Direct or Indirect, Part 2: What is the best way to resolve conflict?

Growing up, my parents developed the “I don’t like it” conflict-resolution style for our family of five. When anyone in the family said these 4 magic words, you had to stop the offending behavior. “I don’t like you poking me.” Boom! You had to cease and desist immediately, or face much worse consequences. “I don’t like it” was direct, clear, and left very little room for confusion about what you meant. This worked well for all types of overt, irritating behaviors: unwanted kicking, wrestling, stealing each other’s stuff, entering one another’s rooms uninvited, etc. However, it did not help with interpersonal pain or disappointments. “I don’t like you ignoring me?” “I don’t like you being aloof?” “I don’t like how you break trust with me?” These words never came out of our mouths.

Then I got to college. In InterVarsity, we had direct ways of resolving conflict. We loved to teach Matthew 18: 15-20. There is a proper way and order to go about conflict resolution, and it is directly from Jesus’ mouth after all. This was not one way to resolve conflict, but rather it was THE “biblical model.” Go directly to them first. Be direct. Then involve others second if one-on-one doesn’t work. Go public third. This became my conflict resolution grid, my mandate. The only way to resolve things. Except I was not good at it. In this grid, if you are articulate about your feelings and quick on your feet, you would always win. You could always get me to feel guilty and admit that it was all my fault. (I was ill-equipped to articulate my feelings of pain, confusion, disappointment, regret, shame, anger, etc.) Our “Direct InterVarsity” way of resolving conflict favored certain personality types and was very awkward for others. Don’t worry…I intentionally applied myself and I got better at these difficult, direct conversations. But it took years of hard work.

There are many styles of conflict resolution. Some people freely express lots of emotion, others show almost no emotion at all. Some express anger, others think that expressing anger is a sin. Some are succinct, others want to keep talking for hours. Geography certainly shapes your approach, as you’re your family of origin, and Meyers-Briggs (and other) personality types. And culture shapes how we do conflict, often more than we think. I think of these as different ends of a spectrum. We have preferences as to where sit on the direct/indirect spectrum, for example, but we also can learn to slide up and down depending on your context, audience, etc. I prefer to say “direct/indirect” rather than Asian/white because I have some white friends who are very indirect, and I have some Asian friends who are super direct. I also have had uncomfortably direct conflict resolution with African American friends. I thought I was direct until those experiences. I had to learn to go their direction. That story will wait for another time.

Indirect conflict resolution is also in the Bible, it turns out. Think about Esau and Jacob in Genesis 32. Jacob had previously stolen Esau’s inheritance, which is a pretty wicked thing to do. If anyone needed the Matthew 18 step-by-step process of conflict resolution, these brothers did. But that is not how they reconciled. Jacob sends gifts, God seems to work, they embrace. They are reconciled, more or less, and they did not even mention the earlier egregious sin.

Some of my indirect friends prefer the approach of “I just stop talking and see if you notice.” If you care, you will ask about it. You will draw me out. I have tried using this approach in complicated team settings or with really angry people. It helps me avoid feeling like I have to win the verbal game. I just get quiet. It is a powerful new teaching for me.

I was talking to my new friend, Audrey Chan. She helped me understand “volume” in conflict. She might say to a white friend, “That interaction was a little awkward.” On a scale of 1 to 10, that sounds to my ears like volume level 2 in terms of how much she is bothered. But she means it at a 9. She does not want me to feel embarrassed about what I have done to her, so she understates the impact. I have to learn to turn that volume up for myself. “Doug, she is saying that was a little awkward. That probably means it was VERY awkward for her. Pay attention!”

She also explained there is apologizing for one’s intentions, and then there is apologizing for one’s impact upon another. We white people are much better at apologizing for my intentions, but we are very slow to apologize for our unintended impact upon others. If I didn’t mean to do that to you, then I played no role in it and there is nothing to apologize for.

Wrong! Like Audrey said, I need to pay attention to my intentions and also to my unintended impact on others. And sometimes gift-giving can replace words. Audrey said, “If someone leaves me bag of oranges by my front door, I know they have apologized.”

You and I have a style of resolving conflict. You may never have considered some important questions about that style:
What are the ways that I think that my way of resolving conflict is “normal?”

How do I expect that others will bring up issues with me if I have hurt them? How do I expect that the burden is on them if they have been hurt, versus the onus is on me to ask first?

When was the last time you apologized simply for your impact on someone (even though you had no intention of making them feel that way)?

Do you agree with my assertion that we white people tend to prefer to apologize for our intentions rather than for our unintended impact on people?

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