Paul tells us to "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph.4:3) and Jesus tells us that "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over" (Mt.18:15).

In any family or relationship, conflict is normal. However, it is in the best interests of everyone to resolve conflict quickly and amicably. Good communication is essential in avoiding conflict and in resolving it. Conflicts or "relational tensions" can come in many different kinds, from mild upsets to disagreements, personality clashes and antagonism. There are two common ways of dealing with conflict: flight (withdraw and avoid the conflict at all costs) or fight (go on the attack).

In most conflicts, we have two things to consider: achieving our goals (you want one thing and another person wants something else) and maintaining our relationship (this may be damaged if we go for a "win").

Five Styles of Managing Conflict:

  1. The teddy bear - symbolises those people whose primary concern is to maintain good relationships with others at any cost. Teddy bears abandon their own goals and needs, in the face of opposition or criticism, so as not to break the personal bond. Their greatest need is to be liked or accepted. 
  2. The turtle - symbolises those people who withdraw when conflict arises. Turtles want to avoid interpersonal upsets at any cost. They will abandon their own goals and their relationship with another, rather than face conflict. 
  3. The shark - in contrast, immediately responds to conflict by going on the attack. Sharks characteristically deal with conflict in this manner, wanting to win at any cost. They often get their way, as others withdraw under the assault, but they make few friends or allies. 
  4. The owl - a wise old bird. Owls respond to conflict calmly and firmly. They neither flee from conflict nor go on the attack. They listen to others point of view, put their own case rationally and firmly, and seek a way forward which will satisfy their own goals and the goals of the other party. Their aim is to always maintain good relationships with others, while not being a doormat that habitually gives in. 
  5. The fox - is the clever or skilful manager of conflict. Foxes are well-adjusted people who have learned how to deal with conflict in creative ways. They've discovered that always responding like a bear, a turtle, a shark or even an owl is not the answer. Different situations call for different responses. Sometimes it is best to be a bear and give in to save the relationship; sometimes it is best to be a turtle and sidestep the problem, thus avoiding any conflict; sometimes it is right to be a little bit shark-like and to get angry and say a firm no; and sometimes what is needed is to be an owl. Sometimes a compromise is best. 

We also all have a fallback position in addition to our primary style. Many a bear under severe pressure will become a shark. We have all been surprised to see normally apologetic and gentle people suddenly lose their composure and "blow their stack". Conversely, a shark who does not get his or her way by attack, may well adopt the stance of the turtle and withdraw inwards, thus opting out.

Conflict is always painful, it is never easy to handle and everyone makes a lot of mistakes. There are no simple solutions and no easy answers. However, with God's help we need to learn to handle conflict well, as it's not going to leave us. When conflict occurs, acknowledge it and then take the initiative to sort it out, whether you are the one hurt or the one who did the hurting. Avoiding conflict kills community. Resentment builds up inside like buried toxic waste. Sooner or later it will leak.

Jesus tells us to go and approach the person, not to avoid them. No third parties. Go to the person with whom you have the conflict. Only involve others if you've tried personally and it didn't work (Mt.18:16). Do it alone (in private) with the person involved. Use "verbal discipline" by saying clearly what hurt you and why - "without the sarcasm, sweeping statements, exaggerations and emotionally charged word choices that pour out gasoline on the fire" [John Ortberg]. The aim is always reconciliation - a restored relationship. The goal is to win back the person and to restore community. This has to be your motivation. Give it your best effort (Rom.12:18).

Sample Discussion Questions 

  1. What is your most natural response to conflict (which animal are you most like)?
    At this point, only share a description of the first four animals (not the "fox"). The goal is openness and vulnerability here, so you as the leader will need to set the example! Understand that the descriptions are fairly "extreme", so the goal is to get people to share their "tendency" during a conflict situation. 
  2. What is your "fallback" position (which animal do you become in certain pressured situations)? 
  3. What are some things you can do to become better at managing conflict (based on your natural style)?
    You may want to have people break into groups with people who are like them (e.g. all the sharks together and all the turtles) to discuss this, then come back to share with the entire group.
    You may also want to have the groups discuss the strengths and weakness of their style?
  4. What are some practical things you can do respond better to people who approach conflict differently than you?
    Get the group talking about how to handle the various types of animals in a conflict situation. 
  5. Share about the "fox" with the group and discuss whether this is the ideal style to develop.
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