Conflicts in relationships are inevitable. Whether it’s in our marriage, our family, in a friendship, on a team, in a book club or a Bible study—relational conflicts are inevitable.
Yet, many of us—no, most of us—have never been taught how to resolve relational conflict. We are left to our preconditioned ways in which our family resolved, or didn’t resolve, conflict. And for many of us that was either avoidance or anger, fighting or fleeing, silence or slander.
Here are 6 practical steps for resolving relational conflict.
1. We must go to the person
I wonder how many relationships could be strengthened and how many fracturing relationships could be saved if we would only do what Jesus commanded us to do; that is, to take the first step and go to the person. Jesus said if we have something against someone, or if we are aware that someone has something against us—we need to go to them. (Matt 5:23–24; Matt 18:15)
2. Inquire, don’t accuse
When we do go, there is a proper attitude in which we should go. We should go in an attitude of humility. Instead of starting off by accusing the other person, we should go with an attitude of inquiry. Instead of making emphatic, accusatory statements, coming as both the lawyer and the judge, we should come with open-ended questions. Proverbs says, “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.” (Proverbs 18:2)
3. Distinguish the reason for the conflict
When you go, try to distinguish the reason for the conflict. Is it because of unfulfilled expectations, a legitimate misunderstanding, a wrong perception of a situation, or a clear area where the other person has “sinned against you?” Too often we lump all of these possible reasons together and just attack the person’s motive or integrity or personality. And that may or may not be the situation at all. So it’s important to determine the reason you are having the conflict.
4. Be prepared to give specific illustrations
There’s nothing more frustrating than when someone has an issue with you, but when you try to figure out what the issue is and why it is, the other person can’t give you any specific examples. When this happens, the discussion stays ambiguous: “Well, I think you are just prideful,” or “I think you don’t really like me.” But when you ask them why they think that and they can’t give you any clear, objective illustrations, it really doesn’t help. So when you come to the person—still doing it in an attitude of humility and inquiry—be prepared to give specific examples.
5. In the conversation, and in the situation, believe the best
To believe the best of people is not our human tendency, nor is it the tendency of our culture. Just think how many radio talk shows, 24-7 news channels, Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, LinkedIn threads are kept alive by sowing suspicion, presenting the worst side of a situation, weaving in accusations, dropping negative innuendos, or assassinating someone’s character. This suspicious climate of our culture affects all of us. This doesn’t mean that we naïvely trust everyone or every situation, but it does mean that in a relational conflict we should at least start off by believing the best—until we have solid, legitimate reasons—to not believe the best of that person or of that situation.
6. Reaffirm the relationship
It’s very important that we reaffirm the relationship, because our end goal isn’t to prove who’s right or who’s wrong, or for someone to win and someone to lose. No, our end goal is to strengthen, preserve, or restore a relationship.
What if the conflict isn’t resolved?
I think of relational conflicts like a tennis match. I can only deal with the issues that are on my side of the net. It takes two to have a relationship, and it takes two to resolve a relational conflict. I can’t make the other person respond a certain way, or do something, or not do something. That’s up to them. However, I can be responsible with the issues and the attitude on my side of the net. Paul, in the Bible, put it this way, “As far as it depends on me, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
Is there someone you need to resolve a relational conflict with? I hope these 6 practical steps will help.
Ken L Roberts
PS. Are there other steps that you’ve found useful in resolving relational conflicts? I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment.