Wouldn’t it be great if every perplexing social situation came with a traffic signal that guided our responses? A red light would tell you to remain silent. A green light would mean “Now is the time to speak your mind.” And a yellow light would signal that you should proceed with caution. You’d always know when to mind your business, when to lift your voice, and when to tiptoe carefully into a conversation.
Illustrations by Joao Fazenda
Imagine how helpful it would be to have a cut-and-dried rule about what to do in situations like these:
You’re at a family reunion, and Aunt Edna begins opining loudly about politics. You notice that those opinions are making some uncomfortable, and you sense the family reunion is about to become a family division. Do you step in and try to redirect the relative to a different topic or hope the conversation will drift elsewhere on its own?
A male coworker makes suggestive comments to an attractive young female who recently started working in your office. Do you call him out on it? Check in with her to find out if she’s bothered by it? Talk to your Human Resources department?
Your assistant pastor uses a racial slur a couple of times in casual conversation. Do remain silent and pray someone else will say something to him? Pull him aside and gently call him on it?
Each of these situations has variables that may influence if, when, and how you might speak up. What is your history with Aunt Edna? Do you have a good relationship with your coworker? Do you feel you can point out a moral blind spot with someone you view as a spiritual leader? So many tense situations aren’t easy to navigate, nor do they come with easy-to-read signs that serve as helpful cues.
In lieu of a moral traffic signal, we put together this guide to help you navigate disagreement. Our goal is not to prescribe a solution but to help you know yourself better so you can make more informed, confident decisions in conflict. Here are a few helpful principles that can guide you as you encounter your next relational crossroad:
Conflict itself is not sin. It is part of the human condition.
In the church, we celebrate the biblical values of unity and harmony, so we may be tempted to see conflict as sinful. While discord can indeed lead to wrongdoing of all kinds, avoiding it can also create problems. Some seek to minimize the discomfort by ignoring the disagreement; others might over-spiritualize the situation with language like “Let’s just trust that God will work this out” or “Ah well, everything happens for a reason.” But that just serves to drive conflict underground where it can fester in shame and silence. Friction doesn’t dissipate simply because we wish it would.
Cover to cover, Scripture tells of conflict between humans—from Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:1-16) to the final movements of our earthly story, when God promises to wipe every tear from His children’s eyes (Rev. 21:3-4). Until that day comes, there is no way to avoid conflict. We’re all imperfect and wired differently, so disagreement is a natural part of life.
People often feel shame about having to navigate conflict, as if it’s an indictment of their character. Do you think it should be avoidable? To what extent?
How do you think your perspective on disagreement would change if you thought of it as problem-solving instead?
Conflict is good, believe it or not.
In healthy, respectful interactions, disagreement serves as a tool of refinement, helping us to become who God created us to be. In fact, we can see that a maturing faith is often forged in the crucible of challenging relationships. Galatians 2:11-14 describes Paul’s conflict with Peter. Paul chose to publicly challenge Peter’s hypocrisy. The entire church benefitted from the teaching that clarified the issues at the heart of the disagreement, and they also learned kingdom values from the example of how these two passionate leaders navigated their differences.
If you’re unsure what a healthy disagreement looks like, here are some clues. Throughout the conversation, people typically:
Use a calm, even voice.
Ask each other thoughtful questions.
Take their time.
Learn something about themselves and each other.
Your temperament matters.
God has wired some of us to be quiet, sensitive souls. He has given others big, bold personalities. Quiet types may be most comfortable minding their own business. Bold personalities may not hesitate to speak up in a challenging situation. Your disposition informs your inclination to mind your own business or not.
Imagine being faced with the task of confronting someone. Does your stomach churn? Your veins pulse with energy? Do you go numb?
Now picture a situation in which you do not confront the other person. Do you feel peaceful? About to explode? Or something in the middle?
No matter which way you lean in conflict, your natural inclination comes with God-given strength. Ultimately, the world needs peacemakers and world-shakers and everyone in between—that’s why God made no two people alike. It’s similar to the way Paul describes spiritual gifts: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-7, emphasis added).
In what ways has your disposition been beneficial in a disagreement?
At the same time, your temperament is not a foolproof guide to doing what is right. For example, there are no loopholes for shy, retiring types in a clear command like the one found in Leviticus 5:1: “If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible” (NIV). Here, the Israelites were called to intervene when justice for another person was at stake, regardless of their natural wiring. In the same way, our personal comfort zone shouldn’t always determine whether we mind our own business or not.
Think of a disagreement in which you responded against your natural inclination. How do you think you handled it? How did it feel? Do you have any regrets?
Your history matters.
What we’ve been through also influences how we respond to conflict. For example, if you were bullied in school, you might later shy away from dominant personalities in the workplace. Or if you grew up listening to parents yell at one another, you might raise your voice when trying to solve a problem. It’s important to reflect on what experiences have shaped us—not to stir up self-pity but to raise awareness. Once we’re aware of our history and how it impacts our present, we’re able to briefly step outside of it and respond to the situation that’s actually in front of us. Take a moment to reflect:
How did adults in your life approach a disagreement?
Are there any topics you consider sensitive that trigger an automatic reaction from you?
What are some good conflict resolution skills you’ve picked up from relationships in the past? What are some bad ones?
Their history matters.
Just like you, the people you disagree with have a robust personal history that informs how they approach conflict.
Take a moment to identify what’s called their social location: gender, race, social class, age, physical ability, religion, and geographic location. For example, if you find yourself at odds with an older coworker, how might the prospect of retirement be informing the way he or she views the situation? Or if you’re having trouble with a fellow volunteer at church, how might the person’s socioeconomic status impact his or her ability to participate?
Do you know anything about this individual’s family background or current home life?
What has this person experienced today? What is his or her current mental, emotional, and physical state?
James offers some guidance on what managing conflict should look like for all of us: “Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for a man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20, emphasis added) If we are reactive, we’re far more prone to say the wrong thing or to choose silence instead of strategic speech. Ben Franklin made this observation, which echoes that of the apostle James: “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
So how can we apply James’s words in the moment? Here are some suggestions:
Quick to hear. Repeat the person’s words back to them: “So you’re saying …” This does two things: It encourages you to truly listen (instead of thinking about what you’ll say next), and it gives the other person a chance to confirm he or she is being heard and understood.
Slow to speak. Physically step away and do something else, whether it’s for 15 minutes or a couple of days—and brooding in your bedroom or office doesn’t count. Engage your mind in a different way to give it a break from ruminating. In other words, seek mental “fresh air.” Wash the car, run that errand you’ve been meaning to do, say a prayer, help your kid with her homework, listen to a podcast. (Be sure to communicate to all involved that you need some time away, and let them know when you plan to revisit the disagreement.)
Slow to anger. James chose his words carefully here. He didn’t say we shouldn’t be angry at all. (There’s nothing wrong with experiencing anger—or any other emotion, for that matter. Feelings are part of human existence, and Jesus felt righteous anger, too.) James recommends being slow to anger. In other words, do your due diligence: Be curious about the other party and his or her situation. Ask yourself if you could have misunderstood anything that was said. Follow up to clarify any questions or confusion. Revisit your own personal history as well as the other party’s (which we mentioned in previous sections), and see what compassion and understanding you can develop.
The only person you can control is you.
Notice that all of the tips in this guide start with you—even though conflict involves at least two parties. That’s because we have control only over ourselves. We can’t manage the reactions or emotions other people experience in a disagreement. Healthy conflict starts with us.
However, we can inspire others to follow our lead. Notice what happens when you meet a person’s stern raised voice with a calm, gentle tone. Observe how someone reacts when you affirm his or her concerns. Healthy and mature tools in conflict tend to be infectious, and many people will respond in kind.
Invite God into the situation.
Notice that the well-known verse written by James ends by pointing out what must motivate us to action: bringing about the righteousness of God. No matter what it is we are fighting about, we should be asking, How can I best proclaim God’s righteousness in an unrighteous situation?
Don’t be afraid to invite God into the conflict along the way. Taking a second to breathe while reaching out in prayer for His help can transform your reaction into a wise response. Whether it’s quickly saying “Lord, help me” before a confrontation or thanking Him for resolution at the end, there’s no wrong way to welcome God into your troubles.
Proverbs 18:21 tells us that our words carry the power of life and death. (In fact, so can our Spirit-guided silence.) As we seek the Lord in the heat and mess of conflict, He will show us when and how to mind our business in ways that glorify Him—because it’s His business, too.