(This is one of a five part series on responding to thematic issues affecting member care providers and cross-cultural worker’s health and effectiveness. You can read the intro.)
Can You Relate?
A couple was conveying their deep sense of being stuck in their career due, in part, to not knowing how to navigate an under-current of “not being on the same page” with their present supervisor. This had been going on for over 10 years. A decade of frustrating disconnect which had resulted in aspects of being misfit in their responsibilities, feeling under-appreciated for their efforts, and generally losing trust with current leadership. The level of discouragement was immense. One could understand why. And, I am sure if I was sitting down with that leader in question he or she would convey their own version of heartache as well. How do we get so stuck relationally?
WARNING LABEL: I am going to be direct on this subject, for it is killing us….
Though I should know better, I am still stunned at the level of unresolved conflict out there. I am perpetually taken aback at the amount of triangulation, talking poorly of others absent from the room, and general immature ways we relate when we are not seeing eye-to-eye.
Frankly, when it comes to interpersonal conflict, we are way too emotionally immature.
We are Nice but not Loving
I think it is pastor and author John Ortberg who wrote that “we nice each other to death” in the church and our mission organizations.
When I am with a group of people talking about the topic of stress – of which interpersonal conflict is a major cause – I will bring up the dynamic of passive-aggressive ways we relate. We send out non-verbal messages; we talk about others; everyone in the room knows we are unhappy about something, but the truth is hardly ever openly addressed. We are masters of passive-aggressiveness. This ranges someplace between a stunning blindspot to outright deliberate unwillingness to being loving toward others.
When asked why, common responses I hear are, “I don’t want to hurt their feelings” or, “I don’t want them to feel bad” or, “I hate conflict.”
We’ve convinced ourselves we are being nice but in reality we are profoundly self-preserving.
In the end, conflict avoidance simply comes down to self-preservation. It scares us. So we harm others with the way we passively relate rather than have the courage to lean into the other person in a direct, tactful, timely, and loving manner to share our hearts.
When I willingly put myself in potential harm’s way (like being uncomfortable with a conversation), then I am beginning to love the other. Yes, this might backfire, but I am willing to do what is right regardless of personal cost.
I sense that the majority of us would simply be flummoxed in even knowing how to begin such a conversation. There is so little healthy modeling of this it has become a foreign manner of relating.
Throwing Stones is Easy
It is easy to identify the problem. Offering a solution is much harder. So, what is the way forward in emotional and relational maturity? How does one become an emotional adult in the area of relational conflict?
First, if anything you’ve read here rings true in your own heart, the place to begin is simple, raw, unedited confession and repentance. Talk to God first.
Then, begin to ask God to show you all of your fear and poor, life-long habits of relating when it comes to conflict.
Scary stuff, I know.
Someplace in here, maybe with the help of counsel, we may have to go to those we have held ill-will towards, confess that, and ask for forgiveness. This can be super scary. It is the key step toward taking responsibility for our own actions.
There are times when trust has broken down so much that the need for a third party mediator is required. Pursuing this is wise and courageous, though never easy.
Beyond that, we can take other practical growth steps.
If you know someone who does conflict well, ask them to teach you.
There are some great trainings out there, like SYIS.
Peter Scazzero has some wonderful resources published. I strongly recommend anyone with a pulse to read his Emotionally Healthy Spirituality book. You can take a free online emotional health assessment here. You can also print a hard copy of this assessment and take it as a team. If you are honest in the assessment, it can be a bit sobering how many areas of one’s life fall in the emotional adolescent category. This assessment can provide some concrete areas to lean into in your path of maturation. Take special note of Scazzero’s description of an emotional adult on the final page of the assessment. I’d change a few words here and there but it is one of the best measuring bars I have seen in print. Pray over each descriptor. How will you grow in each?
We all need places to process when we feel stuck in relationships. Debriefers, counselors, spiritual directors and other advisors can help us to begin to get “unstuck” relationally.
Bottom Line: I am responsible for myself in all my relationships.
The infected wounds of unresolved conflict is literally undermining the work of the gospel in the very places where people are desperate to witness the reality of the living, forgiving Lord through his people. For the sake of the gospel, your own soul, and others whom God loves too, I pray you lean into all those mucky relationships you have in your journey.
Does anyone have other helpful resources in this category?
(Thanks for grace as I speak frankly on the subject. If I have offended anyone, please let me know so I can apologize!)