First Rule of Handling Conflict: Don’t Run!

One of the most difficult tasks of communication that we find necessary to work on at Titus 2 is handling conflict. The first principle is “Don’t RUN!” . Others might argue that the first principle is “Don’t get defensive.” If one herself or others she is witnessing have been subjected to a pattern of criticism and dismissal of her voice/feelings in the past and feels attacked, either directly or passively aggressively, that’s likely to be the first reaction. Helping her move from defensiveness to openness in communication and asserting herself appropriately is a challenge. The Bible says, “Be angry but don’t sin.” Anger (either as a primary emotion or secondary to more subtle underlying emotions) is inevitable at times. Things are going to happen that offend one’s sense of justice or cause conflict. Sinning in the midst of it (attacking others, shaming, humiliation, denying another’s right to be heard, etc) may either be a habit or a choice. It may be a conscious or unconscious choice to exercise power. When confronted with one whose conflict style is to immediately attack others – as in bullying- or a manipulating person who is seeking control over others, for example, avoiding a sinful reaction can be difficult.

What about a situation in which one has repeatedly attempted to deal with another whose conduct is having a negative impact on an entire group by responding appropriately, but it has resulted in no improvement and further attempts to marginalize others? What if one chooses to strategically engage in a mirroring fashion with the individual to show that she will not be intimidated? How do you de-escalate when the fireworks begin? Is it ever legitimate to respond by matching aggression with aggression (passively or directly) in an attempt to renegotiate interpersonal relationships toward more equitable power and mutual respect? If you make that choice and you have the greater power in the relationship (but do not wish to abuse it!), understand that you cannot predict others’ reaction and may have to “pull your punches, or be prepared to tack toward mercy if it spirals out of control in order to draw the person back into engagement toward resolution. If you are the one with less power, understand that in doing so, you risk everything if the other party is bent on winning at all costs and is prepared to sever the relationship altogether. If that is the case, you will find yourself defeated in the goal of moving toward resolution and the power abuser will continue in this conduct with others. Your strategy will have failed. The dance of power in relationships is a difficult one. One’s motive in doing so….to win….or to bring about more productive communication…. is critical.

Many of the women who come into recovery have an aversion to conflict in any form, even mild disagreement. It seems to arise out of a sense of inadequacy to “argue” one’s point or explain how she feels. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know how I feel, but I’m upset. I need some time and some help to sort this out.” Go pray. Go think about the situations in the past in which you have felt this way. Talk to a trusted person who has demonstrated good communication and has an appropriate sense of personal power while respecting the boundaries and personhood of others. Think about and explore the underlying emotions, not just the immediate reactive response (often anger). This may take a lot of study and learning emotional literacy. And a lot of prayer, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide you through this self-evaluation exercise.

Don’t give up. Stay at the table. Grant the benefit of the doubt. It probably wasn’t intentional. Even the most skilled dance partners sometimes miss a cue or step on one another’s toes. It’s not the end of the world. Just a temporary detour along the path.