“Conflict”, philosopher John Dewey wrote, “is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.”
All too many leaders in our congregations, however, see conflict or resistance as inherently evil. In this way of thinking, the goal is to deny the conflict or suppress it in an effort to maintain the illusion of harmony. Savvy leaders know that conflict in a healthy congregation is to be welcomed and cultivated; that out of conflict comes creativity and new ideas and energy. The key is how the leader meets and responds to the resistance that is causing the conflict.
Belgian Luc Galoppin, http://www.slideshare.net/lucgaloppin, a wonderfully inventive organizational change manager, says that we have a choice when our goals or ideas are met with resistance. We can respond with revenge or we can respond with respect. Taking the revenge path means pushing harder to get your way when there is resistance. The result of this tactic is usually greater resistance. So, in order to meet this increased resistance, one has to push even harder. Eventually, you reach a state of indifference on the part of the resister. “Fine, have it your way”, they may say. “I don’t care anymore.” “Whatever.” In this scenario, the leader has created what Galoppin calls an energy drain. Game over. Resistance has been defeated. Congregational life goes on, albeit less inspired, less motivated, and less energized.
The other path that leaders can take when faced with resistance is one of respect. It begins with remembering that everyone we meet is facing a great battle and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and kindness. It means listening for why they care about the issue; taking the time to understand the underlying meaning, intentions, hopes and dreams of the other. It means not taking it personally, even if the reaction of the other was clearly intended to hurt you. In taking the path of respect, the leader strives for open communication and collaboration in negotiating a solution that will resolve the conflict and move the congregation forward. The leader commits to staying “at the table” until this work is done. This process, says Galoppin, is the source of our energy and keeps us in the ballgame.
Following the path of revenge stems from the need to be right. Following the path of respect stems from the need to be in relationship.
As a Unitarian Universalist, which path makes more sense to you?
Mark Bernstein, Consultant, Central East Regional Group