We’ve been examining the reality that, as humans, we ascribe meaning to our experiences—meaning that transcends what actually happened. And, when we do, we set ourselves up for all kinds of relationship-threatening mischief. This principle is: What’s it really about??
I’ve heard it said this way: When it’s not about what it’s about, what could it be about?
When the reaction indicates that the “issue” is not what — on the surface — it appears to be, then you’ll be well served to wonder: “what could this really be about?”
In the Missional Pathway process that I am privileged to facilitate with my CRM team, a unique problem solving model is practiced. One component of the model, designed to illuminate the issue, is to employ the “Five Whys”. In a number of ways, ask “Why?” five times in sequence. It might play out something like this:
K: I give up! I can’t serve one more day on the board of that NGO!
A: Why? What’s happened?
K: Oh my gosh, I’m so sick of all the pressure I’m under!!
A: What’s the pressure about?
K: It’s “open season” on the Executive Director! He’s really been a jerk to a number of people and they’re all coming to me to gripe about him!
A: Yeah, OK, so tell me more about why that’s got you ready to quit?
K: Huh? Isn’t it obvious?? People are pretty hacked off at Seth and they keep dumping their garbage on me!
K: And when I go to Seth about it, he’s completely closed off to their feedback. He’s even beginning to act like a jerk toward me… and I’m like the only one around here who’s trying to be supportive.
A: And, how come that’s hitting you so hard right now??
K: Because I really thought that by standing in the middle, I could fix this! Er… that I could fix Seth. I mean, I guess it’s pretty unrealistic to think that I could somehow get Seth to see what he hadn’t been willing to see all this time…
A: So, maybe you’re mostly disappointed in yourself? That you couldn’t pull off this miracle this time?
K: Yeah. Kinda idealistic of me, huh? I guess I’m starting to see how mush pressure I put on myself to make this thing work. I really, really care about Seth and the organization…
Even more effective than using a technique like the Five Why’s is simply to become curious.
Let your care for this person generate genuine interest inside you about them.
About what’s troubling them. About what’s affecting them so significantly.
Allow your curiosity to keep you from settling too quickly on the surface issue—particularly when your gut—or their reaction seems to indicate something more may be at stake.
Principal #7- Consider Contribution
My mentor and hero, Dr. J. Robert Clinton notes that one of the five practices that distinguishes those who finish well is a commitment to life-long learning. If learning is central to life, it is critical in times of turbulence. Trouble is, the way most of us behave in conflict closes down the possibility of learning very much at all.
As humans, we want life to be tidy. Yet, life is seldom tidy—and conflict never is. To benefit from conflict—which I believe is always God’s intent – you need to take learning into hyper-mode. One almost-irresistible practice that undermines learning is to look to assign blame. Think about it: as soon as the culprit is identified, the energy is focused on building a case against the villain… proving just how wrong he or she is. Evidence is piled up. The case is closed. In this mode, learning shrivels.
The well-rehearsed cultural practice of racing to decide who’s at fault, who’s to blame, who is responsible for the breakdown ignores this startling reality: each person in the conflict has a contribution.
I challenge you to honestly review the details of any conflict you’ve been in to identify how you contributed – however small or great – to the breakdown. You may have contributed by not taking action that might have mitigated the hurt. You may have contributed by not being clear enough — however well-intentioned you may have been – such that the other party mistook your motives. You, like me, may not have cared enough to notice your impact on another, even when no malice was intended.
The opening provided by a conflict is to learn: to discover what you didn’t know beforehand. Get this, and you’ll never be in a conflict the same way again: there is a gift in every breakdown; it’s the opportunity to learn what you don’t know you don’t know!
Failing to learn from your conflicts keeps you vulnerable to stumbling in the same ways again. Stumble into conflict often enough and you’ll see your impact diminished… greatly. Maybe worse, you’ll find people avoiding you, rendering you alone. As a leader, you cannot afford to be alone. Leaders champion those who welcome their influence to agreed-upon greatness. So, ignoring the provision of God to discover the ways you invite conflict and misunderstanding is deadly.
When you are called upon to referee a conflict, employing the concept of contribution can have dramatic results. For one, when everyone has agreed to banish the idea that one person is to blame, both parties are freed to look—really look — to see how they played into what didn’t work. When it is agreed that each party to the breakdown has a contribution, the judgmentally arrogant posture so common the “innocent victim” is stymied. At the same time, the self-deprecatory, subservient attitude of the identified wrongdoer is also thwarted. What results can be an honest inquiry into the nuances that provoked, cultivated, and prolonged the standoff.
When the community views conflict as a problem, a failure, or a sin, there is scant willingness to dig into the details to optimize learning. No, the press is to quick-fix it, with a rush to judgment, the dispensation of consequences, and far too often, the distancing of the designated scoundrel from the community. So seldom have the specifics been sufficiently studied, that any distinctive discoveries are embraced.
Frame a conflict as an opportunity for each participant to learn, and you’ll set the stage for real repentance and change.
Guest blog by Darren Adwalpalker, Senior Pastor, South Bay Church of God, Torrance, CA
Principle six: Step down the voltage.
Hazardous Voltage Inside.
Will shock, burn or cause death.
I’d just been through a difficult conflict and reflected on how being in conflict resourcefully is similar to the way an electrical substation processes electricity.
A substation receives high-voltage energy and transforms it into low-voltage energy—which safely powers our homes, heating, lights and lives.
Just as the raw energy entering the substation has the power to cause harm, so the raw emotions we experience in conflict have the power to destroy relationships.
Here’s my four-step process for “stepping down the emotional voltage” that’s often present in conflict. After a recent difficult conversation with someone who told me they’d be leaving the church, I opened my computer and worked through these steps:
1) What happened?
- What was the nature of the conflict or disagreement?
- What was said?
- What were the other person’s criticisms or complaints?
I try to write these down as objectively as possible.
2) What are my raw emotions?
- Here, I allow myself complete freedom to feel my emotions and capture them in writing as honestly as I can. I might write that I felt hurt, angry, let down, frustrated or sad.
- I write down any judgments I’m carrying and the stories I was making up about myself or the other person. Such stories might be “Perhaps I’m not a good leader” or “That person is being selfish.” What’s really important here is honesty. We seldom give ourselves permission to express the raw emotions we’re feeling. Once we do, we’re a step closer to turning that raw energy into something helpful, not harmful.
3) What’s closer to the truth?
After writing out my raw emotions and any stories I’m making up about the situation, I’m able to think much more clearly.
- I can then step back and look at the situation more objectively.
- I’m able to more clearly see my contribution in the conflict without having to own it all myself.
4) What are my next steps?
- After this process, I’m now ready to consider my next steps. Perhaps:
A follow up conversation.
Prayerfully releasing it to God.
Writing a letter to express gratitude.
The next time you are in a difficult conflict, work through these steps and see if you can “step down the emotional voltage” into something useful.
We’re looking at a fifth principle: “Who, before What and How.” When we’re in conflict, the natural press is to zero-in on what must be done and how to do it—in order to remove the source of stress (the conflict) as quickly as possible.
As human beings, each of us prefers that our lives be a certain way.
Each of us has a “preferred version” of life and each of us has developed our own “ways and means” to try to get life to behave the way we prefer.
So, your preferred version of life has at least three committed opponents:
2) other people’s preferred version of life, and
3) God—who is absolutely committed to developing you into the kind of person who lives an exemplary life. In other words: your development as a leader and follower of Christ.
When your preferred version of life bumps up against reality, against other people’s ideas about how life is supposed to be, or against God’s character-building designs for you— friction results.
And as you’ve noticed: reality doesn’t give in.
God, thankfully, is more committed to your development than you are. So, God rarely gives in.
So, rather than surrender your fantasy about how your life and the people in it should be, your “ways and means committee” goes to work on the people near you. In dozens of creative, cunning, unrelenting, manipulating, bullying, shaming, fear-inducing ways you labor to undermine their commitment to their “fantasy” of life, so you can have yours!
All the while… God is after your heart.
Who, before what and how.
The essential question is not how do you get your way, your preference, or your fantasy. The essential question is: what would love do?
Love won’t necessarily capitulate to what someone else wants, because, to do so might not be loving for them. Let’s say you are close to someone struggling with an addiction. There are times when your friend would prefer to indulge the desire to use. You could conspire with that desire simply by slackening your vigilant support of your friend’s sobriety. But doing this wouldn’t be love at all.
Now, back to conflict.
When considering who, before what and how—we each get to lean into the formation of Christ-likeness in our character: demonstrated in our response to the people and circumstances in which we’re embroiled in conflict.
In shorthand: what would love call me to do?
Being in Conflict 8.docx
Thus far in this series, our focus has been on helping to resource you, as a Christian leader, when you’re in conflict. We’ve outlined four distinctions to support you becoming skillful when you’re in deep weeds, as my pal and mentor Gary Mayes often says. The four are:
Distinction #1- For once, focus on you.
Distinction #2- Go for altitude.
Distinction #3- Get to neutral.
Distinction #4- Know thyself!
Today, we add the fifth distinction: “Who, before What and How”
As a leader, you are often called upon to referee when other people are sideways. Who, before What and How it the principle I employ virtually every time I help to broker a breakdown.
It is grounded in the reality that – through every experience of our lives — God is committed to make us like Christ. To my clients who are Christian, I say: God’s trying to make a Christian out of you!
God is so committed to transforming us into the likeness of Jesus, that he’ll allow conflicts to surface the selfishness, judgments, entitlement, and arrogance that undermine our effectiveness as witness to the world. God is so interested in our being authentic, that God will let conflict expose the manipulative game-playing and con-artistry each of us has mastered over our lifetime.
Said another way, God is more interested in the Who: the kind of person you are as you move through your life and relationships… than he is about what needs to be done to resolve the conflicted mess you’re in, and how you and the other party are to move on with your lives!
Got it? “Who, before what and how”.
The rub is, as humans we want out of the tension, out of the frustration, out of the discomfort of the conflict right now! We don’t care much about the character of Christ being formed in us– we want the no-good bum to pay!
We’re not all that interested whether the fragrance of Jesus is so evident that people around us begin to re-think what they’ve decided about Christ and those who say they follow him—we want to win!
Invite the battling parties to temporarily suspend their press for what and how. Ask them to consider what, in their own character, God is addressing through this upset.
Being in Conflict 7.docx
Ever met a powerfully influential person who’s great in conflict?
They’re a rare breed, They’ve intentionally developed the discipline and rigor to govern themselves when they’d prefer to react, explode, shut down, counter-attack, or evaporate.
Christian leaders can benefit greatly from skillfully navigating situations of conflict. We’ve already pointed out that conflict is common to the Christian experience. The ministry of reconciliation, to which every believer is called, demands that it be so.
How can you become great at being in conflict?
Think about a transmission…
With your car in drive, you’re “in gear” ready to move. In this posture you’re ready to attack your adversary… or to flee the scene.
Putting your car in reverse is like being poised to back-pedal. To load all the blame on yourself. In this posture, you cave in to escape the discomfort that being in conflict represents to you.
Most of us have trained ourselves to throw ourselves into “drive” or “reverse” when controversy arises. Postured in this way you are prematurely predisposed to action, when learning will serve you far better.
There will be a time to take action, but this isn’t it. Not yet.
How often have you been burned by assuming you understood a conflicted situation and reacted too swiftly or too harshly?
If you’ve left a wake of broken relationships in your past, I guarantee you’ve done this.
Repeatedly. Maybe habitually.
A car in neutral isn’t going anywhere. Not yet.
When you get yourself to neutral, you’re resisting the impulse to move.
Switzerland considers itself a neutral country. That means that in a conflict they’re not taking sides. They’ve declared it up front. They have no dog in the fight, no horse in the race, no pugilist in the ring.
In neutral, you’re postured the same way.
Here’s where it gets tricky. In conflict, a healthy person will immediately side with herself.
The unhealthy person might automatically knee-jerk to side with his accuser. Sounds odd, but it happens.
The problem is that as soon as you lock in on one outcome your humanity begins to narrow your focus.
As it does, you lose objectivity.
You begin collecting evidence in support of the side you’re pulling for. And, you find evidence to oppose the other side.
This evidence collection is not impartial. Your humanity causes you to ignore, to minimize, to actually not see evidence that contradicts your cherished position.
It’s not that you’re dishonest; your desire to be “right” trumps your objectivity.
You can test this the next time you watch a sporting event involving a favorite team. You’ll identify un-flagged fouls against your team, and scarcely notice those against their opponent!
Getting to neutral means choosing to embrace AMBIGUITY. Entering into the discomfort of not deciding who’s right and wrong—even when you are the one “on trial”.
Getting to neutral allows you to stay curious, to return to a learning posture.
And, in any conflict, learning is the key to an honorable, rewarding resolution.
Being in Conflict 3.docx
There may be no more essential skill than successfully handling yourself in conflict. Many a career has been ruined when executives mishandled themselves when mired in an important disagreement.
As a coach, I’m frequently invited to help pastors when they’re in conflict. One of the most important techniques is to invite my clients to go for altitude.
When you’re embroiled in a conflict, it’s natural to get tunnel vision. All you can see is your adversary, their claims, and your defenses. And, because you’re human, you’re probably focused on your defenses most of all… or the fastest way out of the room!
What you don’t see is what’s going on between you, inside each of you, and often what’s driving both of you.
Imagine the two of you, standing toe-to-toe, in boxer’s stance, locked in conflict. Just a few feet away is a staircase, leading to a balcony. From the balcony, there is much you can see that you just can’t see down on the floor…
The beauty of the balcony is that almost immediately you’re able to access resources (perspective, objectivity, even clarity) that’s elusive down on the floor. Up there, you’re a safe distance away from your adversary. He’s not bounded up the steps after you, in a bloodthirsty rage.
Cooly and dispassionately, from up there you can observe yourself and the other person. You can replay the videotape in your memory of the last interaction, or of several of them. Eventually you’ll even be able to identify the missteps that landed you in this mess.
From up there, what can you see that could be motivating your adversary? When you separate their tone, and method, and manner, what did she actually say? What can you agree with? What can you discover that could be behind her words?
From up there, what do you notice that you may have done, or left undone, to contribute to the breakdown? Now, I didn’t say you caused the breakdown. Yet, you have a contribution. From up there, what can you see?
From up there, what do you notice about how you’ve responded to the accusation so far? What do you notice about your mood, tone of voice, posture-of-heart? How well would you say you handled yourself? What might your response have communicated, that you did not intend?
Give yourself permission to actually do this. Stop defending yourself, pleading your innocence, or attacking the other person long enough to get up to the balcony… pause, and look. Be curious about what you’ve overlooked so far. Allow the balcony to resource you.
This isn’t just theory. I use the balcony when coaching myself. I encourage you to do the same.
Let me know how it goes!
Principle #1- Focus on you
There may be no more important life skill than successfully handling conflict.
For a leader, it’s essential that you govern yourself in conflict. More than anything else, this can affect how you’ll keep good, healthy people on your team. And, every leader knows that the best determinant of the quality of what your organization gets done is the caliber of the people you have around you.
If you’re in Christian ministry, as I am, you’re very familiar with conflict. You may be a person with an abnormally robust commitment to harmony, yet conflict seems to dog your path. See, like it or not, conflict is a staple in the Christian diet. Why? Because it’s in conflict that we get to do our best ministry! There are a few things Jesus claims to have given his disciples; one of them is the ministry of reconciliation [2 Cor 5:18].
The thing about reconciliation is it’s only needed where there is conflict, enmity, discord, and strife. So, if you’re a Christian, conflict is as normal as a kitchen is to a chef.
Let that sink in a little.
Conflict for the Christian is as normal as the operating room is to a surgeon. It is where we get to do what we do!
For the next several weeks, we’ll look at principles and practices that will serve you well in conflict. Let’s get started.
Principle #1: For once, focus on you. Good leaders are great at setting up the people around them to win, and stepping back just as the spotlight comes on and confetti fills the air. Your ministry leaders get the lion’s share of your focus and attention; you make sure they’re recognized, appreciated, and honored. Yet, when you’re embroiled in a conflict, this is a time to lock your focus on yourself.
This flies in the face of our natural tendency to fixate on the role the other person has had in creating or embellishing the conflict you both are in. It takes almost no effort to uncover the contribution another has had to a mess you and they are in. Recognizing your contribution to the breakdown, articulating it honestly, and owning your part (and just your part) is much more challenging for most of us. I’ll let you in on a secret: if you’re in conflict with anyone, you have a contribution!
Years ago, I was in a conflict with a couple with whom I worked. From my perspective, I’d been victimized by an avalanche of unwarranted distrust. Over and over in my mind I rehearsed the selfless and faithful ways I’d served them. Then a friend challenged me to discover how I had planted the seeds of distrust in this relationship [based on Gal 6:7]. To my surprise, I remembered that even before joining the ministry I had judged them as un-trustworthy! This I compounded by repeatedly ignoring the Lord’s urging to initiate relationship with one of them. My contribution: at minimum, I’d entered the relationship distrusting them and I allowed the distance between two of us to grow unabated.
Your contribution may be something you’ve said or done. It may be a judgment you’ve had about that person or a less-than-charitable attitude you’ve indulged.
Your judgments and attitudes always find a way to leak out.
People can tell when you judge them—even when you’ve never mentioned it! Your contribution might’ve been something you left undone, something you failed to do, something you might have done, but didn’t.
Allow yourself to consider how your attitudes, actions, or inactions have contributed to the breakdown. This will prepare you for principle # 2, next time.
So, how does one transform from putting tasks above relationships, from using people to get things done, and instead enjoying people in their made-in-the-image-of-God-ness?
For me, four essentials.
We who are J’s get inordinate satisfaction from completing tasks, achieving goals, succeeding at what we deem signficant.
I get to surrender the arrogance that convinces me that my way is somehow superior to yours. Changing myself necessitates that I give up what’s keeping me stuck where I am. Since I’m not a crazy person, I do what I do because it works for me. And, surrendering what works for me is the pathway forward. There is no other.
Surrendering what’s comfortable, familiar, and has made me “successful” is a lot like trading my wingback recliner for Nike’s and My Fitness Pal. I get to embrace the discomfort of my new life … a life that’s set people over getting stuff done.
Embracing discomfort calls me to settle into “non-productive” time that, quite frankly, I’d forgotten how to do. It is in the expansiveness and ease of this unproductive space that love and value can emerge organically. And, since this is no longer familiar territory for me, I’m supported by the grace of God, to whom I prayed: “Lord, make me comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Surrendering what I prefer and embracing discomfort sets the stage for me to live into what I’m committed to become. The process of “living into” is rich with opportunties to practice the unprecedented. Realizing the comfort I receive from my industry has revealed just how self-indulgent my productivity can be. And, seeing it as self-serving rather than strictly virtuous helps me, as a “J”, to get off it.
“Living into the unprecedented” is one way to express a lot of trial and error, stumbling and getting back up, of failing and going again. My family can tell you that, while I’m much better being with them, I’m a long way from being consistent or doing it well.
Years ago a group of us regaled in an epic snow day at Grand Targee. Pristine, untracked, waist-deep, airy-light powder blanketed the ski area. Experienced on hardpacked snow, we struggled to adjust to these “optimal” conditions. We’d find our balance over our skis, then be thrown forward or back by the moguls beneath the billowy depth, then find our balance. And so it went for several runs. Bruce coined the term “linked recoveries” to describe the continual process of losing then regaining then losing and regaining balance while bounding down the mountain.
“Linked recoveries” describes my process well. I lean in with people for a while then abruptly resort to “conquer mode”, crank out a bunch of work, catch myself, and re-embrace the priority of people and relationships.
Fall, recover, fall, recover, fall, recover.
My new life.
Coaching Distinctions #90.docx
Like many exquisite things, this beauty has a price. Rents are challenging enough in winter quadruple to astronomical heights in summer.
Last night I met the landlords where we’ll live this summer. David and Juliette seem to be lovely people. He’s from London and she’s from the Seychelles. He’s a retired real estate developer. They “summer” in Rhode Island and hope to visit friends in the UK before fall.
That is all I know about them. In a thirty-minute encounter with two remarkable, unique, and talented people who’re created in God’s image—that’s all I know about them.
I wasted the exchange in a “IT-IT” relationship.
I was “tenant” and they “landlord”. We covered the pertinent details about rent and keys and utilities and parking and trash day. But, I failed to encounter them.
Lewis says that in every encounter with every person we hasten them to one end or the other. And I cannot tell you where this couple stands regarding the Savior. I didn’t bring it up!
As an “IT”, I hastened to conclude the meeting. I’d planned the evening, and had already decided there wasn’t room for an “I-THOU” encounter.
What if God wanted me to represent him to them?
What if God intended that we pray together?
What if God desired that we become friends?
As “tenant” these considerations don’t surface. But as “child of God” they do.
My being with Juliette and David is an opportunity for Heaven to come to Earth. For Christ’s goodness to touch two lives beneficially like he has mine.
It may have nothing to do with “religion” and everything to do with love.
An “I-THOU” encounter allows that we move each other. Each life is altered, impacted, changed. Not just in our thinking, but in reality changed.
How much greater is the possible reciprocity among people to call, draw out, impact, move, and be moved by each other?
I and THOU.
Coaching Distinctions #88.docx