There’s no such thing as a conflict-free church or leadership team. Over the course of a year, most leaders in most churches will disagree about something…
- We’re at odds about how to implement new programs, events, and communication platforms.
- We wrestle with setting goals, priorities, and approaches to ministry.
- We engage in turf wars related to budgets, who makes the decisions, and how projects are carried out.
As uncomfortable and draining as conflict can be, relational tension is not really the problem. It’s how we handle it that matters. When handled poorly or avoided, conflict can derail projects, damage relationships, stall initiatives, and may cause members to leave your church. Poor conflict skills make things worse. And our avoidance strategies lead to parking lot conversations, disengagement, and negativity among team members.
One of the focuses of Vibrant Faith’s Thriving Congregations work with the churches in our project is helping them understand that thriving means handling conflict. When conflict is handled well, it can lead to better ideas and decisions, and it can help teams come to terms with difficult decisions. Here is Vibrant Faith’s 5-step process for coaching people through conflict.
STEP 1: Identify what type of conflict you’re dealing with.There are generally five types of conflict: relationships, values, tasks, processes, and control issues
- Relationships. We often assume when we get into a conflict that it’s about a clash of personalities. And that may be the case, particularly if you don’t know each other, respect each other, or trust each other.
- Values. Disagreements often arise around competing commitments and values. Consider ways that your values might be different that others and how they could play a role in the challenges you face.
- Tasks. A common source of disagreement is task conflict. These are the important questions: “What are we hoping to achieve? How will we define success and measure it? What are the deadlines for the tasks being considered and what might be deferred to make this task a priority? Does everyone hold a similar view about the importance and urgency of their tasks?”
- Processes. Another common type of conflict is about how to carry out a project or task to reach your goal. What is the best tactic for reaching a quarterly target? How should we implement our new Personnel Policy? When will we inform and involve our members and the decisions we’re making? Who should be consulted and included as the project is carried out? Process disagreements are easily confused with task conflicts .
- Control issues. A less common source of conflict is when people disagree over their standing within a group and what role they play in the decision-making and implementation process, along with who gets credit for the work performed.
STEP 2 | Explore your options for handling the conflict.
- Do nothing. When choosing to do nothing, we give conflict “the silent treatment.” We walk away from it or carry on as if the conflict didn’t happen. This may be a cop-out, or it may be a conscious decision to choose whether or not to invest time and energy in the issue.
- Skirt the Issue. Leaders often find alternative ways to accomplish their goals to avoid dealing with the issue in a transparent manner.
- Deal with it directly: Leaders can choose to confront the Issues in a timely and transparent manner.
- Delegate the task to another colleague. This may be an appropriate choice if someone else is closer to the situation, has better working relationships with the involved parties, or is best suited to deal with difficult issues.
STEP 3 | Identify your default conflict style and the default style of your counterpart. There are two primary styles for managing conflict: 1) Conflict Avoiders are generally people who value a calm and peaceful workplace. They’re concerned that disagreeing may hurt someone’s feelings and, therefore, choose to placate other people or change the topic. 2) Conflict Seekers will seize on disputes and frequently amplify them as they strongly express their opinions. Consider which conflict management style is closest to your “default mode.” Then consider the default modes of the parties involved in the conflict.
STEP 4 | Plan your message. Ask yourself the following questions to prepare for the conversation:
- What wins are you seeking as a result of this conversation? What do you want the person to understand, value, feel, or do?
- Does your relationship with this person matter more than the outcome of the work ?
- What can I control and what can’t I control when this meeting occurs?
- Consider the timing for all parties. When should the conversation take place? How much time is needed for the conversation?
- Where should the conversation take place? Is the space I suggest a neutral location? Free from distraction? Quiet and comfortable?
- How will I begin the conversation in a way that leads to constructive conversations? What will I say in the in the first 30 seconds to frame the conversation? What won’t I say?
- What do I think the others parties want from our conversation?
- What will I do if the conversation doesn’t lead to my hoped-for outcomes? What’s plan B?
- How will I keep my emotions in check during the conversation? What might trigger these emotions?
- What will need to be done to repair the relationship following the conversation?
- What kind of guidelines are needed to help make this a fruitful conversation?
STEP 5 | Have a Productive Conversation. You’re now ready to have a constructive discussion. Your goal is to work with your counterpart to better understand the underlying causes of the problem and what you can do together to solve it. Use a brief script to frame the discussion so that you and your counterpart start off on the right foot. Then pay attention to these four things:
- Seek to understand rather than be understood. Focus on common ground.
- Maintain a coaching presence. Listen well—to what is said and not said. Invite the other person to “say more” and seek their advice. Seek to be warm, humble, and fully present.
- Be flexible as you manage your emotions. Be candid yet caring. Avoid being defensive. Use language that conveys your needs and hopes without blaming.
- Focus less on the past and more about your hopes for the future. Discuss specific steps for moving forward following the meeting.
Difficult conversation tends to go best when you think about them as normal. In the future, find ways to deal with conflict sooner rather than later. View entering into crucial conversations as sacred space with the intent to to build up the body of Christ and bring out God’s best in each other.
Jim LaDoux is the longtime Director of Coaching & Coaching School for Vibrant Faith. Jim lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife—he has two adult sons. He’s been a coach since 1992, and has a Master of Management Arts and is a certified PCC (Professional Certified Coach).