Facing Conflict

Most of my work is in the organizational and Church world, which gives me a lot of fun and joy. However, I am also taken aback by some of the hardships that exist within this culture.

In the last couple of months I have seen many broken relationships and conflict within organizations and churches. It breaks my heart to see that within a culture that should be full of life, hope and peace, I find conflict and bad words spoken over people and ministries.

This should never be something we accept as normal, but rather something we avoid. Within some of the more organized cultures I work, I have seen one person or organization having a conflict and then circulating emails saying that this person or organization is bad or not to be worked with. This is the saddest and most destructive way to deal with conflicts and it shows a lack of mature leadership. Because in all conflicts we know that there are two sides. Are we aware of our own side?

I have also seen leaders shouting down dialog when there is a bit of tension, saying they have to protect themselves from being hurt. This is in all reality not leadership because the only way to deal with conflict is to take responsibility and when we do, we meet the people we disagree with face to face and within frames that give room for dialog and peacemaking.

These past months have given me a lot of insight, first of all in my own life. I have seen a lot of pain because of conflicts and disagreements.  I wonder, what can be done to create a framework for conflict to be dealt with in a healthy and constructive way? You see I look at conflict as a possibility and place to create something together but then we need to have ways to deal with conflict positively.

It’s hard to listen while you preach

We see things from many different angles and often it is just a lack of listening or understanding the other person’s perspectives. “It’s hard to listen while you preach,” sing the musicians in U2 and I believe here lies an important principle.

I have also seen conflict coming out of selfishness. “I am the boss so do as I say” or “If you are part of us you obey our rules,” are some of the attitudes I have witnessed. In church I have seen leaders saying “The Bible says…” and then they use one scripture out of context just so it can fit their view. I am surprised by how much theology goes in to pastors’ education and how little leadership skills are being taught at some seminars…After all, if you are going to be a pastor you are going to lead people.

The hardest thing I have heard in these last months was that “the conflict was spiritual.” Well all conflict can be or not be spiritual. This depends on your faith and where you stand in that matter. But when leaders make conflict spiritual it has a tendency to take out the human part in it. If I am in a conflict I have to assume that I have a part in it. I am one of the reasons this conflict is exiting. But if it is “spiritual” I don’t need to be personally convicted.

I know that the few conflicts I been a part of or have had in my leadership, I have had a part in. I can only analyze myself and ask myself questions like: “What was the trigger that made me go so far that this became a conflict?” “Was it a conflict worth fighting?”  Let me be the first to say that most conflicts are not worth fighting. But some are, like values. If we are going for a cause higher than ourselves, values is one of those issues that I have fought for and entered into some conflict for.

When leaders write emails for circulation, they forget that they are mirroring their own failures and their own shortcomings as well as others. At least that is the way I see it.

In these last months I have worked to resolve a conflict between two leaders who do not work in the same location but in the same framework or organization.  One of the leaders was a long termer that had been in some battles before and was well informed and had a lot of hands on experience. The other leader was new in leadership and had gotten to lead a larger work.  One leader came across as secure and hands on, the other one struggled with finding his place and if you ask me had to deal with a culture that was unhealthy around him.

What happened was that this leader started to analyze the other, what he said, and what he communicated. This is a danger for all leaders. We start a process in our heads and we build on it…we almost always build on it…instead of bringing it down.

Ghosts in the closet

I call this “ghosts in the closet”. You know when we were children we saw ghosts in the corner of our room or in the closet?  “Mom, Mom! There is a ghost in my room!” Then Mom came and opened the door, turned on the light and I could see that it was just a new toy or something unfamiliar, and yes sometimes also something familiar…but in the dark it looked like a ghost.

We all need to turn the light on in our own heads. I have to do it daily and weekly. Someone said, someone did, someone did not show up, someone did not reply to my e-mail. We can go on and we can start building up ghost cases. If we don’t turn on the light, yes the ghosts will grow…BIG.

This is what I have seen in the last months- people making cases…but most of the conflict I have observed in the last months have had some of this in it. Do you have people around you in your leadership team or counsel who can turn on the light?

Not long ago a good friend of mine called me and had made a decision that I felt should have been avoided. It was actually my job and my responsibility. He called and told me what he was doing and I felt a bit run over. I did not have the clarity in my thoughts when he told me on the phone, but as I hung up, I started to think… and I saw the ghost coming. “Why did he do this? We should have talked about it… It would have been good to process.” And my thoughts went warmer and warmer, or should I say, the ghost grew bigger and bigger. Then I spoke with my wife and she agreed with me. Now we were both seeing the same ghosts.

If you cannot confront you cannot lead

But then I remembered a quote I had read that same day. “If you cannot confront you cannot lead!” So I took it to heart and called that person back. I said in a nice and calm tone that I felt it was not the right thing to do. My friend listened to me and said, “Yes, I see your point, let’s change it.” The light was on and the ghost was gone.

All conflicts are resolved with dialog and healthy dialog happens face to face, or if is like my small growing ghost, with a phone call. We lose too much time, energy and perspective on conflicts. People get hurt and we are not a good testimony for people even though we are a church or a humanitarian organization.

To resolve conflict we need leaders that can face their own insecurity and be leaders that deal with conflict in a way that separates the case from the person. If you are in a conflict, please get some people to help you turn on the light… and let’s do what we can to resolve and find win-win solutions.

Rune Saether


See also https://missioninnovat.wpengine.com/insecure-leaders/


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