The Gottman Institute conducted a longitudinal study on marriages and conflict in which Dr. Gottman predicted with 93.6% accuracy which couples would divorce. This study revealed that how couples talked to each other during conflict was the biggest divorce predictor, not what couples fought about. While this study is on marriage, I find it particularly helpful to illustrate why it is important for church families to work though conflict together. If we can’t, we won’t be able to hold our church family together. What you say matters; how you say it matters more.
On Sunday mornings, I’m currently team-teaching a class called Difficult Conversations. The intent is to work on how to talk to each other when we aren’t in conflict so we can be more effective when a conflict arises. There’s no doubt that conflicts will come up. They always have; they always will. In fact, differing perspectives and opinions help create a healthy tension that results in better decisions. In class, we have been working through the structure of a conversation, discovering all the complicated layers of information. Of course, we’ve examined our expert defense system which is so expertly destructive during a difficult conversation.
So how do we talk to each other when the stakes are high and relationships are strained? I believe that it helps to keep two important factors in mind.
The first is understanding intent. Have you ever gotten out of bed in the morning and said, “I’m going to be a real problem today”? I didn’t think so. I’ve asked that question to thousands of people all over the country while conducting conflict resolution training. People just laugh at the question. Well, here is the truth—no one does. Really, truly, people take action with the best of intentions. They mean well even if the impact is negative. I didn’t mean to trip and dig my high heel in your ankle, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t bleeding. At this point, you might be thinking of someone in your church family, fully convinced they do wake up every day determined to be a problem. This lovely character is a prickly nightmare whose favorite words are, “That will never work.” But if I asked this person the same question, the response would be “no,” too. This principle is critical to understand, because when you judge someone’s intent, you immediately judge their character. This can be negative, or this can be positive.
Understanding that people’s intentions are good despite the negative impact changes your thoughts about people and, in turn, changes what you choose to say to them. There was a news story recently about a woman who left her children alone in the car. Immediately, we understandably think she is a terrible mother. However, the rest of the story explained that she left the children in the car so she could go to a job interview. Does this revelation change your mind about what kind of mother she is? Don’t get confused; leaving children in a car is bad parenting. But when I found out why, I changed my mind about her character. In my mind, the fact that she left her children in the car to go to a job interview tells me that she was desperate to find work in order to be able to take care of her children. I can’t help but soften my stance toward this mother. The things I would like to say to her change based upon my opinion about her intent. Had she left the children in a car outside the casino to go gamble, it would have evoked a much harsher response and character judgement. The negative impact of this mother’s behavior is the same—the children are left alone. But my opinion about her character changes based upon what I believe her intent to be. It’s the same with our church family. Their intent is good even when the impact of their words or behavior is negative.
The second factor is humility. To me, it’s often inspiring to work at a church. I know I only see through a keyhole, but I believe I see more than most. I see how many hours teachers pour into their Bible classes. I see people with grown children chaperone youth trips and go to church camp. I’m asked to deliver money anonymously to those who are struggling financially. I see small groups rally around families in crisis. I see people give of their time and talent so generously. People open their homes to strangers and those in need. As a church we raise tens of thousands of dollars for one special project every year. People are uniquely invested in this entity of church and devote so much because they love God so much. As a minister, I know how many hours I devote and all the extra stuff I choose to do as well.
Because of this intense investment though, if I’m not careful I might be lulled into thinking that this is my church. What’s wrong with that? Well, if this is my church, things need to go my way. I’ve spent a lifetime building up this church, giving, teaching, building relationships, and trying to be who God wants me to be. But if this is God’s church, then things need to go God’s way, and my mind shifts again. As an adopted child, I know I wasn’t born into the life of privilege that I’ve enjoyed. But as a life-long child of God, it’s easy to forget that I have been adopted into this spiritual life of privilege as well. When I step back and think about how we should handle each other through serious conflicts, I have to be honest. The only thing that is going to work is to have the humility of one who says, “This is God’s church, not mine. These are God’s people, God’s creations. How dare I treat God’s creations—God’s church—with contempt or disrespect in thought or word?” When I think about God’s church and what a miracle it is to be a part of it, it’s a lot harder for me to be dismissive. I’m suddenly much more aware of my multitude of errors despite great intentions. It’s harder to roll my eyes at the crazy lady. I can’t talk about my critics behind closed doors. I groan less at the old man humor. I stop criticizing the wall-hugging teens.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph 5:8-20)
Keeping in mind that people have good intentions, and understanding the fact that we were once in darkness but now have the light of the Lord, will help us navigate the conflicts a bit more easily and with a great deal more humility.
Header image: Danys, Mindaugas. Scream and shout. July 26, 2009. Klaipeda, Lithuania. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved.