Seven Skills for Fair Fighting in the Fellowship

by Cal LeMon

The tenor of the voice was shrill and the tone was strident. Your mind and spirit whispered, Oh, Lord, no.

It may be the congregation’s annual business meeting, perhaps a board of elder’s retreat, or just lunch with a ministry influential power broker.

Someone in your church vehemently disagreed with your opinion, decision, or spiritual direction. At this moment there were some unholy thoughts beginning to percolate between your ears, and defensiveness started erecting high and wide emotional walls between you and the accusatory speaker.

Sound familiar?

The Church’s Choices for Fighting

The dull axe of willful character assassination, lying, personal empire building, malicious gossip, overt selfishness — you know, dirty fighting has cleaved the Church down the middle since its inception.

For those of us who have spent much of our lifetime drumming a padded altar with frustration and anger over saints who seem to savor schism, conflict has been the fly in our spiritual soup. Preaching, teaching, and caring fill us up, but the downside of the ministry is confronting the outliers of the faith.

In my opinion, the ultimate expression of the church’s spirituality is not its noise, news, or numbers; rather, the watching, unbelieving world closely examines how we fight. If our holy tag-team wrestling matches mimic Wall Street or Washington, the unbeliever mutters, “I don’t need more on Sunday with what I have to put up with the rest of the week.” The definable difference of our faith fellowship is how we choose to resolve our differences.

Two choices are quite simple. Our fellowship can replay the same, tired conflict resolution techniques taught to us by the media and the mavens of manipulation who conclude, “only the weak lose … never let them see you sweat.” We call this dirty fighting.

The other choice is fair fighting which, I am convinced, is thoroughly biblical.

The Framework for Fair Fighting

We build the methodology for fair fighting on the following seven assumptions: (1) conflict is inevitable and normal in any organization; (2) the parties involved in conflict resolution have more to gain by resolving the presenting problems than choosing avoidance; (3) active, empathic listening is an essential skill both parties must practice; (4) time is an essential ingredient that brings reason to the resolution process; (5) both parties will have to lose something for a win-win solution to result; (6) effectively resolving conflict is the mark of a proactive, positive ministry; and (7) the causes of conflict are usually “cognitive” (what color to paint the women’s restroom or the amount of money allocated in next year’s budget for staff continuing education), but the results are always an “affect” (emotional) experience.

The Skills for Fair Fighting in the Fellowship

The first of seven skills is an honest talk … with you.

Conflict will never morph into resolution or restitution if you do not acknowledge it. Someone (and that person needs to be you) has to own the responsibility of truthfulness and say to a mirror, “You know there is a problem between you and ______________. What do you plan to say and do to begin the process of reconciliation?”

Avoidance is a wonderful ego-defense mechanism. When we sense the conflict-resolution process can be personally difficult or painful, we often create space — sometimes for years.

There is nothing wrong with taking time to pray, reason, and get in control emotionally; there is something very wrong when comfortable silence buries personal honesty and responsibility.

When we know in our spirit and natural intuition there is growing chasm between us and another person, it is time for talk … self talk.

The second skill may seem unnecessary, that is, unless you do it incorrectly. The simple fact is resolving conflict in front of a crowd never works. This conversation must be a private moment.

If there are other people within earshot, your resolution to this conflict will be emotionally polluted with a communication principle called triangulation. When there is an observer (a person or a group) to a conversation, both parties will begin to amend their words and agenda to play to the crowd. Before long these two people will no longer be talking to each other, they will be playing to the stands.

So, take time to strategize the right physical environment where you can roll out the nouns and verbs that will grease the wheels of fair fighting.

Practical suggestions for creating privacy include posting a Do Not Disturb sign on a door and asking the other person to turn off or mute a cell phone.

The third skill is a decision to begin the conversation with an “I” statement and not a “you” comment. Do not begin the session with, “Well, you have once again created havoc in this ministry.” Those words are an interpersonal disaster waiting to happen.

Try this, “I sense you have been disappointed with the direction I have outlined for this ministry. Tell me, am I correct with my assumption?”

There, you said it. You gave status to the resistance with those simple, caring words. Notice, we can take the resistance out of the other person’s position or opinion by accurately saying what has been lurking in the nonverbal jungle between us. Silence, over a long period of time, creates distortion.

Therefore, a statement you own (the “I sense you have been disappointed”) followed with a question (“am I correct about my assumption?”) is, indeed, the biblical formula for negotiating the initial stages of conflict resolution (see Ephesians 4:25).

The fourth skill is the one most personally demanding: active listening.

Dr. Carl Rogers, a noted psychoanalyst, called active listening “unconditional positive regard.” Those three words simply mean when the other person is speaking, we give this individual the message; “Right now, you are the most important person to me, and I am temporarily suspending judgment and my agenda to hear you and your story.”

This is a skill we have brought, with alacrity, to sharing the good news, but not always to listening to someone with whom we disagree. You see we usually vote when we listen. When the vote is yea, we like what we are hearing and we listen. When we pull the lever for nay, our body and smile may remain in front of the offending person but our neocortex has just vacated our cranial cavity. We nod in agreement but cannot wait for a fitting place to pull the plug on this conversation.

Assuming we have genuinely listened, it is time for the fifth skill: reflect and reframe. The reflecting process in resolving conflict is a liberal use of paraphrasing. The linguistic formula would sound like this, “If I have heard you correctly, you have observed me as an insensitive leader who has no time or patience for others in this ministry who do not agree with me. Have I accurately reflected your thoughts?”

You may be saying to yourself, “There is no way I could ever say that.” Here are the two advantages of using reflection. First, reflection communicates you have been an accurate listener. Second, the precision and candor of your words will move the two of you from filling the air with plastic platitudes. For conflict to find resolution, there has to be real words representing real thoughts and feelings.

Now, it is time for the reframing.

Again, using an “I” statement, the person committed to fair fighting may respond with, “I understand what you have said and for the following reasons I agree with you (or do not agree).”

Reframing is the Pauline principle of “speaking the truth in love.” Too often spiritual leaders become dishonest with themselves and/or the other person to “keep the peace, get this over with, and move on.” The problem is there is no moving on when both parties know there has been no sincere effort to resolve the conflict.

The sixth skill is resolution.

Resolution does not mean both sides in conflict will be pleased; rather, resolution does mean there is a clearly understood plan for bridging an emotional chasm.

The plan is a mutually discussed set of actions or changes in attitudes. Both parties can contribute components to the plan. This is a form of win-win negotiations.

The win-win is predicated on a lose-lose process. In other words, when each party in a conflict watches the other person surrender something important to him, it is perceived as a win for the other side.

Undoubtedly you are saying to yourself, “What if there is nothing I can surrender because my position is correct?” Fair fighting requires an effort at accommodation. The question now is, “What are the benefits to me, the ministry, or our future working relationship if I accommodate to the other person’s need(s) on the other side of this issue?”

Win-win conflict resolution is, in effect, a form of tacit collusion. Both parties admit to themselves there is more to gain by losing than winning everything.

Serving Up the Seventh Skill

The six skills you have just learned I have taught and coached leaders how to use in corporate America. And, they work.

Unfortunately, I cannot add the seventh skill in a corporate boardroom. This one is built on servanthood … often a foreign idea in an executive suite.

The seventh skill is a spiritual discipline: praying for each other.

The apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is the manual for fair fighting in the fellowship. These splintered saints were screaming at each other across the walls of worship, but they could not hear one another. Their divisions deafened their ears.

So, the apostle prayed. Paul prayed first for insight (“to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,” 3:18) and then unity (“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace,” 4:3).

People of the Spirit have an option for fair fighting when the first six skills in this article do not work. They can always pray for and with each other. The prayer is not to change minds or positions, but to change hearts. And, peace in a fighting fellowship is always communicated through the beat of changed hearts.