managing Conflict in Asia
In Asia, people in conflict can tend to smile and nod, but they can also come back like a ninja and attack when unexpected. (This can be true in any part of the world but is more prevalent in our context here in Asia). Most people tend to perceive conflict as negative and all cultures have the idea of “saving face.” The combination tends to cause most of us to avoid conflict for fear of losing face and from negative connotations of conflict. In Asia, we often play the cultural game of respectful greetings and honoring words to maintain relationship, which many times results in withholding our honesty about our true feelings and previous offenses. Because of this we often times pretend like there is no conflict, or we deal with it in unhealthy ways including:
- Backbiting: Agreed upon decisions turn out later on to not be supported as people speak negatively about them outside of the meeting.
- Going Slow: Instead of talking directly about a conflict some will intentionally slow down work as a way to make their opinion known without confronting.
- Fighting in the Shadows: When conflict starts to spread at times the group mentality will feed the problem as people make excuses for each other, and cover up each other’s mistakes as a way to get back at someone for a decision.
- Erupting Volcano: When people suppress their emotions eventually they will explode in anger.
All of these are very unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict that will only become huge obstacles that end in pain, hurt, bitterness and ministries, churches and organizations unraveling. As leaders, we must be able to sense these unhealthy tendencies of how people deal with conflict and utilize these as growth opportunities.
How have you seen these tendencies of unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict in your ministry? Have you fallen into these traps?
Principles for Successful Conflict Management
- Pray: Before engaging in managing conflict we must always start by seeking God’s heart for the situation, for the people involved and His desired outcome.
- Agree on the Right Timing: Timing is truly everything and navigating conflict at the wrong time can cause disaster.
- Avoid Personal Attacks: As leaders, we use “I” statements to avoid others feeling attacked (using “you” can cause people to feel defensive) and we set the environment that this will be a win as we grow through this conflict.
- Assume Responsibility: The first step in conflict management is acknowledging our contribution to the conflict.
- Apply Listening Skills: Active listening is intentionally trying to understand another person’s perspective.
- Focus on the Core Issues: Don’t get side-tracked by emotions or bringing up every one of the person’s mistakes, stay focused on resolving the core issue.
- Keep the Shared Visions & Values Central: Centering our conversation on what we share in common will help us pursue conflict resolution.
Which of these principles have you utilized as opportunities in your leadership? Which principles can you use as opportunities to grow in the future?
The Conflict Trump Card: Humility Always Wins
Human tendency is that when others are wrong we blame their character and yet when we are wrong we blame the situation. For example, Lee is always late because he doesn’t value the team, or in other words this is a character flaw. I was late because my kids were sick, and everyone knows as the leader that I’m more busy than everyone else. In reality we all tend to self-justify our own weaknesses, while self-judging everyone else’s weaknesses.
Many times I have experienced that if I am willing to take ownership even for a small part, the act of humility can act like a trump card or an opportunity to swing the conflict towards being resolved. In several cases where I actually didn’t see anything that I had done as wrong, I was simply able to say “I am sorry that you felt that way.” By acknowledging the person’s feelings, the conflict started to disintegrate. Because of this we have learned that in conflict management a golden rule is that “Humility Always Wins.”
How have you seen humility as an opportunity to resolving conflict? How have you seen the lack of humility as an obstacle and creating greater conflict?
Note: Much of this article has come from personal reflection while reading John Ng’s book “Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon” about Managing Conflict in Asia. I would encourage leaders in Asia to read this for further insight on successful conflict resolution.