When it comes to conflict, I would just rather not. I hate it. I am a thoroughbred middle-child peacemaker who will gladly settle for a tenuous appeasement to avoid direct conflict (even though I know a tentative ceasefire, by definition, doesn’t last or resolve the primary problem). I like to think my conflict-avoidant bent is simply an echo of Eden and a desire for eternity, both places where conflict was (though not for long) and will be absent. However, in the meantime, I live here with you, and conflict remains persistently present. I’d like to blame you for that, but if I’m honest, I have more conflict with myself than anyone else. So, that leaves us with one simple question: how can we handle conflict well?
Dealing with Conflict
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20).
In a few short verses, James offers us a wealth of wisdom for handling conflict well, and we would be wise to apply his counsel in our lives.
James begins his counsel from an important spot. He reminds his hearers that they are beloved brothers. This is not a throw-away phrase; rather, it sets the frame for what he says next. In conflict between believers, it is unendingly important to remember we are first and foremost bound in Christ and eternally members of the same family. This puts conflict in its proper place. Conflict today is a momentary interruption in the experience of unity Christ has already secured for us. The end of our story in Christ is unity, not division. Considering this truth, we enter conflict with loving confidence and hope-filled humility.
Quick to Hear
This is such a simple directive, yet it requires much to become common practice in our lives. I believe the willingness to be quick to hear is rooted in humility. Our default impulse to listen instead of speaking tends only to happen in situations when we believe we do not have all the answers. We listen to understand, and we generally stop listening when we feel like we understand what is happening. A heart that is quick to listen, particularly in conflict, is a heart that is humble and cares more for the other person than being right.
There is another practical benefit to being quick to hear: it generally has a de-escalating effect on conflict. Much energy is added to conflict when there is constant speaking and interruption. Listening slows things down and gives more space for clarity to emerge. Many words, especially spoken at the same time, blur the conversation, which hinders our ability to see the nature of the conflict at hand accurately. This leads us to James’ next word of counsel.
Be Slow to Speak
You cannot speak and listen well at the same time. In being quick to listen, we show care and love for the other person. Even if we disagree with what they are saying, our patient listening communicates value for their experience and perspective. It shows we care more about them than the problem. When done well, this cultivates a calmer environment in which both parties are more likely to hear each other out.
Our first words are quite important. I think we err when we immediately jump into sharing our side of the story. In other words, the first words we speak should seek to ensure we understand the other person’s perspective. It can save a lot of time and pain if we are willing to summarize what they have shared and check for understanding. After they confirm we have a proper grasp of their view of the problem, we can move forward in sharing our understanding of the conflict.
Be Slow to Anger
Avoiding anger in conflict is no easy task. However, if we remember our battle is not against flesh and blood and the person we are in conflict with is a beloved image bearer of God, then we have a good shot at keeping anger appropriately constrained. One of the primary dangers is that anger naturally biases us. Once anger settles in our hearts, it places a lens on our view of the problem and inhibits our ability to perceive the whole picture. Anger demands to be heard and affirmed, leaving little room for counter perspectives. It is difficult for humility to remain present in such cases.
When we feel anger settling in, it’s likely a good time to pause the conflict so we can consider the root of our anger. It’s not that anger is inherently bad, but rather that anger unchecked will lead us to do things that are unlikely to facilitate healthy resolution. If we pause and listen to our anger, we will usually discover there is far more feeding our anger than whatever the conflict is in front of us. If we don’t catch this, then we will pour into the present conflict more angry emotion than the situation warrants. This, as you can imagine, will often leave the other person confused, if not downright offended, as they try to understand how the level of emotional response has risen so high.
The keys to conflict are love and humility. Where these are present, we will find ourselves quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. If we can keep these two components stable in our hearts, then we will be able to navigate conflict without letting it produce division or bitterness. This isn’t easy, and sometimes our love and humility will be insufficient to bring resolution to the conflict we face. However, in such cases, we will have accomplished the greater good of loving the other person more than needing to fix the problem.
Questions for Reflection
- How was conflict handled in your family growing up? How do you tend to respond to conflict presently?
- What component of James’ counsel is most difficult for you and why (keeping a loving posture, quick to listen, slow to speak, or slow to anger)?
- With whom in life do you have the most conflict? Why? What counsel that James offers you could be helpful in that relationship?