In my last article, I looked at two types of conflict: forced and initiated. Forced conflict occurs when people do not expect it and are unprepared. Initiated conflict presents the opposite. People have a level of expectation because they are more prepared. Leaders experience strong resistance when people feel forced into making changes. However, leaders can minimize the level of resistance when change is initiated through effective communication and preparation.

As we continue this discussion, let’s look at how leaders can prepare for conflict. In their book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen highlight three major questions that surface in conflict: “What happened? How do I feel about it? And how will this impact me?” These three questions wrap up your perception, emotions, and identity. The last two are directly impacted by the first. When you feel your identity suffers or is attacked, conflict results. Although you cannot be prepared for every conflict, the following suggestions provide a few good starting points.

  1. Anticipate conflict. Jesus warned His disciples that difficult times were ahead. He wanted them to be prepared for these challenges. While there are multiple reasons for conflict, your preparation makes the difference in the result, and it begins with an anticipation of conflict. Several years ago, I attended a Chamber of Commerce banquet in Greenbrier, Arkansas. The guest speaker that night was former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. He referenced a conversation with an Olympian luge athlete, in which former governor Huckabee expressed how challenging the curves must be when traveling at high rates of speed. The athlete’s response was fast and simple: “You have to negotiate the curves before you get to them.” The same is true of conflict: You need to anticipate conflict in advance and prepare as much as possible for it. Far too many people wait until they are in the middle of the conflict to determine how to proceed. Imagine the difference when you are more prepared for the conflict because you anticipated its arrival.
  2. Ask the right questions. Most people tend to listen to one side of a story and make assumptions or judgments about the entire situation. Remember, there are two sides to every story, and you should try to put yourself on the other side of the table to better understand the situation. The perception, emotions, and identity of each person involved will be unique. Closed-ended questions lead to information deficiency. Open-ended questions, however, allow for everyone involved to explain their perspective. These questions begin with words like “what, how, and why.” What did you see? How did it make you feel? Why do you think this happened? The questions may be modified depending on the situation, but asking the right questions promotes healthy dialogue between both sides of the conversation and opens the door for a clearer understanding of the entire situation. Jesus was masterful at asking questions that penetrated the thoughts of those he engaged in conversation. Studying His questions in the gospels will provide a good foundation for where to begin.
  3. Consider conflict as an opportunity, not a problem. If you only see conflict as a problem—an obstacle that prevents you from achieving success or happiness—then you do everything within your power to avoid it. While no one likes conflict, as a leader, you should recognize the value of conflict to challenge your thinking, enable growth, improve leadership ability, and strengthen relationships. This is not to suggest that you look for conflict, but you must recognize that carefully and methodically initiating conflict can help develop a more holistic approach to your leadership. James teaches us that we are to “consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” When we look at conflict as an opportunity for God to work endurance in our lives, the result produces perfection and completeness where we lack nothing.
  4. Practice the “101 Percent Principle.” Stated that this principle requires you to find the one percent you agree on with someone else and give one hundred percent of your effort to it. While it may seem counterintuitive on paper, many people tend to focus on disagreements before even looking for common ground. The result is greater conflict and division. How much better would it be if you found the areas of agreement and focused most of your attention there before looking at the differences? This principle provides a place of psychological safety and comfort. The discussion leads to a more positive and productive outcome when a safe place exists.
  5. Focus on one conflict at a time. You’ve heard the old saying, “Take it one step at a time.” This thought contains sage wisdom. When life hurls multiple challenges at you all at once, you can easily get overwhelmed. The result of these struggles can lead to discouragement and depression. How do you handle juggling multiple conflicts? The short answer is that you tackle one at a time. Ask yourself, “What must be done today? What problem must be resolved first?” If you focus on areas related to the future, your mind can be consumed with the specifics of what may be resolved in the future, and you fail to address the priority of today. If you address conflicts in order of necessity, you can knock them out in turn, creating a sort of mental domino effect. You will enjoy a greater peace of mind, which Paul tells us comes from the peace of God that surpasses all comprehension.
  6. Learn to listen. As a leader, we must learn to listen with the intent of understanding. The ability to listen well is a lost art. We often tend to think about how we will respond while the other person is talking. We listen long enough to get the idea and then wait for the person to draw breath so we can jump in and start sharing our thoughts. Learning to listen well involves the ability to repeat back a summary of what someone has said as we understand it. This is referred to as active listening. Learn to use phrases like, “What I hear you saying is…” or “If I heard correctly, I understand you to have said…” Learning to listen in this way projects a desire to understand, and it provides the other person an opportunity to correct any misunderstanding. Another benefit of active listening is slowing down and demonstrating genuine care for the other person’s perception, feelings, and identity. This is a win-win scenario. Take a few moments and read the account in Genesis 23. Notice how Abraham listened to Ephron.
  7. Be willing to sacrifice first. This step is tough. We generally don’t mind if someone else makes the sacrifice, but the personal application is costly. Instead of asking, “What kind of sacrifice will I have to make?”, you should be asking, “Am I willing to make sacrifices? How much am I willing to sacrifice?” Resolving conflict for relational reconciliation is worth the sacrifice you make. If you are only concerned with what sacrifices you must make, you are more focused on checking boxes than developing relationships. When you approach your relationships with the willingness to make the sacrifice first, your humility stands out. Humility is a game-changer for resolving conflict. Pride will only push you into a greater conflict, but humility strengthens your credibility. This can contribute to bringing resolution and strengthening relationships.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, these ideas will help make a powerful impact on how you handle conflict when it arises. Consider them and add preparation methods specific to your personal situation. If we only see conflict as harmful or hurtful, we tend to work at avoiding controversy and maintaining the status quo. However, when we see conflict as beneficial to our life and leadership, we approach it with a frame of mind that builds stronger relationships.

Bob Turner
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Bob Turner is the current Director of SALT (Sunset Academy for Leadership Training). He teaches courses and conducts workshops in Leadership Development, Emotional Intelligence, Creating Vision, Strategic Planning, Communication, Conflict Resolution, Character, and Managing Change. He also serves as an instructor in the Sunset International Bible Institute’s master’s and doctoral degree programs. He and his wife, Sheryl, have been married for 42 years with more than 30 years of ministry experience. They have three grown children and ten grandchildren.