Staying Connected in the Midst of Conflict

I am currently in Israel on a trip through the Holy Lands and so am sharing a column that I wrote six years ago regarding being in relationship with people who have strong differences of opinion regarding politics.  It is interesting how relevant it still is both in Israel, in the United States, and throughout the world.   With the recent intensity of political division in our country people are being presented with plenty of opportunities to practice their conflict resolution skills.  Family members, friends, and colleagues who find themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum are finding their relationships challenged, as emotions are high and the language on both sides becomes increasingly more inflammatory.  Thus, it seems that now is good time to share a few thoughts about how to manage and/or resolve conflict, so that healthy relationships can be maintained, and maybe even strengthened, in the midst of conflict.

I write from two perspectives, as a marriage and family therapist and as an Episcopal priest.  As a therapist, I help couples and families resolve conflict every day.  As a pastor, I work with faith communities that are  made up people who represent the full range of  political views, conservative to liberal.

So from these two perspectives, I offer a few tips on how to maintain healthy connections with others, even in the midst of conflict. This is list is by no means meant to be exhaustive.

  • Listen.  Listen.  Listen.  Few people make the mistake of listening too much, especially in the midst of conflict.  Listen to the position of the other person until you understand it so well that you can articulate it just as clearly as your own.  Somehow people have confused compassionate listening and understanding with agreeing.  They are not the same.  Mutual listening and understanding are foundational to conflict resolution, and remember that if through listening you find your position changing somewhat, this is not a sign of weakness.
  • Understand the narrative that has given rise to the other person’s position.  All positions, all view points, are embedded in a life narrative that has been formed and informed by important people, places, experiences, core values and beliefs unique to that person.   Knowing all of this will help you understand the emotions that the person connects with their position.  At the same time, be aware of your own narrative, your own life experiences that have formed and shaped your positions and view points. When you encounter a person whose opinions are very different from your own, a couple of great questions to ask are, “How did you come to believe what you believe? Who were the important people and what where the important life experiences that formed the opinions you have today?”
  • Remember that the problem or issue which is being debated is the problem, and don’t make the person with whom you are disagreeing the problem.
  • Avoid inflammatory language and always avoid demonizing the other person.  Never resort to name calling or degrading language. Be respectful at all times.  Practice humility.  Articulate your perspective strongly, but know that in any complex matter, there are intelligent, ethical, well-meaning people who see things differently than you do.  Affirm what unites you, rather than merely focusing on what divides you.  There are often higher ideals that both sides agree on, even though they  disagree on the best way to enact those ideals.  If possible, look for genuine ways you can “meet in the middle” and when you cannot, then assert and act on your opinions and beliefs in a way that is respectful.

Times of conflict, believe it or not, can even strengthen a relationship because during such times we show our deepest passions, and what it is that truly defines us. Through that process we will also come to know one another more fully.  There is a vulnerability when we reveal our deepest passions and ideals to  one another, and this has the potential to deepen relationships.  If we can do this with respect, integrity and compassion, we will find that we can maintain healthy relationships, even in the midst of conflict.