How to resolve conflict and restore relationships

How do I resolve conflict?  How can I restore a strained or broken relationship?

Our world is filled with conflict.  The pages of history are littered with stories of conquest, wars, and familial strife.  Military battles, political clashes, workplace competition, and marital strife are familiar stories that make up our news reports. 

Yet we all dislike strife, and most of us would rather avoid conflict.  We don’t know how to settle disagreements, and even our sincere efforts often escalate the situation.  I find it ironic that conflict resolution is not one of all the things we get taught in school.  When it comes to peace-making skills, our generation is anaemic.  No wonder our world is more divided than ever.

It always seems easier to walk away from a conflict than to settle a disagreement.  However, it is always more rewarding to resolve a dispute than to dissolve a relationship.

Jesus said that the good life, the blessed life, is reserved for those who make peace.  [i]We know that unresolved conflict erodes our joy and eradicates a sense of well-wellbeing.  It even hinders our fellowship with God.

The Bible instructs us to pursue peace with all,[ii] even with our enemies[1] and our accusers,[1] and actively serve our communities by reconciling people with one another and with God.[iii]

Making peace has always been difficult.  It is sobering to read the bulk of the New Testament letters as efforts to resolve conflicts within new church communities.  In this light, I find James’s appeal to the church in Jerusalem refreshingly simple: “Peacemakers sow seeds of peace to reap a harvest of goodness/ righteousness.”[iv]    The Message translation reads this way:

If you want a good life, a peace-filled life, you must do the hard work of cultivating your own robust, peaceful community. 

Before we discover how to make peace, we must agree that making peace starts by facing conflict.  Peace-making is the opposite of avoiding conflict.  Likewise, peace-making is the opposite of appeasing others, of keeping people happy.  Conflict is necessary to cultivate a community characterised by mutual safety and freedom.

It is normal to have conflict.  When two or more imperfect people share a space, they are bound to bump into one another and cause friction.  Conflict is an opportunity for self-awareness, other-awareness and growth, leading to mature love. 

So, how do we resolve conflict and mend a broken relationship?

1: I own my part

Peace-making starts with taking ownership for the health of the relationship, by considering my part in the breakdown and the restoration of the relationship. 

If you want to live in peace, you have to prioritise reconciliation – even over worship!  “Leave your gift at the altar, go and be reconciled to that person.  Then come and offer your sacrifice to God,” Jesus said.[v]   Whatever the reason for the breakdown, I must take responsibility in resolving the conflict to restore the relationship.  Sometimes reconciliation requires help from mature friends or professionals.[vi]

Time by itself will heal nothing.  Like a festering wound in my leg won’t heal by itself, a wounded relationship does not mend by itself.  Unattended hurt matures into bitterness and resentment.  Paul urges, “do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. [vii]

Furthermore, a relationship can be restored as I acknowledge my contribution to the breakdown.  Jesus, in classic exaggerating humour, said that to resolve a conflict, first recognise the “pole in your eye” before you point out the blind spot in the other’s perspective.[viii] Before you point out the wrongs of another, recognise your imperfections.

Rick Warren states that the cause of all conflict is rooted in self-centeredness (“selfish desires”[ix]) and self-exaltation (“Pride leads to arguments.”[x]).  He says that every heated argument can be calmed by this simple phrase “I’m sorry – I was only thinking about myself!”  Acknowledging my part in relational break brings grace for healing.[xi]

Reconciliation begins when I take the initiative to restore the relationship and own up to my part in the breakdown of the relationship.

2: I listen for perspective

People fight not so much about what happened or what was said, but rather about how they were made to feel.  We respond to our emotions.  Hurt people, hurt people.

Cultivating peace requires patient listening.  “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.”[xii]   Not the type of listening to prove who is right or rebuttal the argument.  But listening to hear, to understand, to have compassion for the position of the other.  This attitude Paul appeals for – a kenosis – that is not concerned with my interest only, but the interest of the others.[xiii]  Kenotic listening forgets my interests and forgoes my preconceptions, deeply listening to the other and benefiting him or her.

Listening in this way helps us to understand and identify with the views and feelings of the other.  This type of listening gets us on the same page – the reconciliation threshold.  We listen our way into unity.

3: Confront the problem in love

Conflict does not damage relationships – what we fight and how we fight damages relationships.  First, don’t fight the person, fight the problem.  A couple with a budget issue should not fight one another about the budget but stand next to each other and find a resolution about their budget.  The goal is to sort out the budget, not the spouse.  Confront the problem, not the person.  

Second, how we fight can either bring us together or push us apart.  “Some people make cutting remarks, but the wise words bring healing.” [xiv] 

During the Cold War between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., these superpowers were wise to agree that their conflict would never escalate to the use of nuclear or chemical weapons.  Although they were at war, they were sober enough to see that such Weapons of Mass Destruction (W.M.D.’s) would lead to Mutually Agreed Destruction (M.A.D.) for both nations.  The fallout would be too much.

Paul urged the believers to adopt the same wisdom: when you confront one another, do it so that it would lead to restoration of the relationship, not destruction.  Therefore, “put away [all W.M.D.’s]: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another…”[xv] , and “don’t use foul or abusive language.  Let everything you say be good and helpful so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.[xvi]  

Words cannot be unsaid.  The power of life and death is in the tongue.[xvii]  So, especially in a fragile relationship, “speak the truth in love” [xviii], and “let our speech always be gracious.”[xix]  Fight to restore the friendship, not to end it.  

4: Aim for reconciliation, not resolve

Before we close, another helpful pointer in conflict resolution is not to aim for agreement on everything but on reconciliation.  The goal is to restore the relationship, not resolve every issue.  It is possible to walk hand in hand through everything without seeing eye to eye on everything.

Our generation is highly divided on so many issues.  Talking through some matters is as volatile as walking through a minefield.  But to habitually part paths with people who see differently will lead to isolation and sectarianism.  It is always more rewarding to resolve conflict than to dissolve a relationship.  The blessed life is enjoyed by those who do the hard work of making peace, who build robust communities by sowing seeds of peace.[xx]

[i]  Matthew 5:9 

[ii] Romans 12:18

[iii] 2 Corinthians 5:18-20

[iv] James 3:18

[v] Matthew 5:23-24

[vi] Matthew 18:15-18

[vii] Ephesians 4:26-27

[viii] Matthew 7:5

[ix] James 4:1

[x] Proverbs 13:10

[xi] Proverbs 3:34

[xii] James 1:19

[xiii] Philippians 2:4-5

[xiv] Proverbs 12:18

[xv] Colossians 3:8

[xvi] Ephesians 4:29

[xvii] Proverbs 18:21

[xviii] Ephesians 4:15

[xix] Colossians 4:6

[xx] Matthew 5:9; James 3:18