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Handle Conflict

While conflict is inevitable, it can be handled in wise ways to keep it from escalating.


A few years ago, I took a private retreat at a monastery. I spent four days with two dozen men who have taken vows of poverty, silence, and celibacy. These men had made sacrifices in their personal lives far beyond any sacrifice you or I will ever make. They left behind families and friends, turned their back on the possibility of marriage and children, let go of the dream of a fulfilling secular career, and devoted their lives to constant prayer and manual labor.

Even though they had escaped many of the pressures and problems we deal with in the "real world," there was one source of stress they weren't able to escape in this little community: the stress of conflict between one another. I noticed that some of them got on each other's nerves. I noticed that some of the relationships between the brothers were a little strained, due to disagreements over job responsibilities, personality conflicts, and failed expectations. Even though these men showed a radical commitment to Christ and were willing to sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty in order to serve him, they were not able to escape the reality of personal conflict.

It's a fact of life: If you live or work or associate in any way with people, you will experience conflict. The only way to escape it completely is to live in the desert all alone. Since that isn't a realistic option for most of us, we'll be much better off learning to handle the conflict that comes up from day to day.

When people live or work together, some level of conflict is inevitable, because friction is a sign of life in relationships. However, conflict doesn't have to escalate into World War III every time two people disagree. There is a way to resolve our differences peacefully, a way that strengthens rather than destroys relationships. Today we will look at some ways to handle interpersonal conflict in our lives.

Solomon said, "It is to a man's honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel" (Prov. 20:3). Notice, it doesn't say you should ignore strife. It says you should avoid it. If there is friction in a relationship, you have to deal with it. Ignoring it will not make the problem go away. You have to work to resolve it. However, you're much better off if you can avoid the conflict altogether before it becomes a problem.

Today, we'll look at three ways you can handle conflict. Some of these ideas will help you avoid conflict. Others will help you resolve conflict. Either way, it will reduce the amount of stress in your life and maximize your relationships. So, let's look at each one closely. The first thing that will help you handle conflict in your life is ...

Delay your reaction.

When people make us mad, we have a tendency to want to let them know about it right away. Somewhere along the line, we've been told that it isn't healthy to fume and fret and that we should get things off our chest immediately. We've been told that "holding it in" only makes the problem worse, and so we use that as an excuse to let the other guy have it the minute something happens that we don't like.

If you have used this strategy in dealing with conflict, you have probably already learned that it doesn't work. Sure, you blow off some steam, and you might feel a little better, but if you vent a little too much, you often cause more damage than you can repair. And, more often than not, you end up looking foolish.

Obviously, if you're having conflict with another person, you can't hold it in forever. I'm not suggesting that. I am suggesting when there is conflict in a relationship, you delay your reaction long enough to evaluate what is going on. Flying off the handle is easy. Flying back on the handle can be a tricky maneuver. I recommend that, before you blow up in anger at someone, give yourself some time to think things over. Solomon said, "A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult" (12:16).

I recently led a camp for fourth through sixth graders. As you are undoubtedly aware, leading worship for two hundred elementary-age children sometimes looks less like ministry and more like riot patrol. At the beginning of the camp I told all the counselors to sit in the group with their campers to help the kids remain focused on the content of each meeting.

One evening as I was leading the singing, I noticed a counselor sitting with his back to me, engaged in conversation with the co-counselor of his cabin. While they were talking to one another, they weren't paying attention to their campers, who became increasingly restless throughout the meeting. I glared at the back of his head, but it didn't work; he didn't turn around.

After the meeting I was furious. I wanted to let him know immediately what a poor example he had set for his campers, and how difficult his insolence had made it for me to do my job. After thinking it over, I decided instead to let it wait until the next day, when I could speak to him with less anger in my voice. The next morning, before we had a chance to talk, he made an announcement in staff meeting: "I have to leave camp early this week. Yesterday I found out that my best friend was killed in a hunting accident. I need to go home and be with his family."

Needless to say, my reason for being upset vanished. I understood what he and his co-counselor had been talking about during the previous night's session. Though they could have handled it differently—they could have excused themselves from the meeting and asked other counselors to cover for them—I wasn't going to quibble. I was just thankful that this time I had waited to fly off the handle.

A delayed reaction will give you time to evaluate the situation, and help you determine if it really is worth discussing. Maybe after thinking it over, you will realize that you overreacted. Maybe you'll discover you didn't have all the facts. Maybe you'll discover that things weren't what they seemed to be. Waiting to react will give you time to reflect, and will save you from having to apologize later. Solomon said, "A quick-tempered man does foolish things" (14:17). "A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly" (14:29).

The first thing that will help you handle conflict is a delayed reaction. Think of it this way: If you have a problem with procrastination, this is one area where it will come in handy. Procrastinate your anger. Delay—at least for a few hours—flying off the handle, until you've had some time to evaluate the situation.

The second thing you need to do is ...

Say it gently and firmly.

Last year 20/20 aired a feature about parents who yell at their children. They placed cameras in the homes of a few volunteers and left them there several weeks, capturing on film every detail of the way the parents related to their children around the clock. One mom in the report had a style of parenting that can only be described in three words: loud and louder. She would yell at her children, but they had become accustomed to it, and they simply ignored her. So she would yell a little louder, and a little louder, until she finally got their attention. Since her words consisted mainly of empty threats, she was never taken seriously. If she had ever tried speaking at normal volume and then following through on what she had said, she would have quickly discovered that screaming isn't really necessary.

When you're in conflict with another person, you don't have to put heat on your words in order to have impact. You only have to be willing to follow through on what you say. The problem is, sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that it is easier to intimidate someone by yelling and screaming than it is to actually deal with the problem at hand. We need to keep in mind what Solomon said: "A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control" (29:11).

Dave Ramsey, author of Financial Peace, once told me that the reason collection agencies use such abusive phone tactics is because most of the time it is the only option they have. Suing for a bad debt is rarely an option; getting a court judgment is costly, time consuming, and frequently futile. It is often easier to call the debtor names and shame him or her into paying the bill. "The more powerless they are, the more abusive they become," he said.

I've seen the same to be true with managers, coaches, parents, pastors, school teachers, and others in leadership positions. The less weight your words carry, the more volume you have to put behind them.

It is extremely difficult to resolve conflict with another person if you don't take seriously and they don't take seriously whatever it is you're saying. Whenever you're attempting to resolve conflict with someone, say what you need to say gently, and say it firmly. Don't call them names. Don't make threats you do not intend to carry out. Just say what you mean and mean what you say.

A woman, Gina, recently told me how her husband, Barry, dealt effectively with a source of conflict during the early days of their courtship. She was in the habit of being late, especially on dates. Missing a dinner reservation at a restaurant was common for her. Being the last to arrive at a party was nothing unusual. Stumbling through a dark theatre, trying to find two seats together long after the movie started was a typical occurrence, also.

Other boyfriends had complained about it, and had fought with her about it, but Barry handled it differently. One Saturday evening they made plans to see a movie. Barry stopped by the theatre in the afternoon to purchase tickets, since it was sure to be a sellout. When he called her to tell her he had the tickets, he said to her, "I really don't like being late, especially when we're going to a movie. So, if we can't leave your house by 7:15 this evening, I would rather stay home and watch TV."

That evening, when she came down the stairs at 7:40, she found Barry in the den, watching football with her father. "I'm ready," she said.

He looked at his watch and said (without a trace of irritation of his voice), "I'm sorry, Honey, but we'll never make it to the theater in time. Let's stay here and watch the ball game."

She said, "If we hurry we can make it on time."

Barry shook his head and said (again, without any irritation), "I don't think so. Let's just watch the game instead."

Gina says (and Barry confirms) that she was never late for a date again. She realized that when Barry says something, he means it. He never fought with her about being late. He never told her how inconsiderate she was for not being ready on time. He just calmly explained to her that he didn't want to be late to the movie, and rather than being late, he would spend the evening at home. She told me she spent the whole evening hoping she hadn't ruined her chances of ever going out with Barry again, since she had caused him to miss the movie.

I know some of you are probably thinking, I wish it were that easy for me! The fact is, it is that easy—if you approach the matter by expressing yourself gently but firmly. Too often, we take the opposite approach. We yell and scream. We get huffy. We make sarcastic remarks. We remind them later what an inconvenience they created. We threaten never to take them anywhere ever again, but we don't mean a word of it. As a result, nothing ever gets resolved.

If you're having conflict with someone, say what you need to say. Make an effort to say it gently. You don't have to be mean about it. And make an effort to say it firmly. Without threats or ultimatums, simply tell the other person your perspective on the problem. Remember Solomon's words: "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (15:1). This will help you handle conflict.

A third thing that will help you is ...

Strive for a solution.

Think of the conflict you're currently facing. Do you find yourself having the same argument again and again, day after day? Do you find yourself repeatedly telling someone (or repeatedly being told) everything that is wrong with the relationship, yet nothing ever gets fixed?

This is the course too many marriages, friendships, parent-child relationships, and work-related conflicts tend to take. People want to go on and on and on about the problem, but they don't want to work toward finding a solution.

When someone is mad at me, I'm not nearly as interested in hearing what I've done wrong as I am in hearing what I can do to make things better. Obviously, discussing the problem is part of finding a solution, but if all you do is talk about the problem, nothing will ever get fixed.

If you're having conflict with someone, it's because they're doing something you don't want them to do, or you're doing something they don't want you to do. In order to resolve the conflict, one of you will have to change your behavior, or the other will have to change the way he or she feels about the behavior. (By the way, if the conflict is with your boss, guess which one of you will have to change!) If you want to resolve the conflict in your life, you have to be willing to stop dwelling on the problem and begin focusing on a solution.

Two married friends of mine, Dave and Kim, fought all the time about money. Dave spent irresponsibly, and it drove Kim crazy. When Dave finally changed his spending habits, he expected the fights to end, but they didn't. For months and months Kim kept bringing up what Dave used to do. He had changed, but it wasn't enough. She was still mad about the past, and she wasn't quite ready to let go of it. Dave wanted to focus on the solution; Kim wanted to focus on the problem. Dave began to feel like there was nothing he could do to make up for his past mistakes, and he began to wonder if they would ever be able to get along again.

If you want to resolve the conflict in your life, you have to be willing to let go of the conflict, and direct your attention to a solution. Solomon said, "A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel" (15:18). Strive for a solution to conflict. You don't have to keep reminding other people about what they did wrong. Once they have taken steps to make peace, you have to be willing to let it go.

One evening when Kim reminded Dave that, thanks to him, they couldn't go on vacation, he finally said to her, "Have we not resolved this? Have I not taken all the possible steps to make this right? When will you ever forgive me?" Kim later told me that she realized at that point that the real problem in their marriage was her unwillingness to forgive Dave. She said that subconsciously it had given her an edge in the relationship; it made her feel superior to him to know that he had made all the mistakes in their marriage. And then she began to realize she was making the biggest mistake of all by focusing on the problem rather than the solution.

Spiritually mature people aren't interested in keeping conflict alive. They are, as Solomon said, more inclined to calm a quarrel, to avoid strife, to cover a wrong whenever possible. If you're in conflict with another person, you can't ignore the conflict. You have to deal with it. You deal with it by striving for a solution, not by revisiting the past day after day.


If you have a job, if you have a spouse, if you have children, if you have neighbors, if you have friends, if you go to church, you will have conflict in your life. But you don't have to live or work in a war zone. You can avoid or resolve the conflict in your life by approaching it with wisdom.

That means, delay your reaction until you've had time to cool off and evaluate the situation. It means speaking tour mind gently and firmly. It means striving for solution. Try this, and you will experience peace in your relationships.

© Steve May


A resource of Christianity Today International

Steve May has been a pastor to pastors for more than 20 years, helping preachers and teachers to become more effective communicators of the gospel.

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Sermon Outline:


If you live or work or associate in any way with people, you will experience interpersonal conflict.

I. Delay your reaction.

II. Say it gently and firmly.

III. Strive for a solution.


Although conflict is inevitable, approaching it with wisdom helps to avoid or resolve it.