Our nation is at war. Neighborhoods are in turmoil. Political parties are at odds…even more than usual! Conflict is even popular amid our denominations and congregations in America.
With so much conflict, perhaps it is time to place a “gag order” on some of the ways that we have traditionally used to solve such conflicts. Bud Selig did just that when the media and leaders of the baseball world were perceived as causing more harm than help to the ways that they were seeking to resolve the steroids controversy.
“Baseball is enveloped in a bulging steroids controversy that threatens to puncture a once-promising season and cloud a bevy of historic achievements of the past several years. The pressure is so suffocating that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig imposed a gag order on the subject Tuesday,” USA Today reported on March 3.
I don’t believe that Bud Selig was saying the issue was unimportant or should be ignored. He rather was suggesting that the manner in which the problem was being discussed was not helpful.
We, too, need to abandon some of our current means of resolving conflicts. There is much evidence to suggest that some of our most coveted techniques employed in the midst of conflict simply do not work.
One of the first things to avoid in conflicted situations is the use of labeling. We all know that slurs are not helpful in conflicts involving cultural differences, but the reality is that any language that places people into two distinct groups polarizes people. Using labels always introduces the risk of placing all of the diversity present into one category. In some situations, the entire set of perceived differences among those in a conflicted congregation can be summed up as those “who prefer to sing choruses” and “those who do not!” or using labels such as “traditionalists” versus “contemporaries.”
As Americans await the naming of the next survivor, the next idol, the next apprentice, the next swan, the next Joe Millionaire, the next Bachelor, the next Bachelorette, we are increasingly allowing the presence of a crowd or the presence of a sum of money to define our identity.
America is divided between the famous and the infamous, the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the weak. The entire existence of many of those who perceive themselves to be on the wrong side is get to the other side.
Labels focus all attention on the who and how, while making invisible the why. Perhaps the word, “terrorist” is the best example. It is a word devoid of meaning but wrought with power. All labels, through their limiting power, marginalize and dehumanize others, making the pathway to peace impossible.
Secondly, we also need to avoid public-forum debates over controversial issues. If the purpose of debate is to persuade others, it is a terrible tool for accomplishing such a task. When is the last time that you changed your mind as a result of a public debate?
The very presence of a perceived argumentative environment makes us less likely to change our minds. Sometimes that main difference between a debate and a dialogue is simply timing.
Any time that an organization plans to vote on a particular controversial issue, the “dialogue” that they hold prior to the vote will always result in an unproductive debate rather than a give-and-take dialogue. Dialogue can only occur in a atmosphere where no outcome is predicated, listening is the norm and respect is required.
The third task to avoid in conflicted situations is focusing upon outcomes too early. Focusing upon outcomes prematurely leads to a winners and losers environment.
In a conflicted situation, the conflicted parties must seek to understand why they feel so strongly about a potential outcome rather than the outcome itself. Only then, can a new outcome be reached.
When such winners and losers language is avoided, often, new outcomes more beneficial to both parties than the original proposals can be achieved.
In another column, I will focus upon techniques that can help to resolve differences amidst a conflict.
Jeff Woods is associate general secretary for regional ministries with the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.