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Managing Strife With Style

Identifying, Developing, And Using Conflict-Management Styles

By Norman Shawchuck

Conflict Management Is A Process

Conflict management is not sweeping conflict under the rug or teaching people how to fight fair. Conflict management is the process of influencing the activities and attitudes of an individual or group in the middle of disagreements, tensions, and behavioral actions that are threatening relationships and/or accomplishing goals. This process also includes the ability to use applicable tools and processes to consult with a conflicted person, group, or congregation so those involved might come to clarity and agreement about the root causes of the conflict and seek common ground regarding the next steps required to address the situation. I use the term next steps because it is highly unlikely any significant conflict will be resolved in one day.

Understanding The Conflict Cycle

Conflict arises when the actions of one person or group threaten the values, goals, or behaviors of another person or group. Conflict always involves these four steps.

(1) An action: A person or group does something.

(2) A threat: The property or goals of another person or group are threatened.

(3) A reaction: The perceived threat causes a person or group to react.

(4) The stage is set for the next cycle of conflict.

Social conflicts are usually cyclical in nature. People and organizations tend to form habits of self-defeating, destructive behavior; and like all bad habits, once formed, people become more-or-less blind to their own destructive behavior. Often people go around and around until someone dies, moves away, a catastrophe causes everyone to forget the conflict and huddle together, or someone in the group demonstrates a better way to handle conflict.

When people have a choice, they may choose the better way, or they may choose to remain in conflict. Also, the outcome of a conflict often depends on whether someone in the group is skilled in conflict management.

Conflict begins at the tension-development level. At this level someone says or does something that causes a person or a group to become upset. If this tension is not addressed, then the person or group under stress experiences increasing degrees of anxiety. Conflict is often not addressed at this point because those not affected by the stress view the momentary situation as inconsequential. If this increasing stress is not addressed, the church enters the role-dilemmastage.

At the role-dilemma stage, the congregation and its leaders are cast into confusion. Who is responsible? Who is causing this stress? What are they doing? Who is responsible to manage the stress? As a rule, the congregants will hold the pastor and board responsible to manage the stress and resolve the conflict. If the conflict is not satisfactorily resolved in the role-dilemma stage, it escalates into injustice collecting.

In injustice collecting, people seek someone to blame. Pastors, lay leaders, church members, and attendees begin collecting artillery to protect themselves when the war breaks out. This artillery includes: gossip, threats, withholding contributions, accusations, and retaliations. Injustice collecting creates increased tension.

Injustice collecting is the first dangerous stage in conflict. Members of the congregation begin to worry that matters will get worse before they get better; they fear the conflict will not go away. A conflict that is not well managed at the injustice-collecting stage will progress into confrontation.

Confrontation is the first stage where people use the injustices they have collected as weapons. Suddenly the congregation disrupts. Disruption does not always mean the confrontation will continue indefinitely. After this initial, serious, frightening conflagration, however, the situation will never be the same again.

Confrontation is the most dangerous stage of the conflict cycle because individuals and congregations may become stuck in ongoing cycles of useless or damaging conflict and never achieve resolution. The famous legend of the Hatfields and the McCoys clearly defines the dangers of useless, cyclical conflict. The two families fought for generations. Ultimately, succeeding generations had little or no clear idea why they were fighting. They only knew that the Hatfields always fought the McCoys, and vice versa.

After a conflict runs its course, adjustments will be made. Adjustments are the changes people make to endure or escape the results of confrontation. The result of a well-managed conflict is renegotiated expectations and freely made commitments to honor the agreements made between the parties concerned.

If the adjustments are traumatic or poorly managed, then the confrontation will eventually take one of many forms: avoidance (people drift away), domination, or cold war. The adjustments may also become endless overt and covert hostilities in the life of the congregation. Antagonism begins to fester beneath the surface. A routine has been established where the parties in conflict continuously seek to gain the upper hand in every minor or major encounter. When the antagonism and wounds are not cared for, sooner or later the conflict will resurface and erupt into another damaging confrontation. Many congregations have been stuck in conflict for years.

The first cycle of a serious conflict may run its course in minutes, hours, days, or years, but conflict that is not handled well in the first cycle results in recurring cycles of conflict with each cycle becoming tighter, more entrenched, more difficult to manage, and more destructive than the preceding cycle. For example, a cyclone is broad at the top, but at the bottom it is a well-organized spiral that can cause horrific damage in a matter of minutes. (See “Intervention” sidebar.)

Conflict intervention, then, is a concrete plan for breaking into the conflict cycle, stopping the destructive behavior, and turning the person or group’s energy and behavior into cycles of more constructive, self-enhancing behavior. The earlier the cycle is broken, the better it is for all involved.

Two Fundamental Concerns In Conflict Management

Concern for relationships

In conflict, some believe the most important thing is maintaining friendly relationships. A person who manages conflict well will engage in conflict in such a way to ensure persons are not hurt by the conflict and that relationships are not damaged — even at the expense of his personal goals and interests, if necessary. This is the foundation of the accommodating style. Those who use this style want to take care of other people even at the expense of taking care of themselves.

In most close relationships among God’s people, there is a concern to preserve community and to live and work together. This desire is inborn in the consciousness of most Christians. Jesus accentuated the essentials of Christians living and working together. Scripture is replete with events, admonitions, and instructions (beginning with Genesis 1:26), that the people of God are a family, are to live in harmony, and are to care for one another.

Concern for one’s own personal goals/interests

For this person, winning is the most important thing. He will engage in conflict in such a way to ensure his personal goals and interests are accomplished even at the expense of relationships. (See sidebar “Conflict Management Concerns Grid.”)

Conflict, as painful as it may be, is often necessary and good. Well-managed conflict can bring good to the church and to individuals. Without conflict, we become placid. The goal of conflict management is not to do away with conflict or to run from conflict, but to manage conflict toward worthwhile ends.

Conflict-Management Styles

People respond to conflict using various styles. The outcome of conflict, good or bad, depends on the degree of aggressive behavior exhibited in the conflict. When a person feels his back is against the wall, he will push back.

We are not born with, or fated to forever act out of a particular conflict style. We learn how to protect ourselves in conflict and danger. A baby begins to draw references from the outside world while still in his mother’s womb. Modern medical science claims an unborn child responds to the emotions of its mother and the noise of external stimulations, whether calming and loving, or frightening and dangerous. The unborn child is gathering data that will to some extent influence his earliest premonitions and his life-long experience.

People also learn conflict-management styles while they are children by observing the behaviors of their parents. They learn how to protect themselves in problematic or dangerous situations in a functional or dysfunctional way. Conflict-management specialists have identified five conflict-management styles.

Avoiding (the turtle)

The turtle avoids becoming an active participant in a conflict and claims no responsibility for the conflict or its outcomes. The role of a turtle in a conflict may prove cowardly and damaging or be a brave and wise decision. The turtle, however, must clearly understand his goals and why he is hiding. The goal possibilities are:

  1. I do not care about the conflict, and I will not get involved. I am willing to accept whatever the outcome.
  2. I care about the results of the conflict, but I feel the parties involved may learn from their behavior if they are left alone to deal with the consequences of it.
  3. I am not going to get involved. This is the role of other leaders to solve the conflict.

The turtle’s behavior may facilitate learning and growth by giving people on either side of the conflict opportunity to assume responsibility for their actions and their responsibility in resolving the conflict. There are situations, however, when the turtle needs to come out of his shell, stand up, and be counted.

While working with individuals and groups in conflict, I have found turtles to be slow to speak, slow to act, hesitant to accuse, but often insightful. The turtle’s downside is he tends to drive people crazy with his long musings, humming and hawing, and procrastination. However, if you encounter a snapping turtle in a conflict, beware. The snapping turtle can be a tenacious foe.

Accommodating (the teddy bear)

The teddy bear preserves relationships. He communicates, “Getting along with one another is more important than the issues dividing us.” The teddy bear works to keep the group intact and living and working together harmoniously.

During my teen years I attended a small church in a farming/ranching town where every person was acquainted and cared for their neighbors. Even in my youth I realized that people cared for and accommodated the needs and interests of their neighbors.

This caring and accommodating were not merely passive words or meager attempts. Everyone felt a responsibility to adjust their routines if necessary to meet the needs of their neighbors. Accommodating is costly. It can demand our time, our energy, our money, and sometimes giving up what we would rather do.

Collaborating (the wise old owl)

The owl is concerned about the group at large and places equal emphasis on the goals of each member of the group. The goal of the owl is to safeguard the interests of the group as a whole. He does this by getting all the parties fully involved in defining the conflict and in carrying out mutually agreeable steps for managing the conflict. He believes conflict can be managed in such a way as to strengthen the organization and relationships. He sits above the petty scrimmages in the congregation and observes, ponders, and remembers. When the owl speaks, people listen because they know the owl seldom speaks, and when he does speak he always offers wise counsel.

Compromising (the fox)

The fox provides each party in the conflict some victory and then persuades each member of the group to accept some loss. Compromising seeks to attain the common good for each person and the community as a whole. The fox does this by finding the minimum amount acceptable to every member of the group. Finding a compromise that satisfies each member is often tedious, so the fox is assertive and will use persuasion and, if necessary, manipulation to achieve his goals.

Competing (the shark)

The shark has a clear goal — to win at any cost. The shark usually does not intend to hurt people, but simply places prime importance on personal goals or on his interpretation of what is best for the organization. If necessary, the shark will sacrifice relationships to accomplish his goals.

This style requires the individual to be aggressive, domineering, and generally uncooperative in the pursuit of any solution except his. Often his sense of self-esteem is involved, so he must win at any cost.

Determining Our Conflict-Management Style

Each of the above conflict styles may be utilized with intentionality in a specific situation. Most persons, however, give little thought to the conflict-management styles they use. Rather, they adopt a conflict-management style with little intentionality and are almost totally unconscious of the assumptions and behaviors that comprise that style.

Conflict is both a social phenomenon and a theological concern. A person’s presuppositions affect his conflict-management style(s). In Ephesians 4–6, the apostle Paul teaches Christian maturity: “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. ‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:25–27). Here, Paul’s teaching takes the negative approach. Paul, however, also teaches with a positive approach when he says, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:10,11).

Pastors and lay leaders can learn their conflict-management styles by taking time to reflect on their motives, behaviors, and the results in their conflict situation(s). In my notebook, How To Manage Conflict in the Church, we include a Conflict Styles Survey. (See sample in the sidebar “Conflict Styles Survey.”) A pastor can also have others evaluate him by using the “How You Can Help Me Manage Conflict More Effectively: A Self-Analysis Tool.” Each respondent answers each question based on how he views the pastor’s conflict-management styles.My book How To Be a More Effective Church Leader also provides help to equip people with concepts and tools to understand the essential elements of conflict management and leadership in religious and secular settings. Another spiritual growth resource that applies is Develop an Understanding of Your Behavior in Conflict Situations. All of these resources and more are available through Spiritual Growth Resources at 1-800-359-7363 or visit

Utilizing Conflict-Management Styles To Resolve Conflict

Pastors and lay leaders can become more effective in responding to conflict by studying, practicing, and using different conflict-management styles, depending on the conflict. Unfortunately, most pastors and leaders, without forethought, have adopted a particular conflict style.

Choosing which conflict-management style is best for each circumstance allows those involved in conflict to intentionally decide how to best respond to a particular situation, and also determine how others involved might respond. Since any action in conflict will likely cause a reaction, it is prudent to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), especially in serious conflict.

We generally act and react based on a particular conflict-management style. This style represents the way we protect ourselves in frightening, dangerous situations, or the way we try to prevail over others against their will. We often do this without assessing the short- and long-term results of our conflict behaviors. But our chosen conflict-management style needs to be an appropriate response to a specific situation. As such, we do not value one conflict-management style over another. Conflict-management styles are neutral.

The effectiveness of a conflict style, however, should not be measured only by the degree to which it reduces tension inside one’s self. It should also be measured by the short and long-term effects it will have on the people and the organization. Any style will produce short-term effects when used only once. But using any style on an occasional basis will generally not produce any long-term effects.

The style, or styles, we employ in a given conflict, however, are important. Adopting a particular conflict style in a given situation often determines the outcome of the conflict. For this reason, I emphasize knowing conflict-management styles and knowing your default style.

Over the long haul, the collaborating style is to be preferred above the others. This style commits persons to do everything necessary to see to it that the personal relationships remain strong, that lines of communication remain open, that all persons’ goals and interests are honored. In this manner, conflict serves to strengthen member ties, unleash the creativity of all the people, and commit all the members to a wholehearted support of the organization’s best interests.

It is important to remember that we are not born with a given conflict-management style. We learn our styles. If we learned them, then we can also unlearn them and relearn new behaviors. Relearning behavior is not difficult, but admitting that we want our own way, we want to win, and we want our enemy to lose is difficult, especially for religious leaders. It is our nature to ascend, to rise up, and to protect ourselves in danger. We may even choose winning over losing, even in matters of small significance.

However, when disagreements among the people of God become a matter of winning and losing, grasping for power, seeking control, and trying to win at every cost, the congregation or church board is no longer seeking the higher way or trying to discern God’s desires for the community. The conflicted parties are living in Satan’s shadow.

Basic Conditions For Successful Conflict Intervention

As a young boy, I realized my mother and father’s responses to conflict were as different as day and night. My mother would fight at the drop of a hat and as quickly forgive and forget. Whenever two or more of my mother’s sisters came together, there was an uproar. They fought with each other and against anyone who attempted to intervene.

My father, on the other hand, was stable, quiet, and enduring. He would never entertain a frivolous issue, and he would go to extremes to avoid conflict. But when he felt it necessary to engage in a serious conflict, he was a tenacious, determined combatant; he was determined to win.

We learn our conflict behaviors by trial and error as we observe the behaviors of our parents and other significant people in our lives. After years of experiencing conflict and working in conflict situations, I arrived at a set of principles. In every significant conflict, it will benefit all parties involved to:

Generate valid and useful information

In any significant conflict there is valid and invalid information. The first principle of conflict management is to separate valid information from invalid information. This includes evaluating the stories, claims, denials, and accusations, and determining whether they are true or untrue. This is perhaps the litmus test of conflict management.

Many approaches exist to generating valid and useful information, such as on-site observation, evaluation, and one-on-one interviews.

Allow free and informed choice

In a free society citizens have free choice. In most congregational conflict, pastors and members have free choice — no one can forbid the choices of others. However, choices freely made are not always informed choices. Often people do not have enough valid and useful information to make good choices. Much of the information generated in a conflict — even in religious organizations — is useless and damaging.

A litmus test of leaders is whether they will generate valid and useful information for the people and help them understand what the information means for the congregation and leadership. Many leaders, even in the church, do not want informed followers, so they deny or hide the truth from their people.

Motivate internal commitment to the choices that are made

Church members should have freedom to decide the ministries and roles of the church within its environs and within the denomination. However, many congregants in American churches do not feel they have the valid and useful information needed to determine their legitimate roles and responsibilities within the life of the congregation. In brief, members have free choice in the affairs of the church but often do not know how they might best do the work of God in their place, or beyond.

Congregants who are informed are more likely to care about the socio/theological concerns of the church. It is the responsibility of the leaders to provide members with valid and useful information regarding the goals, life, and ministry of the congregation. When the pastor provides people with the valid and useful information they need to decide their roles and goals for the church, they tend to go beyond the expectations ecclesiastical officials hold for them.

There are an almost infinite number of ways to accomplish each of the three steps to conflict management. (See sidebar “Successful Conflict-Management Principles.”) Regardless of the methods you use, your own behavior in carrying out your plan is absolutely essential to its success.

The Pastor’s Spirit In Conflict

The most important element a pastor brings to a conflict situation is his own spirit. Scripture declares “deep calls unto deep.” Spirit communicates with spirit at the deepest level of our beings. I have found this to be especially true in my own work as a mediator in church conflict.

If a pastor is experiencing unresolved conflict, the conflict in which he is trying to help will hook his own conflicted spirit. He will soon be experiencing inner tensions as though the conflict of others were his own. He will no longer be able to remain objective.

The most important preparation a pastor can make in preparing to function as a conflict manager is to prepare his own spirit. I make it a point to spend a day or more in fasting and prayer as a part of my own preparation to work in a serious church conflict. I use these hours to review my own relationships, desires, and motives. When I discover conflictual desires and motives, I surrender them to God. When I discover ill feelings toward another, I write a letter or make a call confessing my feelings, asking forgiveness. I pray the Psalms and ask God to assist me in the conflict.

I do this because I realize that unless Christ shares His peace with me, I will have none to share with others. When I get in touch with the Prince of Peace, I find myself filled with hope — not only for myself, but also for the church. If Jesus can convict me, show me a way out of my own conflicts, and bring His peace to my troubled spirit, surely He can do likewise with those to whom I go. We are ambassadors of Christ. That means we stand in His stead in the middle of conflict to bring peace to His people.

Preparing For Conflict

The pastor’s demeanor and responses to those who oppose him are important. His goals in the conflict will either influence or determine the outcome of the conflict-management process. However, in congregational conflict, the pastor is often not the only party involved — the church board usually has a measure of responsibility.

When a congregation is in conflict, there is often a board member who is autocratic or laissez-faire in his interpersonal relationships. Either condition can paralyze the church board for months or years as the autocrat seeks to dominate every matter of the church board and congregation. The behavior of one autocratic board member can strangle the entire board, especially if the board has not received training to oversee the affairs of the congregation.

Every church needs to require its leadership to attend a conflict-management training program before they are placed in leadership positions, and to attend one or more workshops each year to keep fresh, current, and motivated. If they are not trained before being installed, many will feel they do not need any training. They become leaders who have been elected to keep the pastor in line and have no time to study a manual.

What I convey here is especially poignant for me. The congregation in which I worship is a small, faithful community. Now, however, the community is experiencing interpersonal conflict. A family in the congregation decided the pastor is not good enough, not able to lead, and too involved in the community. Yet, the people in the community believe the pastor is doing outstanding work. They extol his efforts on behalf of the community, and because of this the congregation is slowly, but steadily growing.

When these complaints are expressed in a large congregation, church board members dispatch with the petty antagonisms as matter-of-course. They do not bring the matter before the congregation. In a small congregation, however, complaints are more obvious.

Any conflict can either energize or destroy a congregation. It is imperative, therefore, that the lay people and the pastor of a congregation are trained each year, not only in conflict management, but also in the management of religious organizations. If some demur, then it is best that they not serve in positions of regard.

Finally, the time to deal with conflict is when there is none. People are then open to learning and exploration. When a group is in conflict and emotions are running high, people are not open to learning; they only want to run or fight. In personnel management of volunteers, it is often difficult and damaging to discipline or remove someone from his position.


The Christian faith provides some of the finest conflict-management resources available: Scripture, prayer, preaching, the Lord’s Supper, Communion, and people’s common commitment to Christ and His church. As pastors and people use these resources in a noncohersive manner — along with proven conflict-management methods — those involved in conflict can experience the peace that only God can give, and will discover the higher values that make them one, in spite of the differences that tend to divide them.

Norman Shawchuck, Ph.D., Leith, North Dakota, is professor of religion and leadership, Vanguard University of Southern California, and serves as adjunct professor in seminaries across North America. He has authored more than 20 books on spirituality, conflict management, and church leadership

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