Near the end of my second short-term missions trip, I–a lowly teenager–was surprised to find that conflict with other global workers was a serious difficulty for those I was staying with.
Now, as the spouse of someone aiding conflict resolution in the field, this surprises me not one iota.
Personal conflict is a notorious bad actor splintering great work being done overseas. Too often, it lands once-starry-eyed global workers back in their home countries…wounded, bewildered, and even angry.
No one sets out on the field anticipating that broken relationships will take us under. But for a lot of global workers?
Rethinking What’s Natural in Conflict
Truth: Godly responses to conflict are pretty much all counter-natural–or more specifically, super-natural.
God’s ways in conflict beg an overhaul of what I typically want to do: You know, stuff like
- Hand someone the silent treatment they have so justly deserved.
- Eloquently let someone (and possibly the neighbors) know exactly how they have trodden on my kingdom. Even though I may put God’s unauthorized signature on it. (Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”)
- Burn a bridge that isn’t that important to me anyway, I’ve decided.
Your Open Door
Conflicts are full of such…loss.
But would you believe me if I told you they’re an opportunity?
Conflict is a horizontal outworking of something God’s doing in me vertically. Or conversely, it often exposes what’s amiss in my own relationship with God. As Paul David Tripp writes, “relationships are first fixed vertically before they are ever fixed horizontally.”
Conflict, more specifically God’s conflict, is at the center of why God sent Jesus. And how we respond to the breaking of relationship replays all over again what he did.
It’s why, as we make disciples, how we handle messy relationships matters. It’s a chance to honor God, to love others well, to grow more like Jesus, and to just find some practical solutions.
I’m thankful for a God who cared enough to get dirty for me, to absorb my guilt when I’d positioned myself as enemy.
10 Ways to Make Sure Conflict Pulls You off the Field
Here are 10 easy ways conflict could fracture your work overseas and possibly even tank the good thing you’ve got going. (Thanks to Peacemakers and Relational Wisdom 360 for many of these principles.)
1. Confronting or responding through any written word.
My husband, a trained mediator, describes the hazards of text-only communication by explaining that a significant portion (some estimate 70%) is nonverbal.
Imagine how much can be misunderstood by subtracting 70%! Even if you’re a gifted communicator, words are never the same as seeing someone before your eyes, communicating the emotion and value that only physical presence can afford (no matter how many emoticons you’ve got at your disposal).
God handled His own conflict with us by sending Himself into our mess, in the flesh (see John 1:14).
Move as close as you can to face-to-face conflict. If it’s with someone a distance away, go for video chat. Relational context reminds the person of your genuine care, concern, and compassion.
2. Using social media as a platform for conflict.
And as a policy, keep a conflict as private as possible for as long as possible (see Matthew 18:15-20).
Social media is a nifty tool for sudden, sweeping revenge…and an excellent slash-and-burn tool to take someone and their reputation under. It adds humiliation and public shame, using anger as a grenade rather than a scalpel for sin.
(Speaking honestly, it’s also not loving your neighbor as yourself: “Please broadcast my weaknesses”. Said no one ever.
It leans toward the immature, tacky, and a possible reason for getting fired.)
If your anger and hurt against someone are real, they’re much less likely to own the conviction to which you wish them to come if they’re publically burned. Fear may be effective to create outward change, but it’s God’s kindness that leads to true repentance (Romans 2:4).
3. Assuming the worst.
But when other people mess up, we tend to attribute it to their character. That’s just the kind of person she is.
But that’s only part of how our assumptions sabotage us. People have malicious intent much less often than we give them credit for! Don’t miss this article from The Gospel Coalition on Critical Judgments vs. Charitable Judgments.
Gently asking questions about others’ motivations rather than assuming they meant harm can save us tremendous misunderstanding.
Psychologist and author Brene Brown notices there’s a generosity in this when we’re “Extending the most generous interpretation to the intentions, words, and actions of others.”
Having been on both painful ends of mistaken assumptions, I am slowly learning all I don’t know—and beginning to treat my relationships with the dignity they deserve of gently asking when I wonder about someone’s motives.
4. Posing [for peace].
On the Relational Wisdom 360 spectrum of “peace-breakers,” “peace-makers”, and “peace-fakers”, my weaknesses definitely tend toward the latter.
I’m indifferent enough to the relationship or person to dive deeper into the opportunity that is conflict. I prefer my comfort, thank you. Or at least looking loftily like the one who’s right.
I’m not truly overlooking and graciously forgiving; I am hardening and distancing.
God didn’t fake the severity of my conflict with him, but chose to change me and honor himself through it. He valued me enough to care about my holiness.
Am I really extending grace, really overlooking?
Or am I glossing over? Denying? Stuffing deeper?
5. Cleaning the surface.
When we address only the presenting problem of the conflict and not the true interests and hurts and questions beneath it, it can be like slapping a Band-Aid on an infected wound and calling it good.
Sometimes it may go away—but a lot of times it gets worse and/or repeats itself in another avatar.
Bonus: Often, when you move beyond the presenting issue in a conflict, you may share much more than you disagree upon. Understand the other party’s underlying interest in the conflict (“I’m afraid of losing precious time”/”I don’t feel valued in how this process is going”/etc.), and it could be easier to come to a mutually fulfilling conclusion than you think!
6. Venting—to people who aren’t part of the solution.
Widening the circle of knowledge about a conflict sometimes includes people who aren’t going to lead you toward reconciling or problem-solving.
That can put a label of “authenticity” on damaging another person’s reputation and their relationship with the other party. It furthers resentment, discord, and emotional distance (remember, our own words change us).
In short, this kind of venting (aka gossip) isn’t encouraging us toward unity and wise problem-solving.
It’s cementing and spreading isolation.
Be choosy about who you open up to about your conflicts. Protect your relationship and the person you’re in conflict with (returning a blessing for an insult)—just like you’d like them to be choosy in whom they talk with.
(P.S. When you do wrap up a conflict with a friend, let the people you talked to know about how it turned out, so their frustration can be resolved, too.)
7. Letting “I want” become “I must have”.
Take time to get down to the fears, values, and hurts that are driving your anger—which, remember, is a secondary emotion (the primary emotions often being fear, hurt, or embarrassment).
When faced with conflict, we tend to focus passionately on what our opponent has done wrong or should do to make things right. In contrast, God always calls us to focus on what is going on in our own hearts when we are at odds with others. Why? Because our heart is the wellspring of all our thoughts, words, and actions, and therefore the source of our conflicts.
James puts it even more starkly: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (4:1). Our desires that morph to become more important than people, replacing what only God is to satisfy in us.
Desires morph into demands, which becomes judgment—and all idols deserve sacrifices. We put our relationships on the chopping block for what we crave.
This can only find true resolution by being satisfied by what our soul truly longs for: satisfaction in the one Person who won’t disappoint us, with whom we are finally satisfied.
Getting honest about the core needs fueling our frustration can help us treat it, beginning at the source.
8. Mistaking honesty for love.
Truth and love aren’t mutually exclusive. Telling someone “I’m just telling the truth” or “I’m just being honest” can often give us a lame excuse for not speaking the truth in love.
Directness is fine. But make sure you check your kindness and gentleness, too.
Are you creating an environment where a person feels the security and care to eventually want to change—or where they feel ambushed and defensive?
9. Not seeing the signs.
Are you setting your conflict up for success in light of all the other stressors in that person’s life? How much do you know and compassionately internalize about the other person’s story, past and present?
See the other party for more than just what’s affecting you. That’s what it looks like to love the human in front of us, looking not only to our own interests (Philippians 2:4).
(Meditating on Philippians 2:1-11 is a great way to pray through your conflict before approaching someone.)
Interrupting a meeting or erupting after weeks of bottled frustration—all the “hows” of your approach—may keep you from the “who” and the “whats” that are precious to you.
10. Going up the food chain.
Involving people above that person in authority (bosses, pastors, etc.) before going to them first (as per Matthew 18) is a fantstic way…to invite shame into your conflict.
And in that, to add an extra layer of protectiveness around someone’s issue, rather than creating a vulnerable, supportive environment where a person can find healing and help to change:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)
Though in some circumstances it’s appropriate to go to a supervisor first (involving deceit, egregious sin, etc.), true resolution and change is often helped by a person not feeling like they’re sacrificing their dignity.
Rather than someone closing up to protect themselves, you show them honor and dignity by approaching them first.
Conflict doesn’t have to pull you off the field. In fact, it can empower you both, shaping you to be more unified from the soul-out, and more like the face and heart of God.
Like this post? You might like
- Why to Consider Counseling Before You Head Overseas
- Different Strokes? Marital Differences as You Look Overseas, Part I and Part II
- He Said/She Said. You Say? “What do you wish you’d known before you went?” Part I and Part II