Stop Resolving Conflict! - by Wes Avram

Wes Avram

I loved “dialogue.” I was convinced it’s the answer to conflict – people of good faith coming together across their differences, as open to changing their minds as they are to speaking their minds. It assumes they are willing to do four things: 1) discover shared understandings they didn’t have previously; 2) change their minds in light of new ideas or data brought forward by others; 3) help others see things they haven’t seen; and 4) clarify irreconcilable perspectives in ways that help a group of people live without hurting each other.

For me, that kind of dialogue has been inspired by the vision of what Hans-Georg Gadamer called a “fusion of horizons” through open engagement.1 It requires what another philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, called in his early writings an “ideal speech situation.”2 That’s what occurs when conditions are met so that interaction is open and guided by good faith, and all parties strive for courtesy and respect in the pursuit of truths that everyone acknowledges when they’re discovered.

That vision shaped my view of the church. Despite our human imperfections, I assumed we’re basically a community that has made a covenant from those commitments. I trusted that we all, in our best moments, are open to such dialogue, which means conflict is merely a temporary breakdown.I believed we could always rely on finding the right words at the right time to change the viewpoint of the otherwise well-meaning but (for whatever reason) misinformed voices in the church, and turn conflict toward dialogue, reconciliation, and worship. With that in mind, conflict required the therapy of attentive listening and clarification – in short, conflict resolution.

Covenant or Contract?

Then I went into the ministry. And I’ve come to the embarrassing conclusion that I was, on the whole, wrong – or at least overconfident. I now think some of our attempts to resolve conflict through therapeutic intervention end up doing the opposite. They actually increase conflict, or produce scapegoating that serves anxiety more than it serves a shared vision. I’ve come to think that churches are often less covenantal in their life together than they are contractual. And much confusion comes when churchgoers who still hold the vision of a shared covenant come into conflict with sisters and brothers who do not – those who want what they want and will argue to get it, or who are on a crusade of some kind, or who are communicating out of their own emotional needs.

Conflict can be creative, destructive, or a mix of both – but it can’t be avoided. It is our condition, and we should redirect the dream of always resolving it into something possibly more helpful. For the sake of congregational leadership, health, and holiness, I’ve come to think we should try to normalize conflict, not always resolve it. This becomes urgent in this time of surprisingly aggressive, sensational, and often irrational conflict in the culture at large. We should rethink, retrain, get smarter about how
human systems work, and reexamine how conflict drives the church in the New Testament. We should be clearer about the rules of healthy (even holy) disagreement, hold people to higher ethical standards in their communication, and get to work on building productive conflicted communities.

Spirit at Work

In admitting this, I guess I’ve gone down the path Habermas took when he later reconsidered his notion of ideal speech situation. He eventually concluded that systematic distortion of those imagined conditions renders an experience of the ideal far rarer than we want to admit. We don’t temporarily intervene in order to repair and get back to dialogue. No – intervention against distortion never ends, and it even requires vigilant self-critique by those intervening. Our effort to communicate is always on two levels simultaneously: a meta-level where we’re continually communicating about communicating so we might discern and address distortion and identify bad faith, and a micro-level where we’re nevertheless making calm, considered decisions (however imperfect or incomplete) and moving forward. The Spirit can work on both levels.

Conflict has always been there, but it feels unusually pervasive and sharp today. This raises the stakes on how we decide to tend to it. Revolutions in communication and media have transformed our culture, trust seems in short supply, the idea of “post-truth” enters the conversation, and the shouting and name-calling get louder – outside the church but inside too. Political scientists say we’re more politically divided than we’ve been since right after the Civil War. It feels like our world of rhetorical conflict has moved past artillery volleys from a distance and gotten down to rhetorical knife fighting in open fields.

Dozens of theories are put forward to explain this. But fundamentally none of us really knows why this has happened. We just see it. The challenge is that the tools we’re bringing to address this moment, including the therapeutic approach, feel old.

Triumph of the Therapeutic?

We’ve been influenced by marriage and family therapy. We create “reconciliation teams,” establish “listening sessions” to allow different sides to express their feelings and their concerns on an equal basis. We ask people to use “I statements” instead of “you statements.” We practice “drive-through talking,” repeating back to others what we’ve heard them say. And we believe these techniques will restore the thing they devoutly assume already exists – the covenantal relationship among people who already agree on the rules of dialogue but who have somehow lost their way for a moment.

Therapeutic interventions can have positive effects sometimes. I’m simply concerned about times when they don’t, when the assumed covenantal relationship is itself conflicted. When this happens, communities may still splinter, leadership become compromised, and experience betray the reconciliation for which we hope.

It might be time to place alongside our wellmeaning desire to cultivate dialogue an equally strong desire to encourage accuracy, patiently pursue truths, enable wise leadership, and accept some differences as predictable instead of threatening. This is the only way we can reduce harm and do the best we can to hold back an increase of distortion on the way to the “active listening” we imagine.

Everybody at Once

I’m taught here by philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who in the 1920s developed a view of culture and discourse that’s been translated as the idea of dialogized heteroglossia: Many voices speak at once, rarely taking turns, more often speaking on top of each other while still responding to each other. Such heteroglossia is conflict-laden, with moments of mutual understanding subsumed into a larger swirl

of winner-take-all efforts at persuasion, with shifting and incomplete rules. Within that frame, two competing forces are always present both in the whole of culture and in subsets of culture – that of spinning apart and pulling together. These centrifugal and centripetal forces aren’t always equal. In some moments the impulse to find harmony looks more powerful. At other times the scattering of meaning and agreements seems to rule. But neither force ever pushes the other fully out. In any setting, both are at work – always.3

In the heteroglossic world of church, we might benefit by rethinking ecclesiology in light of this view, with centripetal and centrifugal forces always in play, and wonder how God’s Spirit might be at work in the tension.

What happens to leadership when it is told to resolve conflict at any cost rather than harness conflict in resilient ways? It’s set into chronic crisis. Leadership either retreats as it becomes a target for endless emotion-laden, even abusive attacks, or it becomes a caricature: narcissistic, flattering, complacent. Leaders find themselves swinging between self-pity and self-righteousness instead of inhabiting the truer space in-between those poles. I think leaders do better to expect disagreement, conflict, and irreconcilable needs within the church and respond in ways designed to keep disagreement healthy – even as we still strive and pray for community.

New Normal

By normalization, therefore, I suggest two things. First, bring communities calmly and resolutely back into predictable, responsible communication around conflict, so that good decisions can be made even amid ongoing disagreement.

Second, we do this by norming conflict – by persistently and calmly inculcating a set of communication norms that, however imperfect, endeavor to restore healthy leadership, protect and give voice to those who might need help, and recognize that power is fluid. To norm a situation is continually to advocate ground rules for exploring differences in ways that are nonviolent in their intent, encourage due regard for roles and responsibilities, and value forgiveness as well as truth-telling – knowing that we will never do more than approximate those ideals. Fundamental to this effort is respecting differences and discouraging anonymity (except where significant risk to safety requires it). And maybe the highest calling of all is to do this in love.

Truth or Accuracy

In this it is important to acknowledge the difference between accuracy and truth. One way of describing it is to say that we live in an age of competing truths, where different ways of “narrating” reality can reveal divergent fundamental experiences of what is the case. A sentence can be true by how deeply an experience is somehow revealed by it. It is true “for” an individual, group, or situation.

Accuracy, on the other hand, can be verified by observable or measurable evidence, however imperfectly. It may be true that I heard anger in your voice. However, it might not be accurate that you are angry with me. When we too quickly equate truth and accuracy we lose the chance to hold each other to account, ask good questions, learn, clarify, and refine or revise truth statements by holding evidence (facts) to standards of scrutiny we can agree on. Part of the labor of normalizing conflict is discussing our standards for accuracy, correcting error, and agreeing on what we will count as a fact when we are seeking either to persuade each other or learn from each other.

No small task, all of this, for it will get confused and undermined along the way. But I believe that this is the way stronger communities will be cultivated in our time.

A Learning Church

As we have worked to normalize conflict in the congregation I serve, most people have responded positively. Some have not. That will happen. We continue to try. As part of our attempt, we host a monthly “courageous conversation” after our main morning service. Attendance is optional. On a recent Sunday 120 attended. They talked for well over an hour in response to the question, “What role should politics play in the church?” It was civil and productive – though nothing was resolved. Near the conclusion, one of the participants told the group that she had come from a congregation where conflict over theology, politics, and mission had caused deep rifts. Before she joined our congregation, she said, she “interviewed” the pastor about politics and other positions. She remembered my response, that we endeavor to use conflict as a way of becoming a “learning church.” “That’s why I’m here,” she said. “I don’t think we all realize how unusual this is.” It is one thing to try to do this with political or theological differences. It’s another thing, and actually harder, to do it with conflict around mission, leadership, or personal feelings. But the effort is still worth it.

A reader might critique all this by pointing out that the vision of an “ideal speech situation” still lingers here. Perhaps I have not moved all that far from my idealistic youth. That’s probably accurate. But I’d still suggest that the truth of it, at least for me, is that the work of resolving church conflict on the way to being the beloved community is not as straightforward as the old therapeutic paradigm thought it would be. We’re conflicted, and we’ll remain conflicted. We’re emotional, and we’ll remain emotional. And God can use that, if we don’t try to hide it. Conflict is not our enemy, if … if we normalize it.

The Rev. Wes Avram is senior pastor at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale, AZ, and formerly Clement-Muehl Assistant Professor of Communication at YDS. He is the author of Where the Light Shines Through (Brazos, 2005) and Anxious About Empire (Brazos, 2004).


1 See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (Crossroad, 2nd edition, 1991).

2 See Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, two volumes (Beacon, reprint edition, 1992), among his other books.

3 Among other writings, see M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, translated by Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson (Texas, reprint edition, 1983).