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Be Comfortable with Conflict

y Carroll Juliano, SHCJ and Loughlan Sofield, ST

If your actions inspire others to dream more, to learn more, to do more and to be more than they are, then you are a leader. —John Quincy Adams

Effective leadership is similar to being a good chef. You have to know the right amounts of spices necessary to create a piece de resistance. Effective Christian leadership requires a balanced mixture of spirituality, skill, positive relationship, unique qualities, sound theory, and even a dash of charisma. However, what often is overlooked is that effective leaders function from a reservoir of leadership principles. These principles are what guide and give direction to leaders. One such principle is: be comfortable with conflict.

Healthy leaders, like all healthy individuals, prefer to avoid conflict. However, effective leaders know that avoiding conflict precludes success and growth. Conflict doesn’t go away if you ignore it. Rather, the energy created by the conflict oozes out in inappropriate and destructive ways.

Deal with conflict
Here are five ways in which leaders can help others to become more comfortable in dealing with conflict.

1. Help people explore internal threats.

2. Model your willingness to deal with conflict.

3. Model forgiveness.

4. Help the participants identify the real cause of the conflict.

5. Respond, rather than react to behavior.

Internal threats
The major cause of conflict is threat to self-esteem. It is not our personal differences, in themselves, that cause conflict. Conflict usually arises when the other person’s beliefs challenge my perception of myself, my self-esteem. Consider a time when you were involved in a conflict. Can you identify how a threat to your self-esteem may have led you into conflict?

Willingness to engage
Effective leaders are willing to engage in conflict and not avoid it. Many people who avoid conflict do so because of their own fears, thus precluding growth.

When there is a lot of anxiety in a group, the theme of “Kill the Leader” often emerges. Anxious people engage in an unconscious collusion to blame the leader for whatever threatens the group. However, when leaders refuse to be intimidated, the irrational fear of conflict is demystified. This can serve as a catalyst to invite the threatened individuals to acknowledge the perceived threat and dialogue about it.

When leaders are attacked, they have an opportunity to show how anger and conflict can be resolved. Studies on anger and conflict indicate that the treatment for both anger and conflict is forgiveness. We are in dire need of Christian leaders who can forgive. As South African President Mandella proclaimed in his inauguration address, only mature leaders have the courage to forgive. Forgiving in the midst of aggression and injustice is not our default response. As Alexander Pope said, “To err is human. To forgive is divine.” Christian leaders are being called to be witnesses of the ultimate divine reaction.

Identify causes
The fourth valuable role that leaders play in managing conflict is to keep the focus on the actual causes of the conflict. Whenever there is an inordinate amount of energy focused on an inanimate object, such as money, buildings, or liturgy, that energy is being dissipated on symbolic, rather than real issues. The cause of the conflict is never the inanimate object. These inanimate objects merely serve as lightning rods attracting energy that is probably related to some unmet or threatened need.

Respond—don’t react
When someone is hostile toward you, the usual reaction is to also become hostile. This contagion of hostility precludes dialogue and prevents change. The challenge for leaders is to avoid an immediate emotional response. Instead, use your head before allowing any response to escape from the mouth. It may be necessary to withdraw physically from an ego-threatening situation in order to attain such emotional detachment. Allowing yourself time for this emotional maneuver puts you in a position of responding, rather than reacting. Of course, this is much more difficult to achieve than it sounds.

Negative example
A parish described a problem that was destroying the morale of the community. There was intense conflict within the choir. Individuals had chosen sides, and the conflict had become a public scandal. The pastor, fearful of conflict, simply tried to avoid dealing with the toxic situation. Eventually, the choir director left. She was replaced by another director who inherited the problem and also left after a very short tenure.

Positive example
We facilitated a meeting in a parish that was riddled with conflict. Two individuals were identified as the leaders of the opposing factions, and we were warned against putting these two individuals in the same discussion group. By a twist of fate, the two conflicting parties ended up in the same group. Rather than be cowed by their seemingly intense hatred of each other, we pressed them to explore the true genesis of the conflict. Initially, they focused on a disagreement that had existed over the ownership of property that went back several generations. Continued probing revealed that they were really unsure of why the conflict existed. As a result, dialog began and, hopefully, healing was initiated.

Reflection questions
1. Can you think of a recent situation where conflict emerged? How did you respond? If a similar situation were to present itself, how would you respond differently?

2. Which of the five identified roles for effective leadership do you need to address personally?

3. Where have you acquired the skills of dealing more effectively with conflict?

Carroll Juliano, SHCJ and Loughlan Sofield, ST

Sr. Carroll Juliano and Brother Loughlan Sofield have coauthored a number of prize-winning books. Their most recent is Principled Ministry: A Guidebook for Catholic Church Leaders, published by Ave Maria Press.