Understanding conflict

There is more than one way to assess the dynamics at play in conflict. We have the intrapersonal elements: what is going on within each person? Internal struggles are sometimes good fodder for conversation with a therapist or counselor, a professional who helps individuals understand how their current reactions are shaped by past experiences. Once that awareness emerges, healing becomes possible.

In conflict there are also the interpersonal aspects: what is happening among people? I don’t know of an approach that offers more insight into relationships than family systems theory, which explains how different emotional units interact in healthy and unhealthy ways.

To be certain, the intra- and interpersonal overlap when conflict threatens to boil over, and a basic grasp of both is essential to pastoral care at multiple layers. But I think an additional filter is helpful when we’re dealing with issues at the congregational level. Otherwise we can quickly get into the weeds, analyzing who is where in the system or what each person’s triggers are, so that it’s hard to zoom back out to the big picture. Meetings grind to a halt and initiatives die because we’re so focused on managing problems at the micro level.

In my mind, then, congregations live on an x-y axis. Individuals are points on the plane. Family systems theory orients us along the horizontal axis, helping us see how one person relates to the next. The vertical axis can in turn offer us a deeper though perhaps simpler way in to focusing what’s going on by taking us from symptoms at the surface to underlying issues.

At the outset we deal with logic. What are the arguments the involved parties are making? What are the counterpoints? If conflict is not resolved through reason, through adding up pros and cons and taking the most apparently advantageous path, then something else is going on.

The next level down to probe, then, is emotion. Who is feeling what and why? How might those feelings need tending? Whose heart or relationship needs mending?

If conflict remains after working with logic and feelings, then there is a struggle for power, whether or not it’s acknowledged as such. Who has control in certain situations? How did they get it, and how do they maintain it? What would it look like to give some of it up, and who would benefit? What would it take to convince the powerholders to cede some of their stake?

This approach, adapted from Sarah Drummond’s book Dynamic Discernment, provides a more streamlined on-the-spot assessment and offers a way to think about what it would take truly to get conversations and plans moving in a helpful direction. So the next time you’re blindsided in a conversation or banging your head on the conference table during a stalled-out meeting, travel the vertical axis of reason-emotion-power, taking care as you have breadth to tend to the pastoral care needs of individuals and emotional units.

Photo by Cristian Palmer on Unsplash.

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