Is Conflict a Good Thing?
by Dan Hotchkiss from The Alban Institute
“Conflict is not bad” has been a consistent teaching of the Alban Institute and many others in the conflict field for years. It’s a natural, inevitable consequence of having more than one idea in the room at the same time. The goal of conflict management is not to eliminate conflict, but to increase tolerance for it, so the congregation can stay in relationship as people hold and exchange diverse ideas. We don’t need to resolve conflict, we need to manage it. But what if that’s wrong? Or what if—as so often happens with important truths—there is an anti-truth, an equal but opposite idea that is also true?
I started thinking about this recently when Linda Rich, a relatively new Alban consultant, observed that people who score as “Thinking” types on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), often respond to conflict positively. Thinking types analyze information in an objective, detached way, giving more weight to impersonal facts. So when viewpoints start to clash, they’re comfortable staking out a position, seeing disagreement as being about issues and principles, not having to do with personal relationships. If they are well-trained conflict managers, Thinkers also listen—seeking areas of agreement, opportunities for mutual benefit, and even places where they might adjust or compromise their own positions in order to create an outcome that attracts wider support.
But for others—including many MBTI “Feeling” types—conflict has a very different meaning. Feelers make decisions based on the impact on people and relationships, so their first response to conflict often is to ask, “Who’s being hurt, and how can we protect them?” Telling a Feeling type that conflict is a good thing is tantamount to telling them that hurting people is a good thing: it makes no sense at all.
Linda’s comment made me wonder: has Alban taught, in effect, that Thinking types are right and Feeling types are wrong? Faced with this challenge to the Alban Institute tradition, I am trying to remain calm and not react defensively!
As a Thinking type myself, I tend to fall into the “conflict is a good thing” camp. These days, I rarely enter a consultation where conflict is the primary issue, but I do spend a lot of time with congregations on strategic planning, where the usual result of success is to increase conflict at least slightly. I’m aware that whenever conflict rears its head, some perk up and others run for cover. Just when it seems we’re making progress, someone says, “I can’t stand this anymore. I didn’t come to church to fight.”
As helpful as type can be, Susan Nienaber, Alban senior consultant and conflict specialist, sees a shift “away from classifying people as a ‘type’ and into talking more about what behaviors contribute to constructive resolution of conflict and what behaviors make things worse.” Nienaber points to newer instruments like the Conflict Dynamics Profile (www.conflictdynamics.org) developed by Craig Runde at Eckerd College, which focus on behavior rather than fixed personality traits. According to Nienaber, “When folks are using constructive responses, conflict is not only good; it is exhilarating and produces much growth in the congregation and in the lives of individuals. It can also actually strengthen one’s faith.
“On the other hand, when folks are bunkering in for the fight; displaying anger in ways that frighten or intimidate others; demeaning others; blaming, retaliating and trying to win at all costs, it is very damaging to relationships, people are deeply wounded and traumatized. It can do long-term damage to the congregation and its mission.”
The advantage of focusing on behavior, Nienaber says, is that while “behaviors can be changed, your personality type generally cannot. All of us have the potential to do better in conflicted situations.”
Conflict is a necessary part of life in any healthy group. On the other hand, a congregation run entirely by those who thrive on conflict would be a harsh place. Feeling types—even confirmed conflict avoiders—play an important role in keeping personal relationships alive during a conflict, and in healing the community afterward. Congregations used to straddle lots of fences in the name of harmony, and some still do. But some fences are hard to straddle in this time: whether to hold to old strictness about sexuality or welcome everyone; whether to adopt an inward or an outward focus; whether to install a pipe organ or a drum set in the sanctuary. On these issues among others, the congregation-shopping public wants to know where a congregation stands. That means that congregations do need to accept conflict as a necessary step toward clarity and purpose.
Each of us has a different threshold of tolerance for conflict. When the pot begins to boil, some people clam up. The higher the temperature, the more people drop out of the conversation. Conflict-friendly leaders sometimes write the dropouts off—saying, in effect, that anyone who doesn’t show up voluntarily surrenders his or her right to influence the outcome—but the loss of any voice reduces the collective wisdom of the group, and the silent ones can sometimes undermine the outcome after the fact.
To hold the whole congregation together for hard conversations, leaders need both courage and compassion: courage to face conflict squarely, and compassion to sidestep it at times, or slow it down, so everyone can stay involved. Each voice—whether it is conflict-friendly or conflict-averse—has wisdom to contribute. Wise leaders create safe space for all.
Additional Course Resources:
Conflict Management Styles by Speed Leas
Defining Conflict Transformation & Conflict and Change by Jon Paul Lederach from The Little Book of Conflict Transformation