Holy Hotspots

managing_conflictby Bruce Soderholm

Love thy neighbour as thyself?

Conflict between neighbours has been around as long as there have been people to live beside. If it’s not the noise from the flamenco dancers in the apartment above that drives you to distraction, it will be the back-to-the-jungle lawn next door that lowers your property value.

It may be comforting for the average Joe to know that even celebrities are not immune. Madonna was made to trim her hedges by court order in 1992, while Sean Connery, shaken and stirred, was ordered by a New York judge to settle differences with his downstairs neighbour. One of the best-known neighbour conflicts on this continent was the Hatfield-McCoy feud fought on the Kentucky-West Virginia border between 1880 and 1891. By the time the smoke cleared and the graves were dug, more than a dozen people from both families had been killed.

While this is an obvious extreme, it does underscore the importance of managing conflict in its initial stages before it spirals out of control.

When push comes to shove between neighbours, the typical interventions are likely to involve complaints to police, civil litigation, and eventually court orders. In these internet savvy days, neighbours may even be publicly shamed on rottenneighbors.com. Recently though, more conflicts are being resolved with the use of mediation. Involving a trained third party to manage a dispute typically results in greater success because rather than focusing on the blame game or obtaining a court-ordered judgment, the two parties are brought together and lines of communication are opened.

Since most disputes aren’t black and white, it is the open dialogue that helps the two parties come to agreement. It is rare to find a conflict where both parties haven’t contributed to the problem and if each party can take some ownership of the issue, a middle ground is easier to reach.

According to Keith Regehr, a professional mediator who has extensive experience in conflict resolution with families, workplaces and churches, mediation is not necessarily a high growth industry. “When a marriage is breaking up,” says Regehr, “how many people say ‘I’m going to call my mediator?’” Not many—they’re going to call their lawyer.

Nevertheless, with the prohibitive expense of engaging lawyers, litigating and making court appearances, many more families in conflict are taking advantage of what mediation has to offer, according to Lou Coppola, an experienced mediator in Niagara Region. The benefits of mediation may even transcend the financial gain. Coppola notes that on a few occasions, divorcing couples who use mediation to minimize the fallout for their kids and who’ve worked really hard at co-parenting “look at each other and say ‘You know what? Why are we not together?’ And they reconcile.”

Face the inevitable

As a baseline, the most important thing to recognize is that in life, conflict is inevitable. It’s not a question of what you should do “if” conflict arises—it will. It’s what you will do “when” it arrives that counts. Conflict occurs when there is opposition or “perceived” opposition to our individual needs, values, and interests. Since we live in a fallen world and are predisposed towards looking out for our best interests we are likely to see others’ claims on our lives (e.g. bosses, spouses, children) as conflicting with our own goals and desires.

Author Robert Bacal differentiates between two different types of interpersonal conflicts: personalized and substantive. The first of these is often referred to as a personality conflict. This type is fuelled primarily by emotion and perceptions about another’s personality, character, and motives. This is the guy at work who just rubs you the wrong way. This is the guy who, even if he brought you your double-double from your favourite Tim Horton’s, you’d suspect of poisoning you. Unfortunately, he feels the same way about you.

That’s why problem solving on an individual issue rarely works–both parties aren’t interested in solving the problem. This conflict will only get worse with time since each person looks for, and expects there to be, problems. To make progress with this type of conflict, you need first to learn to respect each other as human beings—people made in the image of God.

Substantive conflict is about differing decisions, ideas, directions and actions. It’s when what you want is at odds with other people’s goals. It can stem from differing needs: you feel the need to avoid conversation after talking to customers for eight hours, but your wife may need to converse with an adult after teaching six year-olds all day. It may stem from competition: think five family members running for a single washroom after Spicy Burrito Night at Taco Bell. It could also stem from false assumptions: you’re angry because you assume your teenage son was too lazy to empty the dishwasher, but in reality he didn’t only because the dishwasher was broken.

It is tempting to believe that if we could eliminate false perceptions on issues we could eliminate conflict. If the facts were obvious—for instance, how many pieces of cake were left in the fridge and who had access to them before they disappeared— then we could really solve the problem. Regehr suggests that notion is a fool’s errand because, to use a borrowed phrase, “perception is reality.” He points out that even if, in a husband-wife dispute over how money was spent or how in-laws were treated, you could supply videotape evidence of what was said or done, “it would just add a third perception. Both parties would see in the tape what they want to see.”

For that reason, when Regehr is involved with mediating disputes at the workplace, he stays away from focusing on individual issues. He holds that the root problem of interpersonal conflict is poor communication. He fears that zeroing in on solving a specific issue will just be a temporary fix and that a new conflict will surface a week later if people don’t learn how to communicate well with each other. Communication then, is the vehicle for resolving differences.

Practical steps

To resolve interpersonal conflicts, parties must have a realistic understanding of what’s possible. The Apostle Paul gives some very practical advice when he says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18 NIV). Paul understood that you can’t take responsibility for other people’s actions or reactions. You don’t have control over them, but you do have control over yourself.

For that same reason, Lou Coppola advises that when you go to address a conflict you should “check your self [and your ego] at the door.” He also emphasizes not getting side tracked: “Address the [primary] issue; don’t let it get swept under the carpet.”

When Regehr is asked what the three most important pieces of advice he would give tomen to deal with interpersonal conflict, he counts off his fingers, “Listen. Listen. And listen.” Add to that the wisdom of good communication principles:

  • State your concern clearly and simply
  • Agree on a time limit for the discussion
  • Own your part in the problem
  • Be honest and share openly

Beyond that, remember to …

  • Speak calmly
  • Check for clarity often
  • Deal with the present (e.g. don’t bring up the past)
  • Offer workable solutions

It’s worth asking, what the payoff is for all the effort you put into conflict resolution. Most notably it will reduce the amount of stress in your life—the kind of stress that leads to ulcers, anxiety disorders and high blood pressure, among other things. You will also gain confidence in your ability to deal directly with conflict instead of just avoiding it, and that in turn will result in stronger and healthier relationships.

And the key once more? It is as Adam West’s Batman would typically say to his sidekick Robin, “Listen, old chum…”

Bruce Soderholm is a freelance writer from St. Catharines, Ontario.

Models for Approaching Conflict

In 1976, researchers Thomas and Kilman identified five models for dealing with conflict. These approaches are labeled as follows: avoidance, accommodation, competition, compromise and collaboration. These may be more helpfully seen as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Ask yourself which style best describes you.

Consider the following case study as to how each approach might appear:

You are the head coach for a local hockey team with a young assistant to help. The players are children (7-8 years old) and you have assured them and their parents that the team is all about having fun, learning the game, and receiving equal playing opportunities. As the season progresses, your chance to win the championship improves, and you start to give more ice time to the better-skilled players. One day a parent and the assistant coach confront you on what they perceive to be a growing inequity in playing time. How do you respond?

In the avoidance model you refuse to acknowledge there’s a problem. You don’t respond to telephone calls or e-mails. You walk away from those who want to discuss the issue.

In the accommodation model, you hear their concerns and even though you wish you could do things differently, you surrender and accommodate their wishes.

In the competition model, you assert your position as head coach and disregard the opinions of others. You rely on your positional authority to get what you want.

In the compromise model, you hear the concerns of parents and your assistant but you don’t give up your interest in winning. You might concede more ice time for the less-skilled players. Neither party really feels like a winner.

In the collaboration model, you meet with all the concerned parties. If the conflict has become very heated, you might involve a mediator. After all parties have been heard and their concerns presented, you collectively come to a consensus as to how to complete the season. With the opportunity for negotiation, all parties can feel like they are part of the solution.

—Bruce Soderholm


The article above was featured in the September 2008 issue of SEVEN magazine.