Speaking Your Mind Without Losing It
Resolving family conflicts in a Christ-centered way
By Karen Birkett Green
Family relationships—particularly those between spouses and their children—are the closest, most intimate bonds we have. Therefore, it is natural for conflict to easily emerge within the familial structure. Conflict can flare up over simple things such as a towel left on the floor, to something as complex as finances. Whatever the origin, there is potential for a disagreement to escalate to explosive levels.
Conflict, while sometimes a precursor to family dysfunction, separation, and even divorce, is also an inevitable part of human existence. Therefore, it is hard to believe individuals who say, “We never argue—we agree on everything.” Those who make this claim present cause for concern as one or both parties could be suppressing their true feelings for the sake of “keeping the peace.” The danger in that is that when individuals continually bottle up their emotions, the end result is far worse than if problems were appropriately addressed at the time they occurred.
We often view conflict as a negative thing, thus we make every attempt to avoid it at all costs. However, there are some positive aspects to conflict, and, if approached in the right way, these “bumps in the road” can strengthen relationships.
Positive Aspects of Conflicts
1. Conflicts present more than one view of a situation, which can lead to better solutions.
2. Conflicts can provide insight into the feelings of a spouse and other family members, thus creating a better understanding of each other.
3. Conflicts build self-confidence and self-awareness, if you are able to formulate and freely express your point of view.
4. Conflicts, if addressed properly, can demonstrate appropriate ways to resolve problems and can communicate the normalcy of it being “OK” to disagree.
5. When conflicts are addressed and resolved, they provide a sense of accomplishment, mutual understanding, and peace. We are able to move ahead without constantly dwelling on unresolved issues.
Unhealthy Approaches to Conflict Resolution
When faced with disagreements, it is very easy to engage in unhealthy practices in our attempts to resolve our issues. Instead of trying to resolve them, we usually attempt to prove that our point of view is the only solution, and it is this attitude that causes us easily to fall prey to unhealthy methods of resolution. Consider the following unhealthy and unhelpful approaches:
This transforms the discussion into a personal attack on an individual rather than a mature attempt to address and resolve issues.
2. Becoming hysterical
Instead of calmly discussing the problem, the individual who becomes hysterical engages in such destructive behavior as threatening, blaming, yelling, nagging, and being overly defensive. This only serves to alienate the other party and escalate the situation.
3. Becoming historical
Bringing up past grievances only serves to elevate tension and can take the discussion off topic, which leads further away from resolution of the current issue.
When we use sentences such as “you are always late” or “you never call,” we really need to stop and consider if this is really truth or exaggeration. Using sweeping general statements only serves to blow a situation out of proportion.
5. Silent treatment/ignoring
Refusing to speak—not just of the conflict, but not to speak at all—is one of the worst mistakes to make. This approach only infuriates the other person and bottles up thoughts and feelings that will most likely be released later in an explosive manner.
6. Becoming physically abusive
Physical abuse presents the most serious cause for concern. It introduces a dangerous and violent dynamic to the relationship in which one person becomes the aggressor and the other, the victim. This makes the conflict much more difficult to resolve and threatens the entire future of the relationship. It is also unacceptable.
A Better Way
How then, can we appropriately resolve conflict? Appropriate conflict resolution honors God and respects the rights, opinions, and feelings of the other individual. Here are a few ideas to appropriately and successfully resolve conflict:
1. Define the problem.
When the problem is clearly defined, it keeps the discussion focused and the conversation productive.
2. Listen intently and with an open mind.
Usually in a conflict situation we are so focused on proving our point that we fail to listen intently with an open mind to what the other person is saying. We then miss out on perhaps gaining another perspective and solution to the problem.
3. Ask clarifying questions.
When we listen intently, no doubt questions will arise. Clarifying points demonstrates to the other person that you are really listening and that you value their input.
4. Restate what the other person has said.
Once you have clarified matters and you feel you have a clear understanding of the other person’s point of view, restate their opinion in your own words. This not only ensures that you truly understand their perspective, but it demonstrates to the other individual that you respect their views.
5. Do not interrupt.
When the other person is speaking, be careful not to interrupt. If you are fearful that you will forget, jot down your thoughts and share them when it is your turn to speak. After you have restated the other person’s perspective, then you share yours. In turn, the other individual should follow the same steps in understanding your perspective.
6. Treat others with respect.
As you listen and present your point of view, it should be done with respect for the other person’s feelings and opinions. Interrupting, ignoring, yelling, and belittling do little to resolve anything.
As Christians we seek to honor God in all our interactions. Sometimes we forget to do this when we are dealing with our families and the complexity of our relationships with them. However, our families are one of the greatest gifts God has given us, and treating them with love and respect brings great honor to Him. When we contemplate whether our behavior is honoring God, it positively impacts our approach to conflict.
In Proverbs 15:1 He reminds us: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” The tone in which we speak and the words we use greatly impact our outcomes. Soft tones and considerate words calm and diffuse tough situations.
As we struggle with our propensity to engage in unhealthy approaches to conflict, the Word of God directs us to self-awareness through surrender to God. We need to cry out with the psalmist: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxi-eties” (Ps. 139:23). The words that we speak are merely a reflection of what is in our hearts (Matt. 12:34). As we allow God to search our hearts, He will point out to us those things that hurt us and cause us to explode in anger.
There certainly are times when conflicts seem insurmountable and all our attempts to resolve them fail. In those moments we should not be ashamed to seek counsel from trusted clergy or a Christian counselor who can provide an impartial perspective. The Bible states: “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14).
As adults, we set the tone for the relational health of our family. How we respond in conflict serves as a witness not only to our children, but to others. Let us endeavor to resolve conflict God’s way, so that we can bring honor and glory to Him in all things.
Karen Birkett Green, M.S.W., L.M.S.W., L.C.S.W., is a counselor and freelance writer residing in Charlotte, North Carolina, United States. She and her husband, Xavier, are founders of ZavKay Family Services, an organization dedicated to strengthening families and churches through seminar presentations.