Coaching Leaders through Conflict

When we talk about coaching leaders through conflict we need to recognize that there’s no such thing as a conflict-free church or leadership team. In ministry, we can expect leaders to disagree about how to implement new programs, events, and communication platforms. They’ll wrestle with setting goals, priorities, and approaches to ministry. And they may engage in turf wars related to budgets—who makes the decisions and how projects are carried out. But as uncomfortable and draining as conflict can be, conflict itself isn’t really the problem. It’s how we handle it that matters. 

When we avoid or handle conflict poorly, that can derail projects, damage relationships, stall initiatives, and even drive people from your church. When conflict is discounted or avoided, it usually makes things worse—it leads to parking lot conversations, disengagement, and negativity among team members. But when conflict is handled well, it can lead to better ideas and decisions. And healthy conflict also helps teams come to terms with difficult decisions. 

Below I’ve offered the five steps I use for coaching leaders through conflict—use these as a diagnostic help as you work to develop a healthy culture in your church.


STEP1: Identify what type of conflict you’re dealing with. There are generally five types of conflict: relationships, values, tasks, processes, and control issues

  1. Relationships. We often assume when we get into a conflict that it’s about a clash of personalities. It may be the case, particularly if you don’t know each other, respect each other, or trust each other.
  2. Values. Disagreements often arise around competing commitments and values. Consider ways that your values might be different than the values of others, and how that plays a role in the challenges you face.
  3. Tasks. A common source of disagreement is task conflict. Questions like this help surface hidden expectations: “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?”
  4. 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 .
  5. 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 and coaching leaders through conflict.

  1. Do nothing. If we choose to do nothing, we’ll refrain from saying anything to our colleagues. They may walk away or carry on as if the conflict didn’t happen. This may be a cop-out or a conscious decision to choose whether or not to invest time and energy in the issue.
  2. Skirt the Issue. Leaders often find alternative ways to accomplish their goals to avoid dealing with the issue in a transparent way.
  3. Deal with it directly: Leaders can choose to confront the issue in a timely and transparent manner. 
  4. 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 | When coaching leaders through conflict, 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 might be 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 help prepare for conversation involved in coaching leaders through conflict:

  • 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 you suggest a neutral location? Free from distraction? Quiet and comfortable?
  • How will you 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 you say?
  • What do I think the others parties want from our conversation?
  • What will you do if your conversation doesn’t lead to your 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 while coaching leaders through conflict:

  1. Seek to understand rather than be understood. Focus on common ground.
  2. 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.
  3. Be flexible as you manage your emotions. Be candid yet caring. Avoid being defensive. Use language that conveys your needs and hopes without blaming.
  4. 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 it as just a normal conversation. 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.

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