Stuck at no

How Better Conflict Skills Can Improve Your Ministry

Curtis Miller | Jul 4, 2011

Our Family Ministries parent meeting had just finished, and I was doing the “pastoral” thing – standing in the back of the room smiling at people as they filed out the door – when an 8th grader’s mom approached me. “I just wanted to let you know,” she said, “that Nate’s had a wonderful time in Middle School these last three years and we really appreciate all you’ve done.” It was one of those comments you get from time to time and take with a grain of salt, knowing that there are at least an equal number of parents willing to tell you the opposite if given the chance. I thanked her and told her how much I’ve enjoyed having her son involved in our ministry. “I know we got off to kind of a rocky start,” she continued, “but I’m glad things have turned out the way they have.” She smiled and walked out, leaving me racking my brain to figure out what she was referring to. After a while, I did remember having some sort of conflict with her. What was that about again? Eventually I remembered a brief clash over the behavior of another boy in her son’s cabin at summer camp. She wanted to know why we weren’t “in control” of certain kids so they didn’t expose others to inappropriate things. After all, this was a Christian camp, wasn’t it? The conversation quickly went south, if I recall correctly, when I reminded her that these were middle schoolers we were talking about. It wasn’t what an incoming 6th grader’s mom wanted to hear. Having been duly sparked, my memory started running through all the other conflicts I’d gotten into with both parents and senior leadership, from the mild (“Why don’t we do …[fill in the blank]?”), to the unforeseen (inviting kids to see the latest Harry Potter apparently doesn’t fly here) to the flat-out discouraging (“The kids aren’t enjoying middle school as much as before you came”). Truth is, every incident that came to mind I know I could have handled better, which I suppose is part of why they were memorable in the first place. And, despite what I’d like to think, the reason things didn’t go very well had more to do with my own ego than the unreasonableness of the other side.

Getting Past No

As William Ury points out in his book on negotiation, Getting Past No, [[Ury, William, Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations, New York: Bantam, 2007.]] the natural human tendency when faced with conflict is to strike back. We get defensive, offer excuses, or fight fire with fire. And while such tactics might feel good in the moment, the reality is they don’t resolve the conflict. Instead they escalate it. Power plays, Ury writes, just don’t work, in business or in life, because even if you “win” on this occasion, the damage to your relationship with the other person ensures that you will both lose in the long term. If this is true in business, it’s even more true in the Church. Beyond the question of what “works”, the vision that Christ gives his church compels us to approach conflict in a very unnatural sort of way. As Jesus taught and put on display, the Gospel requires us to deal with conflict using radically different strategies than conventional fight-fire-with-fire tactics. Instead, we are called to act consistently with grace, love, and respect. Ego and power plays really don’t belong. As Bill Hybels writes in Axiom, we need to “disagree without drawing blood.” [[Hybels, Bill, Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008, 106-107.]] We know this, of course, but something inside of us chafes at it. After all, what’s the alternative? Are we supposed to just give in? Does love mean not getting our way? Should we listen politely and then ignore everything our critics say? Or is there a better way? In response to these concerns, Ury offers a five-step process (plus one pre-step) for approaching conflict that is useful in any setting, including youth ministry.

0) Prepare, Prepare, Prepare.

While conflicts do sometimes arise out of the blue, we often have some warning that they’re coming, and it pays to be prepared. Youth workers, for good or bad, have something of a reputation for “winging it,” and this is not a time to fulfill the stereotype. Think through your own emotions and objectives. Then, as much as possible, put yourself in the other person’s shoes to do the same. Try to anticipate what they want out of the conversation, and what they might say or do. You won’t be able to foresee everything that might happen, but having fewer surprises sets you up to handle things well. Plus, having well thought-out responses and objectives makes it way more likely that you will be heard when the conversation actually takes place.

1) Go To the Balcony.

Unfortunately, no amount of preparation fully prepares you for what you may feel when the attack comes. So when the inevitable urge to strike back and be defensive arises, take a deep breath and, like looking down from a balcony, try to get above it all. As Ury says, “Objects react. Minds choose not to…you need to step back, collect your wits, and see the situation objectively.” [[Ury, 37.]] This step is the key to all the rest because, as I’m sure you’ve experienced too, our reactions can quickly derail whatever conversation we might be having. Sometimes a person will unknowingly push one of our buttons, other times we’ll be facing someone who knows that they can get power by provoking a reaction. Whatever the case may be, staying calm and in control is crucial if we want to handle the conflict well. Ury suggests a few strategies for getting to the balcony when things get heated:

  • We can pause and say nothing until we’re ready to respond well.
  • We can “rewind the tape” (a kind of dated analogy, but you get the point), walking back through what a person has said using phrases like “Help me understand” or “If I understand correctly you’re saying…” [[This is also a tactic that Hybels suggests in Axiom. See pp.110-111.]]
  • Or, if nothing else works we can call a time-out, get some water, or take a bathroom break.

Whatever you need to do, get to the balcony!

2) Step to Their Side.

When someone attacks us or tries to power up, they’re expecting us to react in kind. By doing something unexpected, we can take away the power of their attack. The most effective way to do this is to step over to their side of the argument. Rather than trying to reason with them or fix things, begin by listening – actively. Make eye contact, nod, give verbal and non-verbal cues that you are hearing them, and paraphrase back what they have said to confirm you understand. Ury argues that often, once the person feels heard, they will be more receptive to hearing you. As you listen, try to get a strong understanding of the other person’s motivations and hidden interests, as well as where you share common ground and can agree. Once they’ve finished, begin with where you agree, and show them that you value both them and the concerns they have. Finally, defend yourself and your position in a way that won’t provoke by focusing on common ground. This step is all about laying a strong foundation for steps three through five.

3) Reframe.

Here is where you try to change the game by moving from a “me vs. you” to a “we” situation. Hopefully you’ve been able to show that you take the other person seriously and genuinely want to work through this conflict to a solution. Now build on that by explaining to them how you see the issue, emphasizing points of agreement. If the other person doesn’t understand certain key issues, don’t tell them what they should think. Instead ask them questions that allow “the problem [to] be their teacher.” [[Ury, p. 80.]] Walk them through the issues they may not have seen by asking questions that show you value them and their opinion. Maybe the issue (as in the initial story) is centered on the language a certain boy used at camp. Chances are the complaining parent hasn’t thoroughly thought through the reality that it isn’t possible or desirable to only let “good kids” attend summer camp, or to be closely chaperoning all kids at all times when there. Instead of impatiently explaining this, ask questions like, “What do you think we should do when a kid we don’t know well wants to come to camp?” Or, “One of the great things about camp is the chance for kids to have new experiences and a little more freedom than usual. How do you think we could balance that better with preventing inappropriate behavior?” Listen carefully to the answers; they may have some really helpful things to say! Through it all, watch your tone and body language to make sure you aren’t coming across hostile or on edge. This may be the most significant challenge of all, so be sure to pay attention!

4) Build a Golden Bridge Toward a Solution.

Usually the person you’re in conflict with has talked this situation over with others before they came to you. In the case of a frustrated parent, those “others” may have included other parents, members of the elder board, the pastor, or their kids. This parent, therefore, starts the confrontation concerned that if they don’t get their way they will lose face in those other relationships. What we can do is create an exit strategy for them that preserves their dignity. Basically, we want to give them a narrative that frames what happened as a positive, so instead of “retreating” they’re actually “advancing to a better solution.” [[Ury, p. 109]] If a parent has safety concerns, for example, you might invite them to help chaperone the next event and then give feedback on what could be improved in the future. If the concern has to do with the depth of Sunday morning services, maybe you could agree to host a meeting with parents to gauge interest in a separate, more in-depth Bible study. This can take many forms, but again, preparation is key. Have some possible “Golden Bridges” planned out before you begin, so you can easily offer them a way out that also helps them save face. To do this, ask for their help in developing a solution, use and refer to their ideas as much as possible, and look for concessions you can make that will be big deals to them.

5) Don’t Force; Educate.

When things seem to have stalled, the answer is not to go back to our default mode and begin the attack. Instead, we should “use power to bring them to their senses, not their knees.” [[Ury, p. 133]] Hopefully at this point you’ve developed a positive working relationship with the other person, so continue to ask leading questions that will help them see your side and where you can get together. Don’t pressure them into something they aren’t comfortable with; remember, you want the other person to walk away feeling affirmed, heard, and valued.

Beyond Just Nice

Conflict isn’t the sort of thing we go out searching for, unless of course we have some sort of pathology that probably should be addressed before we continue in Christian ministry. Conflict’s uncomfortable, it’s painful, and it’s messy. Conflict results in broken unity, busted relationships, and battered people. And really, conflict usually ends in the sort of lose-lose situation we want to avoid. It’s enough to make you wonder, is it really worth it? Or am I better off just trying to be (as one of my seminary professors put it) a nice pastor in a nice church surrounded by nice people? Unfortunately for us, niceness isn’t always the default setting in church. We aren’t called to deal with idealized, happy, glowing-with-an-aura-of-nice sorts of people; we’re called to deal with reality. And in reality, there’s conflict. Our job is to deal with conflict in a way that is both productive and Christlike. Ury’s framework offers us a chance to do just that. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Action Steps

  • Think back to a recent conflict that didn’t go as you hoped (could be with a parent, senior pastor, kid, spouse, or volunteer). Which of Ury’s steps would have made the most difference had you practiced them in that incident?
  • The next time you see a conflict coming, take time to prepare before the storm hits. Consider what current issue or relationship is likely to raise conflict over the next few weeks and practice the pre-step strategies above in advance.
  • Plan out some strategies for “getting to the balcony” that will work for you when things get unexpectedly heated. If you don’t have good reframing words and phrases in your vocabulary, practice saying them until they can become part of the way you handle conversations that move toward conflict.
Curtis Miller

Curtis Miller grew up in suburban Northern California and rural Michigan, and after a (very cold) four years in Boston made his way to L.A. He likes California because the weather doesn't drive you indoors for four months out of the year. Curtis completed an MDiv at Fuller, is currently pursuing a DMin at Duke, and is an associate pastor at Hillside Community Church in Rancho Cucamonga, CA.

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