The key to transforming conflict in the church today is developing skilled leaders who are not afraid to engage conflict. As mentioned two weeks ago, we need a new framework for understanding and approaching conflict: conflict contains gifts and possibilities; conflict resides within us (it is an internal reality); and (3) compromise is often a superficial and short-term remedy for conflict. Grounded in this understanding and trusting the Spirit of God, leaders and members alike can learn how to speak (and listen to) the truth in love.
Three skill sets (or, practices) in compassionate communication contribute to transforming conflict: honesty, empathy, and self-empathy. When we lean into conflict with these three practices, we create the conditions whereby the Spirit may unite us in peace. In this blog, I’ll unpack the skill set of honesty—which though simple is far from simplistic.
To begin, we have to admit the obvious: not all honesty is helpful, caring, or compassionate. Some forms of honesty trigger defensiveness or escalation of conflict. The honesty that I’m talking about is founded upon the knowledge and acceptance of our fellowship with one another. Christians belong to one another. Our lives are woven together in Christ. To speak harsh judgments against each other is an attack on Christ’s body.
In contrast, “speaking truth in love” contributes to mutual understanding, support, interdependence, peace, and trust. It is grounded in an intention to live out our reconciliation in Christ. This kind of honesty is refreshingly assertive; it is not nice; and, it is not passive. It is authentic; it flows from our most cherished values and needs. It is empowering. Simple expressions of honesty have a way of inspiring, even freeing, others to risk opening their hearts (and mouths) so that they can be seen and known more fully.
The kind of honesty that helps transform conflict begins with observations rather than evaluations. An observation is a concrete statement or thought that reflects what we are hearing, seeing, or remembering in reference to a specific context, event, or interaction. By very definition, then, observations are distinct from our interpretations, evaluations and judgments about what we are hearing, seeing, or remembering. Evaluations can take many forms: interpretations of one’s actions; labels denoting one’s character; diagnoses of one’s personhood. In all instances, evaluations are “stories” that we tell ourselves about ourselves or others. These stories may be circumscribed, focusing on particular actions or events, or they may be all-encompassing. Overall evaluations evoke defensiveness and lead to disconnection in relationships. When we make observations about what is upsetting us, we establish common understanding and we encourage open conversation.
Honesty involves more than simply making observations, of course. It involves speaking about what matters most to us in a given situation. It’s about identifying our most deeply cherished values and pressing needs. Here I am actually using the language of needs and values interchangeably. Needs are universal qualities that contribute to the flourishing of human life—for example, purpose, meaning, community, integrity, peace, autonomy, choice, freedom, love, physical well-being, etc. Defined in this way, needs sustain us in living a physically, emotionally, and spiritually fulfilled life. Because of this, needs are the points of connection—the place of human encounter—in the midst of difference, disagreement, or dissension. Why? Because we all hold them in common.
At the heart of many interpersonal impasses and power struggles lies a failure to identify all the needs at play. Typically we argue about the effectiveness and validity of competing strategies without ever identifying the needs that such strategies seek to meet. In other words, we bypass that which has the potential to connect us at the level of our common humanity, i.e., our needs and values.
The kind of honesty that unites rather than divides also is void of demands. We set aside our demands of one another and instead learn to make requests of each other, to make and respond to request requests that meet our common needs and thereby enriching our life in encounter. Unlike demands, requests respect the other’s choice and autonomy (as well as our own). We trust that if someone says “no” to our request, it is likely because they are saying “yes” to some (perhaps unstated) need of theirs at that time own. We hear the “yes” within their “no.” It’s important here to recognize that if we do something out of guilt, fear or coercion, we build up resentment. There is little chance for sustainable, caring community when resentment lurks below the surface.
When we speak the truth in love, we participate in the Spirit’s work of reminding us that we are children of God, loved by God and created in God’s image. Speaking the truth in love contributes to the mutual integration and adaptation of the members of the church toward one another. Truthful and loving honesty helps the church to become more interdependent, that is, to become who it is—an integrated organism comprised of the most diverse parts. By speaking the truth in love, we encourage and even empower each other to live out both our common and our unique callings in life. Each of us has a common calling to serve others, to live in solidarity with those who are suffering, and to witness to God’s grace in word and deed. And each of us has been given gifts of the Spirit—mercy, service, administration, teaching, etc.—in order to carry out this calling in our congregations, neighborhoods, families, and workplaces. Thus such honesty is not merely about transforming conflict but rather about the church’s fulfillment of its mission in the world.