I kind of hate conflict management.
Personal conflict tends to sideline me in that head-between-my-knees, breathe-into-a-paper-bag way any of us would find attractive and mature. Which is why, when it’s over, part of me would opt to skip away with a “tra-la-la” brand of obliviousness. Maybe I would spring to the beach, where I could bury parts of my body in the warm sand. Preferably my head.
After a recent conflict weirdness, to quote Taylor Swift, I was more than ready to shake it off! Shake it off!
To be clear, some idols of mine had been uncovered. Desires had swollen beyond proportion, to become too valuable to me and become demands. The underbelly of who I am had been exposed. But considering the favorable outcome of the conflict, it was a kind way for God to expose some of my soul holes.
And because of this general truth about conflicts, they’re full of loss. How can you help a friend navigate conflict?
What if conflict is an opportunity?
Personal conflict isn’t opportunity to win. Or always agree.
See, Jesus was God’s response to our conflict with Him. And He puts the replay into our hands: “Through Christ [God] reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20, emphasis added).
So conflict morphs into an opportunity. It’s an invitation to honor God, to love others well, to look more like Jesus, and for both parties to shape each other. And in that, to say, This is what God’s heart looks like.
James 4:1 reminds me what pulls the puppet strings on my own conflicts: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”
So help your friend think through the pain point that’s become so important to them. What feels trampled on? Beneath the presenting issue, what do they want?
In my own conflicts, my desires-turned-demands often become more valuable than loving well through differences. Or trusting God’s plan rather than mine and relying on the work of His Holy Spirit more than my control.
My personal goals inflate beyond finding “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8) with other members of God’s body, or beyond compassion for those who don’t know Him yet.
Conflict management: Ain’t nobody got time for that
The values of an acquaintance of mine sometimes bring to mind the sensation of shampoo in my eyes, complete with the anxiety and anger. In truth, sometimes those values make me feel straight-up afraid.
But thinking about this person recently, the Holy Spirit brought up Romans 5:8: God closed the gap between us—outright dying for me—when I was His enemy. He loved me like that. He seemed to nudge me on the shoulder, reminding me to take a cue from Him: How does He treat His enemies?
Paul didn’t steer around thoughtful conversation with those who disagreed passionately about values in the church. He saw that even if a person represents a totally different function in Christ’s Body, he couldn’t shut that person out, couldn’t be indifferent to them, couldn’t say “I don’t need you” (1 Corinthians 12:21). But he did keep Christ as his dictating priority.
Paul wrote to Christians debating about eating food used in idol worship, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him … each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another.”
And then the kicker: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 14:3, 12-13; 15:7, emphasis added).
Wondering what you can practically do to coach your friend? Try these ideas.
1. Don’t waste your conflict.
Mary, mother of Jesus, is said to have “treasured” her confusing circumstances allowed by God, pondering them in her heart (Luke 2:19). The original Greek word, translated to pondering in English, means to “throw together/encounter/consider/discuss.”
The conflict in our lives could be an intentional assignment from God. So encourage your friend chew on it with that in mind and to do the heart work.
Gently walk your friend through questions like these.
- What’s broken about this situation?
- What is this conflict revealing about me, what I want or hope for, what I’m afraid of, my heart, and how I think about God?
- How do God’s character and the Bible speak truth to my situation?
- What’s He want to do in this, and in me?
- What do I need to confess to Him?
- How do I need to trust Him with this strong desire?
- Where is God calling me to dramatically new ways of thinking and acting?
For a week, ask your friend to meditate through Romans 12:9-21. Encourage them to ask God, What does it look for me to “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18)?
2. Together, start your conflict management by praying: for the other person, for wisdom to act for true peace, and for your friend’s heart.
Talking to the other person isn’t your friend’s first step! Pray together first for this person, asking to mirror God’s posture toward them. Ask for wisdom: Show us how to love here.
And then, Holy One, show me what my contribution is here, even if I think it’s small (Matthew 7:5). Help me to agree with You for all of what You see I’ve done. Help me change.
3. Help your friend communicate, This relationship matters to me.
Your friend can first affirm to the other person the value of the relationship between them: Y’know, I’m glad we’re different. You have value to me, and value I need to hear. I want to understand. I want to keep listening.
Tip: If your friend honestly feels indifferent about the relationship, dig in there, too. In all honesty, God wasn’t indifferent with us. Is “Peace/This relationship doesn’t matter enough to me” a response from the Holy Spirit, whose wisdom is “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy” (James 3:17)?
Other ways to communicate care:
- Gentleness. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
- Self-control. “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Proverbs 29:11).
- Valuing understanding over “winning.” “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2).
4. Identify the desire underneath the argument.
What’s the other person’s possible interest, passion, or pain beneath the issue?
There’s a good chance your friend shares a core value with them. Maybe they both want the good of x, desire peace, or desire to show people compassion or justice. Discuss creative ways to advance values both parties share.
Tip: Feeling understood makes us far more open to a wide variety of resolutions to a conflict.
5. Stop faking it.
Like me, perhaps your friend’s tempted to fake peace for their own comfort, to seem right, or even because they’re indifferent enough to the relationship. But God didn’t fake the severity of our conflict with Him. He chose to change us through it and increase our closeness.
Rather than truly overlooking and graciously forgiving, we harden and distance ourselves. Are we truly extending grace, or glossing over, stuffing deeper? (That’s a river in Egypt.)
Don’t let your friend just clean the surface. Address the true interests, hurts, and questions beneath the presenting problem.
6. Listen and receive.
Suggest your friend pick one or two listening skills to hone in on. Because who couldn’t stand to be a better listener, right? Do they feel like they:
- Make people feel understood around them, no matter the issue? (One-on-one discussions are better for this than groups.) Do people feel like they withhold judgment?
- Communicate care with their expressions (soft eyes, nodding, eye contact, uncrossed arms)?
- Embrace humility about what they don’t know?
- Know when to back away or deescalate heated moments?
- Wait after the other person has stopped talking to see if they have more to say?
- Opt for listening over planning a response?
- Steer clear of sweeping statements and inflammatory language?
- Overlook potential insults?
- Refrain from finishing sentences, interrupting, shaming, dominating, overtalking?
The other person’s responses serve as dashboard lights of whether they feel received, esteemed, and heard—not just whether your friend communicated clearly or won them over.
7. Think: Why is the other person provoked?
Beneath a possibly disproportionate reaction, what’s being stepped on?
Ask your friend how well the other party senses their empathy toward the rejection, disappointment, or injustice below their anger—how “heard” they feel. Is your friend logging the hours to ask questions, hear this person’s story, and communicate their love through active listening, empathy, and vulnerability?
A common social psychological principle: When we mess up, we tend to attribute it to our circumstances. But when other people mess up, we tend to attribute it to their character.
Gently asking questions about others’ motivations rather than assuming they meant harm can save us tremendous misunderstanding.
8. Opt for in-person conversations over text or social media—but keep an eye on tone.
Text-only convos subtract presence, thoughtful expression, humanity, and understanding from our interactions. But in person, tone of voice can be one barometer of self-control and de-escalator (Proverbs 15:1).
Our self-control in conflict stems from:
- Security in God as judge and defender.
- Value apart from others’ opinions.
- Identity unhitched from our ability to be superior.
And it changes the way we argue.
9. Continue to move toward.
Undeserved kindness has this way of prying open our eyes, of humbling both sides. “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22).
Brainstorm together. How could your friend tangibly, generously show love right now?
10. Have a lion’s heart and a duck’s back.
Encourage your friend to be courageously kind in receiving criticism, letting it roll off. And bravely choose to be authentic rather than wearing a mask of passivity.
- For God’s power to return a blessing in the face of every insult (1 Peter 3:9).
- To speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
- To be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).
- To only use words that build up, give grace, and are right for the occasion, employing the Holy Spirit’s kindness and gentleness (Galatians 5:22-23, Ephesians 4:29)—rather than shaming, gaining control, or punishing. “Being honest” can be a weak excuse for not “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
What conflict could stand between this person and Jesus?
Rather than focusing on what your friend longs to receive from this person, ask God to give both parties eyes that see, ears that hear.
Together, ask, “Lord, what do You want to do here with these different values? How can we love people well and show them You?” Encourage your friend, in conflict management, to move forward as a giver rather than a taker.
And in your efforts for true peace and genuine love, move further into God’s heart toward all of you.
Copyright © 2023 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Harvest House), released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.