I have mentioned this very impressive TED talk before, but it bears repeating here due to its direct impact on how we look at conflict. It opens the door to the final step in finding hope in the middle of strained relationships and sticky situations.
Management expert Margaret Heffernan, in a thought-provoking talk given at TED Global 2012, offered a counterintuitive lesson learned during her years running businesses and organizations: that conflict and opposition are essential for good thinking (“Dare to Disagree,” August 2012). Heffernan shared the story of Dr. Alice Stewart, who in the 1950’s dared to challenge a key component of prenatal care – the use of x-rays on pregnant women. Her research, which linked childhood cancers to this procedure, was not easily accepted.
“…for 25 years Alice Stewart had a very big fight on her hands. So, how did she know that she was right? Well, she had a fantastic model for thinking. She worked with a statistician named George Kneale, and George was pretty much everything that Alice wasn’t. … But he said this fantastic thing about their working relationship. He said, “My job is to prove Dr. Stewart wrong.” He actively sought disconfirmation – different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her. He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories. Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.
It’s a fantastic model of collaboration — thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators? Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking. So what does that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves.”
To effectively deal with conflict, we need to:
Embrace new behaviors and methods that will help move conflict toward resolution.
The ability to make conflict work FOR us and not against us is one of the most important skills we can learn. The problem is that many of our default methods for handling conflict work directly against this. As pastors and ministry leaders, our tendency can be to believe that simply introducing biblical data into situations of conflict will win the day. And when it doesn’t, we bring more! The likely result is not a healthy resolution to the issue. Scripture needs to inform the process, but a “warriors” approach to its use in conflict will never bring the unity we hope for.
A better approach to conflict may be found in advance preparation. Ken Sande, President of Peacemaker Ministries, offered this insight when asked about putting structures in place to help us navigate difficult situations:
“Right! Do it when everybody’s getting along. Say to your team, “Listen, we may have a falling out some day. If that happens, what will we do? How do we ensure accountability and fairness?” If you wait until you’re in conflict, then anything you suggest will be met with suspicion. Failure to have accountability structures in place before a conflict is the single most frequent issue we deal with in conflicts between leaders—pastors, elders, deacons, people at every level. So put structures in place before a conflict happens.” (Leadership Magazine, 2011)
Rather than avoiding or merely reacting to conflict, we may do well to invite it in.
So where does conflict exist? In the space between people. If we can close that gap in godly ways, then conflict can become the means to new understanding and a more confident ministry. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17
Jesus used every conflict as an opportunity to advance the kingdom and deepen his disciples’ understanding of their relationship with Him and each other. Not every godly insight or nugget of wisdom I have received has come as the result of light and easy fellowship. Quite a few have risen out of the ashes of very heated conflicts.
A good question we should always ask, especially when faced with opposition from those who see things differently than us, is, “Why shouldn’t we do it this way?”