Curing Conflict

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 23
September 10, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Many people bristle at conflict and avoid difficult or emotionally charged situations. Having strategies for confronting conflict can promote healing and growth.

Maybe you've been in a meeting like this: one person pushes and pushes on an issue until another person just cannot take it any longer and gets up and leaves, sometimes with a flourish of angry words. These kinds of things happen in workplaces and family dynamics frequently. Perhaps all of us can recall a time in our own families when a simple disagreement bubbled over into a full-on war of words. Certainly, this kind of thing happens in church from time to time. We may have borne witness to a Christian education director leaving a meeting angrily without the curriculum she wanted, or a finance committee member storming off about numbers on the budget.

We are built to avoid conflict. Our lives are simply easier when we all get along, and we usually feel physically and emotionally safer when there is less friction in our relationships. But it is impossible to get along with everyone all the time, and it can even be downright dangerous and hurtful to avoid difficult topics and conversations just because conflict may ensue.


Conflict is when an individual or group perceives a difference or opposition with another individual or group. Conflict can arise over anything that is valued: interests, resources or actions. The key is there must be an element of interdependence. If one person or group's actions or beliefs do not impact another, there is no conflict. For example, you and your friend agree to go out for lunch. Your friend really wants Mexican food but you want Indian food. You have a conflict. There would be no conflict if you did not want to eat together. You both value sharing a meal together, which makes you interdependent. If you want to solve the conflict, you will need to find a way to compromise.

Disagreements force us to examine what we believe, what we know to be true, how we get our information, how we identify ourselves and how we are in relationship to others. It is in the resolution of conflict that we grow, change and develop as individuals, families, friends and communities. The way we resolve conflicts determines how our relationships grow and develop.

Healing conflict

This passage in Matthew is often uncomfortable and difficult to read. It is a guide on how to deal with conflict in the church, but it advises that if the conflict cannot be resolved, the intractable member be excommunicated. Although "tough love" is often necessary in certain relationships, it is hard to see how a community of love, grace and forgiveness can rise up when there are such clear cut-and-dry ways to sever ties with a member.

On the other hand, it can relieve some pressure to have a clear guide about how to have a difficult conversation, especially if you feel hurt, angry or confused. Matthew offers first going directly to the person who has hurt you to have a direct conversation. Few things are more infuriating or alienating than to feel as though someone has gone around you with their feelings or triangulated someone into the relationship. A coworker who constantly goes to the boss about petty annoyances before he speaks to the problem co-worker is not likely to win many friends.

If a direct conversation fails, Matthew suggests drawing the circle a bit wider to include witnesses or close confidants. A woman with a substance abuse problem with alcohol refused to believe that her husband thought she was drinking too much after work. Though she would often be groggy in the mornings and sometimes overslept or had debilitating headaches, she argued that a few drinks in the evenings after work were actually part of the solution and not the problem at all. Drinking helped her de-stress and a couple drinks with dinner were not getting in the way of her work or relationships, she said. It wasn't until her husband sought the opinion of his wife's siblings and close friends that she could see that he might be right. Occasionally, we need more evidence in the form of familiar voices or trusted friends and family to help us see something in a new way.

If there is still no traction with a conflict, Matthew suggests looking to the broader community to help solve the dispute. A friend recently shared the process Quakers use for making big personal decisions. His colleague was trying to decide whether to continue her private therapy practice or to retire. She couldn't decide for herself which was the best direction for her life. She had consulted the advice of some friends and family but was still undecided. So she turned to her faith community where she was helped to assemble a small group of people who convened to listen to her internal debate and help her make a decision. In this case, there wasn't a conflict with another person, but there was an internal conflict about the next logical step in her career. When it couldn't be solved on a personal level or among a few people, she turned to her community to help her resolve her indecision.

Hard conversations

The first step in resolving a conflict is often the hardest. In her book, Let's Talk About Hard Things, Anna Sale offers some practical advice about how to start a difficult conversation -- the kind of advice you'd like to get from a good friend but might be afraid to ask. Sale is the host of the radio show, Death, Sex, and Money, where she routinely asks people about topics that are difficult, embarrassing or shame-filled. Sale suggests starting by saying why you'd like to have a conversation with the other person. People are more likely to open up and talk if they feel invited into the conversation, she says. Sale suggests that you pay attention to how your conversation partner is reacting, taking note of body language or terse responses. How you listen will determine how the conversation plays out.

Listening is only half of a conversation, albeit a very important half of the conversation. It can be hard to know when to speak and when to listen when you are anxious about having a difficult conversation. Sale reminds her readers, "when you put off speaking up because it might upset someone else, you are putting their comfort ahead of what you need. Choosing to change that dynamic is empowering."1

In group-training sessions about leading conversations on difficult topics such as racism, sexism or homophobia, participants indicated that although they had no problem with conflict when they were the one engaging in debate or initiating the conflict, when other people were angry or shouting at each other or seemed visibly upset, many participants found it hard to know what to do to make it better. The hard truth of these types of difficult conversations is that they necessitate a certain level of discomfort and conflict because there can be no growth without conflict. Groups of people cannot grow closer without resolving conflict. Friction helps us discover the boundary between ourselves and other people. We learn how to identify ourselves, how to live and work in community with others, how to be a friend, family member and co-worker all because we confront and resolve conflict.

Communication experts suggest that actively listening, summarizing what you've heard, taking responsibility for your own feelings and simply allowing others to have their feelings can help manage conflict. Sometimes everyone needs a little space. Everyone wants to be heard and understood. Good leaders look for ways to keep the whole community healthy, while managing individual needs, strengths and desires. Sometimes the best solution is to walk away from the relationship and admit that it is no longer working.

Matthew suggests that when all other resources and options have been exhausted, it may be time to sever ties. This is not undertaken lightly. Cutting off a relationship is difficult and will cause pain and loss. Sometimes, though, new growth begins with a cut. Not everyone has to be in a close relationship with everyone they meet. Healthy communities know this and facilitate graceful entrances and exits when necessary.