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Transparency and indignation have impact on conflicts

I’ve been reading quite a bit about conflict.  This work seems to go through seasons where different themes seems to emerge and, recently, conflict has been one of those themes rising to the top. 

Mike Denton
By Mike Denton, Conference Minister

Admittedly, its not an unusual theme in any work where there are, well, people but as part of this specific position, I am sometimes invited by local churches in to conflictual situations as a witness, an arbiter and sometimes as a mediator. 

In many cases, reframing is all that’s needed.  The conflict has emerged out of perspectives that differ and, once people are able to hear another’s perspective and its made clear that both parties are hearing each other’s perspectives, they can focus on problems solving and negotiating. 

Other times, there’s a resource that helps them solve their problem that I knew about and they didn’t that allows them to go in another direction or have a more realistic view about what solution is realistic. 

Sometimes, all that’s needed is an encouraging witness to support them emotionally and spiritually sustain their own efforts.

Two of the pieces I’ve been re-reading recently are both from the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership.  One is titled FACT’s on Growth and the other is titled Insights in to Congregational Conflict.  According to these documents, the most common congregational conflicts are—in order starting with most common—behavior among members, how money is used, style of worship, questions about leadership style and questions about decision making. 

That said, the most disruptive conflicts that cause congregational decline are—starting with most disruptive—related to questions about leadership style, how money is used, style of worship, behavior of members and actions of denominational bodies.

 Although there is overlap in the two lists, there’s an important difference, here.  Not every conflict about, for example, leadership style is one that causes decline but the most common conflict that is disruptive is about leadership style.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what makes a conflict more disruptive and there are two elements that seem to make a big difference. 

The first is related to transparency.  Problems are frequently transformed in to disruptive conflicts when surprise is involved or where past issues had been hidden.  Transparency can, initially, be embarrassing or disappointing but secrets are almost always more destructive in the long run. 

Inviting others to witness problem solving processes helps build trust, confidence and also opens systems to resources people might be more than willing to share but not know are needed, otherwise.

The single most common factor that moves a normal conflict into a more disruptive conflict is the point at which people become indignant and, if you take a look at the five most disruptive conflicts, you can see how that might emerge. 

Indignancy—can we pretend that’s really a word for a bit, here?—moves a conflict from being a problem to be solved to an emotional reaction that needs to be soothed, frequently at the expense of the best solution to the problem. 

Indignancy, once it enters a conversation, is frequently infectious and spreads to other’s quickly.  It leaves a long lasting after taste of bitterness, too. 

Although sometimes it is a tool of the powerless, it is all too frequently a tool of those who wish to “win” a conflict for personal satisfaction instead of reaching a mutually agreed upon decision.  

The degree to which indignation has infected a situation is usually a marker for how disruptive that situation will be to an organization’s long term life.

Within your own congregation, how do you work to increase transparency?  What antidotes for indignancy have you discovered for yourself or for situations in which indignancy has emerged?

Copyright February 2013 © Pacific Northwest Conference United Church News


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