Whether you’re the leader of a church, home, team, business or government, what you’re actually leading is people. Successful leadership is all about creating a culture in which people, and relationships between people, can grow and thrive.
One of the best ways to tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy relational environments is to look at how they handle conflict. In dysfunctional environments, leaders are afraid of conflict. As a result, they either under- or over-address it; that is, their approach to conflict is either too hands-off or too controlling.
Unfortunately, neither approach actually leads to successful conflict resolution. The hands-off approach creates a high-conflict culture with lots of drama, blow-ups and other disrespectful exchanges. The controlling approach, on the other hand, creates an artificially low-conflict culture where people avoid being honest about tensions or issues for fear of being punished in some way.
If you’ve lived or worked in dysfunctional environments (and most of us have), then you know how unsafe and even hostile they are to us being ourselves and building genuine connections with others. They also keep us from being productive. Studies have shown that high-anxiety environments are low in production, while low-anxiety environments are high in production.
Healthy leaders approach conflict with three things in mind: the goal of connection, the practice of seeking understanding, and the commitment to personal responsibility.
Connect With Others, Don’t Just Self-Protect.
Our default goal in conflict is self-protection. When another person is rubbing us the wrong way, we typically shift into self-protection mode before we can think. The goal of protecting ourselves automatically frames a conflict as “me vs. you,” which makes us think the outcome of the conflict has to involve a winner—the one who is right—and a loser—the one who is wrong. And we never want to be wrong.
Along with this problematic instinct for self-protection, many people hold the dysfunctional belief that relationships consist of one powerful person and one powerless person—and nobody wants to be the powerless one. When conflict is present, this belief leads us to fight to be the powerful person at the expense of the other person, and when we can’t, we fall into victim mode. Respectful resolution is literally impossible with this dynamic.
Healthy leaders have a different template for relationships and a different goal in conflict. They believe that healthy connections happen when two powerful people are present. Instead of protecting themselves, they care about protecting this connection. This goal causes them to frame a conflict as “us vs. the conflict,” which creates a completely different approach and outcome. Instead of presenting their case against the other person like a lawyer, they appeal to them vulnerably as a friend: “Hey, this is how I’m experiencing you right now. Are you willing to work through this?” They want the relationship to win, not one of the people in it.
Understand Where Everyone Is Coming From.
A huge percentage of conflict is rooted in misunderstanding and miscommunication. The problem is that most of us think we already understand the issues before we’ve had a conversation. As a result, when the conversation happens, we’re not trying to gain understanding; we’re trying to tell the other person what’s going on. We’re not listening.
Stephen Covey speaks to this in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He says the fifth habit to put into place is this, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” As leaders, it’s so important to guard ourselves against assuming we know what’s going on in a situation with another person—especially when it comes to their thoughts and motives—before we’ve talked with them. We need to come to a conflict-resolution conversation prepared to ask a lot of great questions, and then to listen carefully to the answers.
We need to try to understand the other person’s experience and views first before responding with our own. When we position our hearts in this manner it actually causes us to draw closer to people because we have a desire to know what they are thinking. When I assume to know your thoughts and motives, I don’t need to draw close to you; I can remain at a distance and not do the work of connecting.
If there’s anything we do need to assume as leaders, it’s this: We need to assume the best about people. We need to believe and hope that if we take the lead in moving toward another person by listening well and seeking understanding, they will do the same for us.
Take Responsibility for Yourself and Your Half of the Relationship.
In conflict, it can be tempting to focus on how the other person is behaving and handling their end of the relationship. Many leaders fall into the trap of co-dependency and start working harder on another person’s problem than the person is working on it him or herself. This prevents true resolution and restoration from happening.
As leaders, we need to show the people we’re leading that we are taking responsibility for our lives and our half of relationships, and that we expect the same from them. I’ve been part of many conflict situations as a leader. Some never reached resolution, simply because at least one person involved ultimately didn’t want to the relationship to win. However, I’ve also seen amazing restoration happen—situations where there was so much hurt, miscommunication, and misunderstanding between two people that reconciliation seemed impossible, yet happened in the end because they both bought into the healthy approach to conflict, and received God’s grace to walk through that process.
The healthy approach to conflict isn’t easy—it requires more patience, humility, vulnerability and courage than almost anything in our lives. But practicing these qualities is what makes us healthy, and the payoff in our character and relationships is priceless. The richest relationships I have and observe around me have all weathered conflict and been stronger for it.