In my last post, I described a little adventure with my five-year-old daughter–how we paused and looked for the beauty among the storm clouds. We were rewarded with a spectacular rainbow unlike anything I have ever witnessed. Usually, I consider myself lucky to see a glimpse or small stripe of a rainbow, but this one was fat, shimmery, and full of sass. It seemed like I could see the entire semi-circle, and the only things missing were a couple of dancing leprechauns and a pot of gold. This tiny adventure reminded me that often I give up way too soon on the people around me, that I should look for ways to grow closer to others among the storm clouds of conflict.
I know so many victory stories from my own life and from others who were willing to grow through conflict. However, as I look at how people deal with each other during an open or even potential conflict outside their immediate family, my heart breaks. I see it everywhere I look: the corporate world, communities, churches, and of course, politics. The success stories come to a screeching halt as people simply withdraw in the face of a disagreement. In fact, that is often the first and only thing we do–shut down and steer clear. It seems to me this conflict management method essentially creates the very thing people are trying to avoid–more conflict! Except now you have rejection in the mix as well as the avoidance.
People often don’t even want to be in the same room together when there are differences. Shouldn’t we be able to function better than this? What exactly is the deal breaker? Is it that we are dealing with complex issues and have different viewpoints? Is it the open conversation that reveals how far apart we are on some issues? Realistically, we were that far apart already; the only difference is that now we’re talking. Is that how incompetent we are with dealing with each other? Or does this just reveal how little we trust each other, and a conversation seems too hard, too risky?
Granted, sometimes people will have a conversation or two … probably with unrealistic expectations. A conversation alone will not solve every issue; it merely preserves the relationship so we can work out everything else. So, it is pretty common for people to have one conversation, NOT get immediate resolution, and then withdraw anyway. In our families, we generally don’t allow ourselves this luxury. We somehow find a way to work it out, and it probably takes several conversations, several failures, and, quite frankly, several adaptations of learning to live with things we didn’t sign up for. For sure though, withdrawal and zero conversation will end the relationship, leaving people bruised, rejected, and defensive.
So, what do we do?
To the leaders of any organization, we absolutely must work on trust and being with each other beyond saying “hello” in the hallway. If the foundation of trust is weak when conflict hits, managing the conflict is exponentially harder, especially considering our tendency to withdraw. It’s crazy easy to seek out our own agreeable bubbles, to seek out our own patches of blue sky. However, we must understand that blue skies don’t produce rainbows. If we can manage to be forced out of our bubbles prior to the conflict, we are far more likely to learn another’s perspective without feeling threatened. Defensive behaviors are relationship-killers because they feed on fear.
I recently entered into a new consulting partnership. Training with a partner is new for me and presents lots of interpersonal challenges. I’ve been surprised at how many tense conversations have been necessary about money, taxes, personality, expectations, and so many uncomfortable details. Clearly, training by myself is easier, and we both wondered at times if this new partnership was going to make it. Truthfully, had we both been unwilling to have several conversations with the intent to learn, reveal doubts, clarify, and find ways to meet needs, then one or both of us might have likely withdrawn and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The good news is that we are making it work, and those tense conversations have allowed us to provide excellent training experiences for our clients. In short, our relationship is already stronger, and our training is already more effective.
Clearly, it’s far easier to type a few words about building trust and the willingness to engage than it is to actually do it. It is. But it essentially boils down to our willingness to engage rather than withdraw, to look for the rainbows of growth among the dark clouds of conflict. We have to start somewhere, and someone has to lead. As I look at all that Jesus did and taught, I continue to see his intent to bring people together. There is little doubt, he wants us to do the same.