De-escalation of Conflict

In my last post, the good doctor who said “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror” had a character trait in place that I think served him well…humility.

In Adam Hamilton’s chapter 2 of Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, he goes beyond humility in listing other factors that can help us all with understanding others.

In my years of teaching interpersonal communication at a college, I always enjoyed trying to explain some aspects of managing conflict in the everyday world and I am struck by the ideas that Pastor Hamilton uses that would help us all in diminishing this stressful part of life. Of course, Hamilton is perturbed about our society’s conflict over polarizing political issues but he is also upset that the church cannot “get it together” to accomplish good in the world [Christians fight among themselves].

Ego conflict is not a term he uses but it is a common idea in the interpersonal world. An ego conflict occurs when a person insists on the attitude that my position must be the winning position.  People today invest so much ego into the expression of their thought.  This is who I am, this is what I know for sure, this is how competent I am, and this is how much power I have.  When ideas are expressed and someone feeds back a negative comment, a personal comment or a judgement, naturally that leads to escalation.    When you hear people yelling polarizing statements like “right or wrong, faithful or unfaithful, I am whole and you are defective and I am going to heaven and you are not”, we know the conflict is out of hand.

Pastor Hamilton has good advice to help us deal with ego conflict. Fight the tendency to label others negatively is one thing he says.  I agree, once that negative label is applied, what you have really done is build a wall between yourself and the other person, a wall that is hard to tear down.

Quit going for the “kill.” I often talked to students about conflict, trying to get them to visualize a knight in armor battling with another knight in armor.  Both knights hack away at each other until one is down on the ground and the other is victor.  That kind of attitude called “win-lose” sets people up to polarize.  Recognize that none of us knows all about everything.   Other people can teach us stuff.  Try to see value in another’s position even though you do not want to give up your strongly held conviction.

What needs to happen is we need to get to the point where we can admit that some of the other person’s position is correct.   Hardly anyone is 100% wrong.

If you are having a hard time with this, Pastor Hamilton says recognize that something which is essential for one person may not be essential for another. This way you can at least honor their strongly held belief without having to give up your own strongly held beliefs.  It is all a matter of perspective.

Last but not least is the old adage “pick your battles.” Too many people today are ready to begin World War III when it is not necessary.  Some issues are worth discussing, disagreeing and arguing for but most are not.

I don’t know how many times I have listened to people who don’t think like me but I enjoy analyzing their argument. I don’t fire back at them.  I just listen.  If they don’t think like me, I would be disingenuous if I told them I agreed with them so I don’t do that.  However, I also don’t automatically choose to fire back with a negative evaluation of their ideas or attack them as a person.  My thinking process is “well, this is just not that important.”

As Christians we have to learn to look beyond our own small interests as we encounter others in the world. We have to realize that what we do and say reflects on Jesus Christ.  If we choose to wade into an out-of-control argument, people are always watching.  Some may be impressed by our strong backbones as we stand up for our beliefs.  Others may wonder what in the world we believe as we let our out-of-control ego needs overpower our sense of civility.

Pastor Hamilton uses an oft-quoted expression in chapter 2 that I would like to emphasize. He tries to attribute the quote to someone but his research is unclear.  Maybe the words come from a 17th Century Lutheran, or St. Augustine or wouldn’t you know it…some say John Wesley.

Take some time to think about the words:

“In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”

What a better world we would have if we all lived by this motto.


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