Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Relationship Toolbox - Conflict

The number one indicator of relationship health in marriage is how a couple handles conflict. That's what the research says.

Last weekend at Cornerstone Church we completed our Relationship Toolbox with this addition of handling conflict well. The five tools - forgiveness, choices, sex, money & conflict - are the essential building blocks of healthy, God-honoring relationships. Get these wrong and relationships will implode (or explode). Get them right and they provide the atmosphere, soil and fertilizer for growing a great relationship.

I don't always handle conflict well. I tend to be one of those that fights - versus flees. If there is need for a discussion due to a disagreement, I'll walk across the hall or set up a meeting to discuss it. I won't talk with someone else about it. But there are times when it just doesn't matter. A peace-maker will avoid conflict. Neither is the best approach. Running to conflict and running from conflict are both problematic. There is a happy medium to be found. Here's some of how I find that place:

1. Conflict is not bad. Many Christ-followers have this idea that harmony and peace are the highest goals of God's Kingdom. The Bible doesn't support that. Just read Acts 15 and we find two conflicts, one of which was so severe that it divided the world's first missionary team, Paul and Barnabas. God used the conflict to double the number of missionary teams and so the Gospel won and that's what mattered most.

The presence of conflict doesn't mean Jesus has left the relationship. When more than one human being is present, there are going to be disagreements and conflicts. Most are easily worked through, like the personal preference ones (paint colors, music, food, etc....). Some are more serious, which leads to the second thing.

2. Focus on the relationship. When the conflict is bigger than a personal preference it can easily escalate. As soon as I focus on myself, I lose sight of the bigger prize - the relationship itself. In marriage, if my wife loses, I lose because WE lost. Being in relationship with someone, whether in the strong covenant of marriage or the bond of friendship, means we are choosing to set some of our wants and desires aside in order to grab hold of the benefits of the relationship. In marriage it is a much bigger deal as "two become one" and we no longer belong to ourselves. When my wife wins, we win.

3. Speak less and listen more. I tend to become defensive. The best defense I've found against defensiveness is to shut up. Proverbs 10:19 says: "Where words are many sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise." It's one of my favorite verses because I need it so much. Conflict always ends better when I listen. If the other party insists on winning then I can walk away with peace in my heart if I've practiced this verse.

4. Ask the right questions. The use of "why" tends to heighten the defenses because it goes straight to the core of our being. On the other hand, asking "what" keeps the doors and windows open. "What led to this approach?" instead of "Why did you do this?" can help conflict lead to something productive rather than destructive.

5. Stay in the room. This is a favorite phrase of my friend, Dan. It is rich with wisdom. God's desire is that every relationship head toward redemption. It doesn't mean people have to agree on everything. It does mean that you remain at the table, engaged in the relationship. Leave the room and you forfeit the right to speak into or about the relationship with integrity.

We leave the room in all kinds of ways: raising your voice; making all-encompassing accusations with words like "all the time" or "everyone"; phrases like: "I dare you....."; and physically leaving the room (office, workplace, relationship).

One of my favorite insights into leadership came from the late Yankees manager, Billy Martin. When asked, "How do you manage a baseball team?" he answered:
There are 25 guys on the team. 5 of them love everything you do and would follow you to hell with a squirt-gun. 5 of them hate everything you do until the day you resign. 15 just want to play ball. Who would you listen to?
Conflict doesn't mean you can't lead. It just might be a matter of figuring out who to listen to the most.

Conflict is inevitable. How we handle it can either help us mature or it will isolate us. We made this last in the series because conflict comes up in the other three areas more frequently than any others. We made forgiveness the foundation because we all must learn to walk in forgiveness every day. If I know how much I'm loved and have been forgiven, I can easily forgive others, on the spot, on a daily basis.