Tools for conflict resolution at Christmas

In a classic 1997 episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza receives a card at Christmas time from his father which says “Happy Festivus”. Jerry and Elaine force him to explain that his father invented a holiday for their family called “Festivus”. As a secular Jewish man he wanted to experience all the main features of Christmas, but in a less commercialised, less religious way. And so he invented Festivus: a Festivus for the rest of us! Festivus traditions include the “Festivus Pole” (a bare aluminum stick), and the “Feats of Strength” (in which the head of the household wrestles each challenger to the floor).

But one of the most important traditions of Festivus is the “Airing of Grievances”. Immediately after the Festivus Meal is served, each member of the family takes turns explaining how everyone else has disappointed them in the previous year.

Sadly, this parody is not far from the truth for many families at Christmas. We know that family conflicts of all sorts spike at Christmas.

On Sunday at Barneys I spoke on the subject conflict resolution at Christmas (the recording is available here). As promised, here are some further resources for helping us deal with conflict in a way that brings glory to God.

UPDATE 21 DEC 2015: a friend has written an excellent complement for this piece providing specific help for victims of family and domestic violence.

1. Ken Sande, The Peacemaker

The main insight of Ken Sande’s book The Peacemaker is that conflict can be an opportunity to glorify God. An Australian group called Peacewise has taken these peacemaking principles and run with them, offering counselling, resources and training in conflict resolution from a Christian perspective.

This approach to conflict resolution is based around four Gs.

1. Glorify God

Conflict is never fun, but it is not necessarily destructive. So don’t waste a conflict. Every conflict can be seen as an opportunity to bring honour to God by revealing the reconciling love of Jesus Christ.

Often people expect conflicts should not happen in Christian churches or families, but the Bible expects conflicts to arise. Conflict is not a sign of defeat, it is an opportunity for godliness.

Approaches to conflict range from “Peace-Faking” (avoiding the issue and pretending nothing is wrong) to “Peace-Breaking” (aggressive actions designed to attack and harm the other, or “win” the conflict”). Both approaches are sub-Christian.

As we follow God’s example and commands then whether the conflict is resolved or not, we bring him glory. The first step should be to ask God “how can I please and honour you in this situation?”

2. Get the log out of your own eye

Before attempting to address the other person’s behaviour, it is important to discern and confess the things we have done to contribute to the problem. Because “sorry” is such a weak and ambivalent word, we need scaffolding to help us apologise well. Here is one approach which he calls “the seven As”:

  • Address everyone involved
  • Avoid qualifying what you say with “if… but… maybe…” (don’t justify or make excuses)
  • Admit specific attitudes and actions
  • Apologise, expressing sorrow for how you affected them
  • Accept the consequences for your actions
  • Alter your behaviour
  • Ask for forgiveness (the more explicitly the better, e.g.: “please forgive me”)

3. Gently restore

If someone’s sin is too serious to overlook, it may be necessary to speak to that person about it. However, this should be done carefully, and (at first) in private. Sande has some useful questions to ask before attempting this:

  1. When you talk to or about your opponent, what might you be tempted to say that would be harmful or worthless?
  2. How can you offer hope to the other person by focusing on what God has done and is doing?
  3. Which listening skills do you have a hard time with: waiting, attending, clarifying, reflecting, or agreeing? …
  4. Are you try to believe the best about the other person (i.e. making charitable judgments)? …
  5. What can you say that would clearly communicate your love and concern for your opponent?
  6. What is the best time and place to talk with your opponent?
  7. Would it be wiser to communicate in person, on the phone, or by means of a letter? Why?
  8. Write a brief summary of what you need to say and avoid saying, including
    • The issues you believe should be addressed
    • Words and topics to avoid
    • Stories or compariasons [sic] that the other person will understand and value
    • Words that describe your feelings
    • A description of the effect the dispute is having on you and others
    • Your suggestions and preferences for a solution
    • The benefits that will be produced by cooperating to find a solution
  9. How could you impirove what you intend to communicate so that you cannot be misunderstood?
  10. Plan your opening statement. What are three ways that your opponent may react to this statement? How could you respond constructively to each of these reactions?
  11. Write some of the “I” statements you could use.
  12. How an you show that you are trying to be objective? … (Sande, The Peacemaker, chapter 8, location 2899)

4. Go and be reconciled

“Forgiveness can be extremely costly, but if you believe in Jesus, you have more than enough to make these payments.” (Sande, The Peacemaker, chapter 10)

When forgiving someone, it’s a good idea to avoid the kneejerk reaction of saying “Oh, it’s okay, don’t worry about it”. We say this perhaps to protect ourselves from admitting that we were vulnerable, or because it’s awkward to know what to say. But don’t say “it’s okay”, because it’s not okay. If I thought it was okay I wouldn’t be asking for forgiveness – pretending it wasn’t that bad doesn’t help either of us. What you mean is “Yes, it was wrong what you did, it really hurt me, but I forgive you.”

The agreement to forgive means not treating the wrongdoer as their sins deserve. In forgiving you I am giving up the right to use the wrong against you. I recommend actually saying the words “ I forgive you”, which is really an implicit promise that:

  • I will not dwell on it in my mind,
  • I will not bring it up to use against you as leverage or make people think less of you
  • Where possible and safe, I will not let this incident stand between our relationship. I should say, this doesn’t necessarily mean there will be no consequences – I am wise not to trust a liar in the future, and the Bible never commands I trust anyone but God.

This raises important questions of whether forgiveness is possible where there is no repentance, and what to do when it is hard to forgive. If you are struggling with these important questions I’d encourage you to speak to your pastor.

Understanding deep desires

I found Sande’s analysis of underlying desires very helpful. It does seem as though most conflicts arise because of deep desires, which are sometimes unspoken, and sometimes even unconscious.

  • Understanding my own deep desires can be helpful in revealing where I may have elevated a desire to the point of a need, or made a good thing into an ultimate thing. Perhaps my love of power and control is making it hard for me to let go? By asking these questions I can uncover where there is sin on my side.
  • Understanding the other person’s deep desires can help me to hear the “longing behind the complaint” – to understand what it is that is driving them and try to work towards a cooperative solution to our conflict.

2. John Gottman, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

John Gottman’s work on marital stability and predicting divorce is actually designed for marriage counselling, but I’ve found the principles relevant to almost every relationship. His great insight is that it is not whether people have conflict but how they deal with it that destroys relationships.

By way of summary of his material, here is my list of “relationship killers”. If you want to destroy your relationships, try approaching conflict like this:

  • Begin with a harsh start up: Open with aggression, accusations or negativity. These first few minutes will doom the conversation to failure. “Well it’s about time you came home! I guess your work is more important than your family!”
  • Always use absolutes: “You always!” Criticise your partner, preferably framing the comment in absolutes such as “you always…” or “you never…”. Whereas a complaint focuses on a particular behaviour (“I am disappointed – you said you would be home two hours ago”), a criticism is about the other person’s character or personality (“Why can’t you just show up when you say you will – you just don’t care about us!”).
  • Show contempt: Show your contempt for them as a person. Contempt is when one person looks down on another disrespectfully, and is often expressed in sarcasm or cynicism, or through body language. “Oh well, I guess I’m silly for expecting any more of you. You just aren’t capable of…”.

On the receiving end of this, when we experience harsh start up, criticism in absolutes and contempt for us as people, our bodies respond to the feeling of being overwhelmed by trying to protect us. This is called “flooding” and often brings with it quicker pulse, raised blood pressure, and an inability to think empathetically or creatively (perfect for a relationship-ruining discussion). At this point your options are limited to the most primate options of fight or flight:

  • Fight (defensiveness): Respond to their criticisms with defensiveness. If necessary, change the subject. “What about when you were late last week?!”
  • Flight (stonewalling): When it all gets too much, shut down emotionally. Stop giving any sense that you are listening to your partner.

From here on in, the best way to nail the coffin of a relationship is to get in a death spiral. There are three

  • Dwell on the bad things of the past: dwelling on the bad experiences of the past will actually change how you remember things – the fun you had on family holidays will be erased and all that will remain are the negative moments. This will help you with the last two:
  • Assume the worst. People’s motives are not always clear, even to themselves – so rehearsing bad memories will help you find the veiled insult in every comment, and write ulterior motives into otherwise positive gestures.
  • Reject repair attempts: you need to reject any attempts by your partner, thus creating an inescapable loop. Dismiss enough attempts at humour, apology or compromise and the other person will stop trying.

3. Bowen Family Systems Theory

A lot of counsellors and pastors use Family Systems Theory to understand our behaviour in light of our family.

A key insight of this approach is that sometimes as individuals our behaviour and emotions have less to do with what’s going on for us, and too much to do with trying to restore harmony to a system around us. The older sibling is always anxious to keep everyone happy, the youngest child always feels ignored and patronised and so withdraws – that kind of thing. We need to work hard at understanding those systems and grow in our differentiation (that is, our ability to be around our family, emotionally engaged with our family, but still in control of our feelings and choices).

“The ability to be in emotional contact with others yet still autonomous in one’s own emotional functioning is the essence of the concept of differentiation.” (Kerr & Bowen. 1988).

Family systems and family gatherings

The Australian Family Systems Institute has a really helpful page on how to approach family gatherings. Such gatherings can be seen as an opportunity to observe learn about yourself and others without reacting. Normally the more information and experience you have about other people the easier it is to move past hurts, which means family gatherings are a good opportunity to spend time with relatives without an agenda, to learn about them as individuals and about how you all relate together. Apparently the standard advice is to try to spend as much time with your family as you can while staying generous towards them.

An attitude of trying to understand rather than react can be a lifesaver at family gatherings. See if you can pick up on common themes – who fills what roles? How do the different siblings relate to each parent? Who is in the loop, who is on the outer? How do things change when this person arrives? How do you fit in, what is your standard role? The goal is to understand rather than react.

Triangles and conflict

Family Systems theory also helps us to see the wisdom in Jesus’ command to begin addressing a conflict by involving as few people in the process as possible:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.(Matt. 18:15)

Involving third parties in a conflict too soon often multiplies the problem, exponentially complicating the relational system, raising anxiety levels for everyone and reinforcing undifferentiated patterns of behaviour.

The guide to family gatherings mentioned above recommends having a script ready to go for when one relative tries to complain about another relative.

Please note: confronting a person directly will not always be appropriate where there is a significant power imbalance, or a pattern of power and control. In these cases I recommend speaking to a pastor on your own to discuss a plan to deal with the conflict.

For further help

I hope the tools above are interesting and helpful. However if you are in the midst of a serious conflict I recommend getting help.

A good local church pastor who is experienced and wise is a great place to start. Make a time with your pastor to speak about your problems. You might do this alone at first, or (if it is safe and appropriate) together with the person/people involved in the conflict. Where the situation is beyond their capacity they will be able to refer you to a specialist counsellor, psychologist or mediator, and continue to provide prayer and pastoral care through the process.

If your situation involves family violence

UPDATE 21 DEC 2015: a friend has written an excellent complement for this piece providing specific help for victims of family and domestic violence.

Police: If domestic or family violence is occurring now or there is an immediate fear it is about to happen, it should be treated as an emergency by calling 000.

Domestic Violence Line – 1800 65 64 63
NSW – A 24hr – 7 days a week telephone support.  Assistance and referral line for all victims of family violence in emergency

Anglicare Sydney (provides counselling in family violence situations)
Email: [email protected]
Phone: (02) 9798 1400