Conflict: Understanding and Resolving It

with Gary Smalley, Greg Smalley, ...more | March 13, 2021

Conflict happens even in the closest of relationships. Ken Sande walks us through how to constructively resolve conflict. Tara Barthel, Judy Dabler, and Gary and Greg Smalley share stories of their conflicts and how they were resolved.

Show Notes and Resources

Conflict happens even in the closest of relationships. Ken Sande walks us through how to constructively resolve conflict. Tara Barthel, Judy Dabler, and Gary and Greg Smalley share stories of their conflicts and how they were resolved.

Show Notes and Resources

Conflict: Understanding and Resolving It

With Gary Smalley, Greg Smalley, ...more
March 13, 2021
| Download Transcript PDF

Michelle: Have you ever noticed how a conflict starts over the simplest miscommunication? Here is Greg Smalley remembering his first day at college.

Greg: I literally showed up down there and said, “I’m ready to begin. Where do I sign up?” The admissions lady literally laughed at me; she goes, “You think it is that simple?” I was like, “What?!” She goes, “Well, there are forms you fill out and….” She says, “It’s too late.”

Gary: I didn’t give you a lot of guidance at this point. [Laughter]

Greg: Yes; where were you, by the way, in that whole process? [Laughter]

Michelle: Well, we’ll find out how Greg and his dad, the late Dr. Gary Smalley, resolved their conflict as we talk about conflict today and how it can really explode in your face; but we’ll also take a look at some of the tips on how to resolve it peaceably on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.

Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. Last week, we talked about conflict: how easily it starts/how it escalates, and we also discussed how anger is sometimes at that root.

Have you ever watched The Looney Toons cartoons and ever wonder how that steam comes out of your ears? Well, I remember my first encounter with steam coming out of someone’s ears. Now, this fellow was a military guy, and he really knew how to get it rolling. I knew I was in the wrong in this, but it was a frightening experience. I was trying so hard to think fast and go, “How do I resolve this peacefully?” because it wasn’t peaceful at that time.

I thought, this week, we need to talk about resolving conflict. I think that my producer and engineer, Keith/he needs this skill desperately. [Cartoon cackles] So, first, we need to understand just what conflict is. I thought, “Who better to explain that to us than a man who has lived his life helping people resolve conflict?” I’m talking about Ken Sande. In fact, his passion is to help people resolve and prevent conflict. It’s led him to found Peacemaker Ministries, and that’s their specialty—is to help Christians resolve conflict in every area of their life—here is Ken with that definition.

[Previous FamilyLife Today® Broadcast]

Ken: A lot of people think that conflict is just a big argument or lawsuit, but we describe it as: “A difference of opinion or purpose that frustrates someone’s goals or desires.” That’s a pretty broad definition. Now, that includes everything from a church division, a divorce, a lawsuit.

But it also goes down to things as simple as when we’re sitting down to watch television. I pick up the remote control; suddenly, we’ve got potential for a conflict. My wife, for some strange reason, does not like watching three shows simultaneously. [Laughter] I finally began to appreciate/the day I began to appreciate her frustration was the day she grabbed the control before I did; and I find out how irritating it is to have someone else flicking a channel at a certain point, where you don’t want it to; so that’s a conflict.

The four basic causes that we look for, as we come into a dispute:

One of them can be simple misunderstandings; there really is not, in fact, a conflict; but there appears to be differences. That’s just poor communication/inadequate communication.

The second cause can be differences in goals, opinions, purposes, programs. Churches have different values and priorities in different groups in the churches. Some can want to do a youth ministry; others minister to the elderly; etc.—so you get different values.

The third area that is common within churches and families is competition over limited resources—time/money—things like that.

Now, those three categories—even the secular conflict resolution people would basically agree. The fourth category is what sets Christian peacemaking aside from everything else. We see a fourth cause of conflict, which is sin and things that are contrary to God’s revealed will. It’s those sinful attitudes and habits that give rise to sinful words and conduct, and that’s the gasoline on conflict.


Michelle: Oh boy! Did you just hear what I heard? Ken Sande said that sin is the gasoline in conflict. Our sinful desires can ignite from just a simple misunderstanding.

I heard a story recently of a newly-married couple; and their worst fights in those early poverty-stricken years were over one of them coming home with an empty Coke® can and not sharing it. [Laughter] Can you imagine? I’m sure you can imagine; can’t you? Well, misunderstandings can start small; and when we forget the grace quotient that we need to be extending, well, things can get out of control fast.

Take, for instance, authors Tara Barthel and Judy Dabler. They wanted to write together, and Judy had a huge impact on Tara’s life. They wrote a book about this: Peacemaking Women. They are professionals, but they hit a few unexpected bumps along the way in the form of miscommunication and conflict. Here is Tara.

[Previous FamilyLife Today Broadcast]

Tara: Everybody has conflict; everybody has conflict. You can sit there and say, “Oh, a certified conciliator/Peacemaker ministries—I’m sure that they know how to work through their conflicts”; but the bottom line is: conflict is hard; life is painful; relationships with dear friends become broken/with those we love the most.

That’s what happened in our relationship. We began working on this project—both of us very busy; and just like one little miscommunication here, one miscommunication there, our sin/idols that rule our hearts—and before you know it, it got to the point where our relationship was so broken and so painful. You understand—this has been the woman who has ministered Christ to me—but the relationship was so broken that I could not read her emails. My husband had to screen them, because the flush of adrenaline and just the anxiety/ angst of reading them—they were so stressful.

Bob: You remember when you first were aware that: “We’ve got a problem here”?

Judy: I do; I had flown to Billings to spend a week, working with Tara. This was about five months into our writing schedule. They/Tara had a friend, who was a nurse, come over to take my pulse and my blood pressure. I was having tremendous chest pain, and we had miscommunicated on a few things—had worked it out—and I left after the week.

We’d gotten quite a bit done, and I went back home and ended up in the emergency room. They couldn’t find anything wrong. After a week or so, I was back in the emergency room. Finally, the emergency room doctor comes out and said, “Mrs. Dabler, we’ve checked you over; you are having a panic attack.” I said, “No; no; you don’t understand. I’m a licensed, professional counselor. I deal with people with panic. No; I wouldn’t be having that because I’m against that.” [Laughter]

It turns out I was having tremendous anxiety. Over the course of a couple of months, my life actually fell apart; several things hit all at once. We/my ministry had just bought a new building. I lost two key employees—two directors of two major divisions of the ministry—left: one to Chicago for a church plant and the other to California. In the midst of that, my husband had a terrible accident and was in the hospital for eight days. I was in the middle of working with this significant church split conflict of a very large church that was on the verge of a split. And my mother was having a hip replacement.

The order was: my mother’s hip replacement first. The next day, the church pleaded and begged for help in the conflict. And the day after that, my husband was in the hospital, having run over his foot with a lawnmower. In the midst of that/within two more days, my father-in-law began his final days on earth, dying of lung cancer.

The combination of many things collided; and in the midst of all of that, the relationship with Tara—it was—I had distanced myself. I wouldn’t respond; I wasn’t writing, and everything shut down. It was a very, very difficult time. Through the course of that, I began to learn some things.

Dennis: Where did the hope come from for resolving this conflict, Judy?

Judy: Where did the hope come from? The hope first came for me by being entirely hopeless. I reached a place, where it was the darkest time of my entire life. I couldn’t work; the perfectionist, highly-driven person shut down.

Dennis: I heard Tara describe you as the most effective conciliator she’s ever seen in helping other people resolve conflict.

Judy: It would have been nice if somebody had been able to help me; but at that point, I would not allow myself to need another human being. That came three months later.

Bob: You know, I’ve had this happen before. I’ll be describing something that’s frustrating in my own life; and my wife will say, “Well, if you were counseling somebody, who expressed to you what you’ve just been expressing, how would you advise them?” I hate when she does that; you know?—[Laughter]

Dennis: Yes. [Laughter]

Bob: —because when she does that, I can think of how I would advise that person. But part of this is you weren’t letting people into your life.

Judy: That’s right.

Tara: And I/during the mediation, one of the things that broke my heart the most was I didn’t know; and I hadn’t been there for her as a friend. That’s—I mean, we wept; and even probably, recently, have wept over that—even just to send a card; to send flowers; to give a call; to drop an email, just to be saying…—but at that point, the relationship was so broken, I wasn’t a safe person for her. I could not encourage her in that way and how sad that made me.


Michelle: Wow! That does seem kind of extreme; doesn’t it?—I mean, miscommunications; but then you are leaving out some pretty big stuff from emails; and then there are assumptions of what’s going on; and Tara’s husband had to step in, because her anxiety would go through the roof when she received emails from Judy—that is a pretty big rift between two ladies, writing a book on peacemaking. In some ways, I think, “How silly! Come on! Work your problems out, ladies. Be honest. Knock it off!”

After all, in the book of Romans, Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Then I remember that little thing called sin. Remember what Ken Sande said?—“Sin in the gasoline…” Lies from Satan can easily derail us from extending grace and thinking the best of people. I am so glad that Tara and Judy were able to work through their differences/walk in humility. The book is a testament to all that God has done in their lives.

You know, every kind of conflict hurts—whether it is between coworkers, friends, roommates, spouses, parents and kids—there is a brokenness that we feel; because you love each other dearly. Many conflicts/they don’t go away overnight. We’re going to hear about another kind of conflict—maybe a lighter kind of conflict—but it’s between parents and their son when we come back in two minutes. We’ve got to take a break; we’ll be back. Stay tuned.

[Radio Station Spot Break]

Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. We’ve been talking about conflict—how it’s everywhere. It’s all around us, because we all have sin in our lives. Because of that, conflict—well, it’s inevitable. But not all conflicts are big; not all conflicts will cause a war, or divorce, or a rift between two book authors. Some conflict is what I call the garden variety; it’s in the everyday things.

The late Gary Smalley spent 35 years helping people build better relationships, and he knew what he was doing; but even he encountered conflict in his own family relationships. Back in 1999, Dr. Gary Smalley and his son, Greg, sat down with Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine and talked about some of the conflicts that they have faced as a family. There was one story that caught my ear. See if you can spot the garden-variety conflict in this one.

[Previous FamilyLife Today Broadcast]

Bob: You had some conflict with your dad when it was time to go to college; right?

Greg: Absolutely.

Bob: What was it?

Greg: Well, I was trying determine where I should go to college. Actually, because I procrastinated so much, that when August rolled around—and it’s time to start college—I still had not been accepted by any college. That’s not a good thing, by the way.

Bob: No; that’s a little late—a little late in the season to be getting at it.

Greg: It gives procrastination a whole new meaning. [Laughter] I started thinking, “Okay; where should I go?” My sister was going to Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona, where we were growing up at the time. I said, “Hey, I’ll just go down there.” I, literally, showed up down there and said, “I’m ready to begin. Where do I sign up?” The admission’s lady, literally, laughed at me; she goes, “You think it’s that simple?” I was like, “What?!” She goes, “Well, there are forms you fill out and….” She says, “Too late.”

Gary: I didn’t give you a lot of guidance at this point. [Laughter]

Greg: Yes; where were you, by the way, in that whole process? [Laughter] Thanks a lot!

Dennis: I’ve got to ask you, Gary. Did you and Norma get off in a corner and say, “You know what? Let’s just let him fall flat on his face.” Did you decide to do that?

Greg: Yes; I’d like to know that too. That’s a good question, Dennis.

Gary: Because Kari is going to—Kari is a detailed person; whereas, she did all of this research and all of this kind of thing. I think you just kind of talked about: “That’s where I’m going to go,”—or not really sure where you were going to go so—

Greg: Sounded like a good idea.

Bob: Had there not been a mom or a dad, saying, “Have you got your papers in? Have you done all of that?”

Greg: Oh, my mother was on my case from Day One. I think that’s probably why I hadn’t done anything—is because I was trying to rebel against her and say, “If you’re going to ask me every day, I’ll teach you; and I won’t do anything. Then I’ll just go at the last minute,”—well, it backfired.

Gary: I don’t remember this time. [Laughter]

Bob: So you come back from the admission’s office—

Greg: —being laughed at.

Bob: —realizing you’re not going to Grand Canyon—at least, not this fall; right?

Greg: Yes; they literally—yes; they said, “You would have to go to a junior college or somewhere in the area. Then you could apply, again, next year; because the freshman class is filled up.” I was devastated; I’m humiliated. I’m thinking, “Where am I going to go?”

Luckily, my sister was standing next to her favorite professor of hers. I came up and told her what had happened. This professor and I started talking. Somehow, she was able to talk someone into getting me in on academic probation. I started my college career on academic probation—probably because they thought anybody, who is crazy enough not to do any of this: “What kind of college student are they going to make?” But I made it.

Bob: But it did create conflict between you and your dad?

Greg: Oh, I think it was more—I think the conflict was more between my mom and me—which then, of course, he got into it prominently, trying to defend my mother. Yes; there was no doubt we were in conflict over that.


Michelle: Well, Gary, Norma, and Greg eventually worked through their college conflicts. Greg went off to college, graduated, and now works at Focus on the Family® as VP in Marriage and Family Formation.

But let’s move on to how to resolve conflict, because that’s what I need to be reminded of daily. Remember the issues that I have with my boss?

Keith: What issues?! [Laughter]

Michelle: So, in resolving conflict, one of the most powerful peacemaking tools that you have is confession. That’s probably the hardest thing for any of us to get to, but Ken Sande says it goes completely against human reasoning.

Here is Ken again, explaining the 7 A’s of Confession. But he starts off, reminding us there is a false confession to watch out for.

[Previous FamilyLife Today Broadcast]

Ken: The typical confession that we see in our country is something like: “If I’ve done something wrong, then I’m sorry.” We’ve seen this at national levels; we see this with politicians. We see this, sadly, with church leaders. The message that confession sends: “If I’ve done something wrong, I’m sorry,”—what people basically hear is—“Well, I don’t really know that I’ve done something wrong, but I can see you are going to make life miserable until you get some satisfaction; so here is a token confession.”

But the first day is actually: “To address everyone involved.” If it’s just been a sin in your own heart/you haven’t affected anyone else, just take it to God; but if you’ve affected somebody else—your spouse, members of the church, whatever—you better go to them.

I had a pastor, in law school, who got up in front of the whole church to confess how he’d spoken inappropriately to an elder in a Sunday school class the week before. I was sort of embarrassed by it; I thought, “You shouldn’t talk about these things in public, especially the pastor.” I had a young friend there with me that morning I was trying to impress with how spiritual our church was. I was embarrassed that there was confession of sin going on. I was very immature.

Yet, as we were driving home, this friend told me—she said, “You know, the church that I’ve been going to—I don’t think my pastor would have the humility to do what your pastor did. Could I come back next week?” She came back the next week; and the third Sunday she visited, the gospel broke through/she received Christ. It wasn’t because she saw these impressive, perfect people in our church. She saw sinners, she could relate to, who confessed their need for God, admitted it, and pointed to the One who does have the solutions.

Dennis: Okay; “Address all involved.”

Ken: The second one is: “To avoid: ‘If…’; ‘But…’; and ‘Maybe…’”—all the excuses we like to throw in.

Third one is: “To admit, specifically, both attitudes/heart issues.” Here, it’s how to look at James 4:1/a very central verse: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires at war within you?” It’s those desires in our heart that we’ve got to get to confess—the bitterness, jealousy, pride—that’s when we are doing business with the source of conflict.

Bob: So “Admit specific attitudes”?

Ken: —“specific attitudes and specific actions.”

Dennis: Okay; we’ve “Addressed all involved”; we’ve “Avoided: ‘If…’; ‘But…”’ and ‘Maybe…’” We’ve “Admitted, specifically, how we’ve hurt someone: our attitude or our actions.”

What is the fourth?

Ken: The fourth one is: “To apologize,”—that’s to express sorrow over the way you’ve affected somebody. I found this is especially important with some people. Some people don’t need that expression; others do. It really helps my wife when I acknowledge: “I know I’ve hurt you,” “I know I’ve disappointed you.” When she hears that I’m realizing that, I’ve impacted her inside.

Bob: And number five?

Ken: Number five is: “To accept the consequences.” You don’t confess something to manipulate another person and to avoid the consequences. In fact, one of the evidences of true repentance is a specific acknowledgement: “I deserve this consequence; I’m going to accept it.” Many of the men I deal with—I deal with 40- and 50-year-old men—

Dennis: Yes.

Ken: —who’ve never learned to accept the consequences. Their parents bailed them out—delivered them from every problem they got themselves into—and did not do them a service.

Bob: Alright; let me recap now:

“Address everyone involved,”

“Avoid ‘If…’; “But…’; and ‘Maybe…’”;

“Admit specific attitudes and actions,”


“Accept the consequences.”

Number six?

Ken: Number six is: “To alter your behavior.” It is to make a commitment, with God’s help, on how you are going to behave differently in the future.

Bob: Number seven?

Ken: Number seven, the last one, is: “To ask for forgiveness.” This is a transition point; you’ve done all that you can do: you’ve acknowledged your wrongdoing; you’ve expressed your sorrow; you’ve committed to change. This is like you are throwing the ball into the other person’s hands; it’s now their choice. They have to decide, “Are they going to forgive you?”

Now, you’ve got to be careful about this; I want to put a qualifier on it. This is not a little ritual you go through just to dump a problem on somebody else. This has got to be done, first of all, to honor God; He calls us to confess our wrongs.

Secondly, to minister to the other person; and with that in mind, we actually had what we call—perhaps even an eighth thing—and that’s: “To allow time.” Sometimes, the person you have wronged is not going to be able to, right away, say, “I forgive you.” If they’ve been deeply hurt, it may take them some time to process through that. I don’t think we should just press people at that moment; they have a transition to go through.

Dennis: One thing I want to point out here. We spent a long time on this second aspect of dealing with the log in your own eye; because frankly, that may be the key in going to your brother.

Bob: That’s right.

Ken: Absolutely.

Bob: Yes.

Ken: If you go sincerely, confessing your sin, it will usually prompt your brother to say, “Well, you know, this wasn’t all your fault.” We had a case that had been in litigation for a full year before it got into mediation. Both of these men were very adamant that they were innocent; the other person was all wrong. It was in the third mediation session, where the builder was able to come in and give a very sincere, heartfelt confession. He went through the list of all the things he had done wrong. I mean, it was a stunning change in his position for the last meeting.

The owner of the house looked at him for a minute; he said, “Well, you know, it’s not all your fault. If I hadn’t been such a perfectionist and….” Then the builder said, “No; I think it was more my fault than yours.” They were in a completely different argument now, with each man trying to claim more responsibility. I think, in that case, the non-Christian attorney, who is observing this thing, saw the power of Christ. The peace that transcends understanding was going on in that room.


Michelle: You know, my father is an attorney. I have been in some courtrooms, where things can get really, really ugly. You can imagine that story that Ken is talking about—the non-Christian attorney—he had to have done a double-take when he sees a businessman humble himself and admit an error. It speaks volumes; it’s the power of God working in our lives to preach the gospel. It reminds me of the verse in Isaiah 66:2: “This is the one the Lord esteems, he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at My word.” You may want to keep that in mind the next time someone shows you your fault or the next time someone wrongs you.

Hey, go to our website, We’re going to have some links there to a couple of the Ken Sande broadcasts. Also, I believe we have the list there of “The Seven A’s.” As I wrap things up, I just want to remind you that conflict is an opportunity for us to: admit our faults, to turn up the gospel in our lives, to understand someone else’s perspective. It’s also a great opportunity to grow as individuals and allow God to fine-tune us. Anyway, that’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

Hey, next week, we’re going on a road trip. I know spring break is coming up. Whether you are heading to the mountains to ski or to the beach to find some sun, we’re going to have some great stories to entertain and inspire you during your road trip. We’ll hear some stories from David Nasser, Leslie Leyland Fields, and maybe a couple other of our friends. I hope you can join us for that.

Thank you to our engineer today, Keith Lynch. Thanks to our producers, Phil Krause, Marcus Holt, and Mark Ramey. Justin Adams is our mastering engineer, and Megan Martin is our production coordinator.

Our program is a production of FamilyLife Today, and our mission is to effectively develop godly families who change the world one home at a time.

I'm Michelle Hill, inviting you to join us again next time for another edition of FamilyLife This Week.


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Host Michelle Hill, along with expert guests, provide a weekly dose of engaging and practical encouragement for marriages, families and other valuable relationships on FamilyLife This Week. New episodes every weekend.



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