Conflict is rampant in our society. Everywhere we turn, people are arguing, struggling, skirmishing with one another; in neighborhoods, political arenas, global landscapes and even congregations. Yet, congregational leaders have a mandate to lead the peaceful way rather than the defeatist way. Amidst the ubiquitous sources of conflict, it seems that the ingredients for peace have grown ever more elusive in our society. Yet, they need to be recovered.
The three ingredients of understanding, clarity and dialogue need to be pulled away from the sidelines and mainstreamed in conflicted situations. True understanding is achieved only through reading and listening. Yet, in our multi-phasic society, we too often are tempted to combine reading and listening with speaking and crafting arguments; thus we seldom truly hear what another person is saying to us.
Even before attempting to listen to another person with whom we feel ourselves to be in conflict, it often is helpful to gain a broader understanding of the person’s background. What generational differences are present? Are there gender differences? Are there any cultural or ethnic differences among the groups involved? Do the parties simply approach the issues differently or come from different schools of thought? Who appears to feel most strongly about the issues? Why are the issues so passionate for them? What is the “best argument” of the person with whom I most disagree? If I were in that person’s space, what shoes would I be wearing?
The fictional plot of the recent Grisham book, Runaway Jury, is predicated upon discovering the backgrounds of the jurors and reaches its climax only when one particular background is misdiagnosed. Knowledge is power whether it is gained in the courtroom or classroom, the ball field or battlefield. Unfortunately, such power can be used to destroy or reconcile, but always must be gained because neither is possible without it.
Knowledge can help in every arena where there is conflict–locally, nationally and internationally. Viewing the tortures of the recent Iraqi prisoners makes little sense without a more complete knowledge of the traditions and religions of the Iraqi people. Knowledge of the backgrounds, beliefs and passions of those with whom we seek peace is essential to that outcome.
Ingredients of peace, however, require not only passive understanding, but also active understanding. Listening, when practiced carefully, can improve any conflicted situation. One helpful training exercise in a conflicted situation is to employ “active listening.” This technique simply requires the listener to paraphrase to the point of accuracy the words just spoken by the speaker. This tool of understanding often provides breakthroughs in communication.
When the tool of active listening is used as a basis for conversation, it catapults understanding into dialogue. Most conflicts begin with a misunderstanding that creates hurt, escalates into a broken relationship, skyrockets into a full blown conflict, spirals into a win/lose situation, and eventually pummels into the destruction of both sides. Somewhere along the way, the cycle needs to be broken. Listening and dialogue are the only means of breaking the rising cycle.
A final tool of peace involves clarifying. Once the parties of a conflict begin listening to one another, they can then clarify the issues involved.
Roosevelt Thomas points out that organizations need to distinguish requirements and prohibitions from traditions, preferences and conveniences. What was once perceived to be a requirement, such as the “Annual Turkey Dinner,” may be more accurately understood as a tradition through dialogue–one that still may be difficult to change, but simply the recognition of options can loosen the ground for eventual change. What was once a prohibition, such as worshiping on Saturday rather than Sunday, may be clarified as a convenience once dialogue has occurred.
With all of the conflict around us, a return to understanding, dialogue, and clarity will surely help. Congregational leaders must pave the way to peace.
Jeff Woods is associate general secretary for regional ministries with the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.
Click here to read Part 1 of this column.