Conflict of Interest: Resolving Conflict One “Fear” at a Time

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ArgumentsDo me a favor. “Put your finger in this webpage” and jump over to Facebook or Twitter, whichever you find yourself using the most. Don’t be shy. You have an account. I know you do. You probably found this article through one of those mediums. Now . . . what do you see? It’s likely I would get many different responses from people, because everyone’s feed is filled with different content. But you know what I see? Controversy. That’s what stands out more than anything. I bet you agree with me. Contention. Dissension. Conflict. You can’t hide from it. Our culture’s riddled with it. It’s everywhere. Hey look! There’s that impulse in you again to shut down your account. Don’t bother. It won’t make a difference. You still have to interact with people at some point and conflict is just around the corner. No matter how hard you try, you can’t escape it, because . . . surprise, surprise . . . conflict isn’t something that follows you around like a stalker. I can still hear fellow students from high school complaining about how drama always seemed to follow them around wherever they went. And I always found myself smirking out of the corner of my mouth and thinking, “Could it be that you’re the one provoking all the drama?” That’s because drama—which is really just an overly emotional code word for “conflict”—is not outside of us.

Where Does Conflict Come From?

Conflict starts internally. James 4:1-2, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel.” Contrary to popular opinion, conflict doesn’t begin with a careless word or a rash response. It starts within. It’s governed by pleasure. It’s controlled by desire. It’s always a “conflict of interest.” But pleasures and desires can be suppressed and conflict can be avoided despite how you feel. It happens all the time. We’re all used to restraining our emotions and putting a cap on our desires to avoid what we deem to be an unnecessary dispute. If we didn’t do this, the world would no longer exist. So what makes the difference between desires that dodge conflict and desires that trigger it? I nominate FEAR as the difference. 

Desire Conflict BridgeFear is the bridge that allows desire to cross over into conflict. How does this work, you may ask? On the one hand, a person who wants something will not fight to obtain it, if he’s not too afraid to be without it. On the other hand, someone who wants something badly enough will be too afraid to be without it and therefore he’ll do whatever it takes to get it, even if that means crossing over into the realm of conflict. Need an example? A boy who wants a cookie from the forbidden cookie jar is only willing to put his relationship with his mother at risk when his fear of losing the cookie outweighs his fear of his mother’s wrath. The boy wants the cookie so badly, he gets afraid his mommy’s rule will keep him from it. His growing fear motivates him to jeopardize the peace he has with her at the moment. Fear is the link between desire and conflict.

Now . . . can I put it to you a different way? Fear is a desire detector. You want to find out what desires are fueling the fire of your conflict? Look for your fears. Either you’re afraid you’re NOT going to get what you want, or you’re afraid you’re going to get what you DON’T want. And that’s where all conflict begins. It’s grounded in fear of unfulfilled desire. 

How Can I Resolve Conflict?

I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t love to be free from conflict in his life. But I must warn you up front . . . if you want to resolve your conflict, you must be willing to address the fears at play hiding under the surface . . . both your’s AND your opponent’s. That’s the key. You won’t get anywhere until everyone puts their fears on the table.

Peacemaker MinistriesThis is the most crucial step I learned in a pivotal Conflict Resolution class I took in seminary. God bless, Dr. Ernie Baker and his peacemaking skills! He proposes a five-step process for resolving conflict, which he borrows from Peacemaker Ministries. I will reproduce it for you here and comment on it. It forms an easy-to-remember acronym that should give you P.A.U.S.E. every time you run into conflict.

  1. Prepare. Prepare yourself ahead of time, if you know you’re going to find yourself in a contentious or controversial situation. It sounds loony, but you can actually diffuse many arguments before they even start. “A gentle answer turns away wrath. But a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Yet not all situations are predictable and preventable. But you can still prepare yourself ahead of time. Pray for yourself and your opposing party. Pray that your speech will be timely and gracious. If you have the option of choosing when to have your argument, select a time when both you and the other person are least likely to blow up at each other. Find a neutral location and anticipate their concerns. And make sure you investigate your own heart to make certain you’re not trying to hijack the conversation with your own “agenda,” whatever it may be.
  2. Affirm. Affirm your relationship with your opponent. As hard as it may be, work hard at coming up with characteristics and qualities you appreciate about the other person. Identify a few good elements about your relationship with him or her. Assure the other person that whatever you’re about to say is NOT going to put your relationship in jeopardy, as far as it depends on you.
  3. Understand. Understand the interests, goals, and FEARS of your opponent. This is the most critical stage, because I find it’s rare that we ever venture this far into our resolution plan. Whether we’re unaware of its importance or too scared to go so deep, we too often fail to address the other party’s fears and expose our own. Be bold to ask, “What are your fears and concerns?” Be brave to state, “These are my fears and concerns.” But don’t just dump yours on the table. Listen to their fears first without a judgmental attitude. When each person gets their concerns out in the open, your chances of diffusing conflict skyrocket considerably.
  4. Search. Search for creative solutions to your problem. Don’t be fooled. You’re not out of the woods yet. People still find themselves bickering at this stage, because they love to ridicule the other party’s suggestions. This is merely a brainstorming session. There should be no critiquing or criticizing of any ideas, as bad as they may be. You’re not deciding on solutions yet. You’re just gathering options. As tempting as it may be, you need to attack the problem, not the person. Forget for a moment that this problem is attached to your opponent 
  5. Evaluate. Evaluate your options. Now you can identify a solution or two from the list you’ve accumulated. If you’re tackling multiple issues, organize them in order of priority and address them one problem at a time. Use biblical wisdom to evaluate each problem. And if you’re careful and persistent . . . check this out . . . Dr. Baker finds usually three or four solutions are agreed upon by everyone. Before, you were lucky if you could ever agree on ONE solution!

Now PAUSE and think for a moment. Can you imagine, if we determined to not let our desires rule us or our fears drive us, what kind of peace we would have in our time?

  • Imagine if bitter spouses opened up about their fears to one another. “Honey, I want to be honest with you. I’m scared you don’t love me anymore. I’m afraid you’re seeing someone else. Please talk with me. Whatever you’re going to say, I promise it won’t jeopardize our relationship right now. What are your fears or concerns? Why do you seem so distant?” 
  • Picture squabbling church boards getting real and deep with each other. “Jerry, I really appreciate our friendship on this board. I admire your tenacity and your devotion to Christ and this church. What I’m about to ask in no way puts our relationship on the rocks. But I’m curious, why are you so afraid to have drums on the music team? What are your deep concerns about it? Let’s talk this through.”
  • Yes, even dare to dream of a world where “discriminatory bigots” from all sides bypassed their superficial ad hominem attacks and gently confessed and probed for each other’s fears. “I know I don’t know you very well, but I’d like to get to know you better and hear your story. I see that as a black person you’re afraid of the growing number of police brutalities. Please, share with me your fears. I want to know what they are and I want to listen to you and understand and share your burden of concern.“ But it also goes both ways, “I see as a white person you’re very passionate about standing with law enforcement, but as a black person I have concerns. Yet I’m willing to put those aside for a moment, because I want to hear from you. Maybe I’m not the only one with fears. What are you afraid of? Are you concerned maybe that parts of our country are developing a racist attitude toward you?”

The PAUSE Principle invites you to discover a more thorough resolution of conflict from a biblical paradigm. It’s not shallow or trite. It’s deep and successful. It targets the heart without ignoring behavior and coincides with the proper theological doctrines of God and man.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The PAUSE Principle serves as a valuable tool for resolving conflict. I encourage you to take this principle and put it into practice when you run into conflict. It will serve you well. But I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t leave you with three cautions.

  1. Peacemaker Ministries issues this warning before you give this principle a test-drive, “If you have never used this approach to negotiation before, it will take time and practice (and sometimes advice from others) to become proficient at it.” Yet don’t let that scare you off. They also follow up with this encouragement, “But it is well worth the effort, because learning the PAUSE Principle will help you not only to resolve your present dispute but also to negotiate more effectively in all areas of your life.” Use this principle. But realize it takes hard work to master to art of biblical conflict resolution.
  2. Don’t treat the PAUSE Principle as a “Get out of conflict free” card. It isn’t a guarantee that you’ll never see conflict ever again. It’s just not true this side of eternity. Sin muddles all resolution attempts to one extent or another and you cannot control how the other person is going to respond to your resolution principles. Think of Jesus. The greatest conflict resolutionist! He went to the cross with more controversy than you or I will ever experience. You can employ all the right strategies and approach the problem with the purest of intentions. Conflict may still happen. The point of the PAUSE Principle isn’t to eliminate all conflict (even though it’s still a chief concern). The point is to exhibit the character of Christ in the midst of harassment. Shine His victory and point to a better way.
  3. The PAUSE Principle assumes all parties involved are believers. Sure, you can borrow these principles and implement them in all kinds of non-Christian relationships ranging from personal peer-to-peer friendships to corporate board meetings. But the PAUSE Principle is at its best when its employed among believers. Why is this the case? Because at the end of the day, the unbeliever has no legitimate motivation to deny himself of his desires. There’s no reason to “Deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow [Christ]” (Luke 9:23). But the PAUSE Principle assumes that once you expose your fears of unfilled desires, you can work diligently at starving them. So, feel free to take the PAUSE Principle into non-Christian contexts. But your best strategy in all conflicts with unbelievers is very simply to share the Gospel. Then, once you get all parties on the same page with the same Christocentric agenda, the sky’s the limit as to the resolution you can achieve. I remind you what Paul charged the church of Ephesus, “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).

And it’s in the unity of Christ where we can begin to resolve our conflict one “fear” at a time.

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