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We have come to the last “P” in our series on the four P’s of Conflict. As a reminder, the previous three are Power, Preservation, and Purpose. The last is PERCEPTION. Have you ever had a misunderstanding? Conflicts of perception result in two ways. The first is when two people entrenched on opposing sides of an issue fail to understand intellectually and empathically the positions of their opponent. The second is when we question or misperceive the intentions and/or character of the individuals involved.
Example 1: The perception – “Man, she is so pushy. I just don’t get why she makes such a big deal about politics. I mean, really! Is God in control or isn’t He?” The response: “Why does he refuse to pull his head out of the sand?! If we don’t stand up for what is right, who will?” The conflict: activism vs. passivism. Note that both sides probably have valid experiences that shaped their philosophies. Their emotions flare because they can’t or won’t understand the other.
Example 2: The perception – “That guys house is lavish! He must be one of those shallow socialites who have to one up everybody else!” The response – “Oh no, it’s one of those “holier than thou” vow-of-poverty types who relishes condemning others for enjoying a few of life’s modern comforts.” The conflict: Theology of stewardship. Here, both individuals are in the wrong because of their misperception of each other.
Think about how often our mistaken perceptions of the ideas and character of others create disunity and confrontation in our relationships. “He’s just lazy, she’s just stubborn, they are selfish, snobby, etc.” The rifts that result have damaged our families, our schools, our churches, our businesses and more. But even if our perceptions are correct, we fall short of resolving conflict if we do not seek to understand what has made each of us the way we are and work to empower each other to change. This being said, I’d like to give a few tips on dealing with conflicts of perception:
Regarding Cues: Clarify what’s communicated. We communicate verbally and nonverbally. Both are susceptible to misperception. Effective conflict resolution requires identifying and clarifying social cues. Fritz Pearls, the father of Gestalt therapy, was a master at picking up on the nonverbal cues in conversations. He would often ask clients to exaggerate certain shifts in body position to heighten clients’ awareness of hidden emotions. We certainly don’t need to be this confrontational in our everyday relationships, but we can ask for clarification when the messages we are receiving don’t add up: “You say you’ve forgiven me, but you cringe when I try to touch you. Is there something more you’ve not told me?” “I notice it’s been hard for you to make eye contact during our conversation. Is there something I can do to make you more comfortable?” Understand that some people will chose to remain unengaged. They will resist such attempts for transparency, but don’t be deterred. Your attempts at clarifying will serve you well in the long run.
Regarding the Past: Know but Don’t Go! As human beings, we like to categorize people and situations. This mental referencing is a natural way to improve our efficiency in dealing with common situations. You might think of it like the autocorrect on your phone when you text. But sometimes we make initial assumptions based on past experiences that are incorrect. We must stay judgment and give people the benefit of the doubt if we are to resolve conflict. Know your past experiences, but avoid drawing conclusions from them until you have all the facts from the current situation!
Regarding Motives: Trust but verify! We all know the passage in the Bible that says, “People look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) This is certainly true during conflict. We can never really know the motives of others, but to engage in conflict effectively, we must have some faith in people. Otherwise, why bother? If you have trust issues in a particular relationship, deal with that first. Then address the specifics of the conflict. If the pattern of someone’s behavior points to an overriding desire for Power or Preservation, then seek outside help from a counselor or trusted mutual friend. If you’ve been burned in the past, bring healing to your wounds by acknowledging and learning from the pain. Don’t surrender to a life of isolation!
Questions: How has your perception of a particular problem affected your relationship with people in your life? What happened when you took the time to clarify your misperceptions? Did it help to resolve the conflict?
What happens when a vacationing family prays for sunshine while a farming family is praying for rain? What about when two charities are vying for the same patron? Or when a young lawyer is torn between staying late at the office to make partner and getting home in time to help his children with their homework? The answer for these examples and many like them is that a conflict of PURPOSE arises. In addressing the sources of conflict, we have already covered two of the four: Power and Preservation. The third is equally important. If you believe that life is more than just chance, that you are here for a reason, then you will acknowledge that your life has purpose: an overarching purpose (to love one another, to glorify God…), a contextual purpose (as a spouse, member of a church, worker, parent, friend, etc.), and a pragmatic or immediate purpose (pick up the kids from soccer practice, pay bills, handle crises…). We engage in conflict when one purpose appears to oppose another. This happens on two planes: 1. when an immediate purpose collides with an overarching purpose and 2. when our contextual purposes pull us in different directions.
Example 1: Your friend really wants you to spend the night out with her to celebrate her birthday (Immediate purpose: celebrate, make a memory, encourage your friend), but you have a deadline at the office the next day which could jeopardize your job if not completed (overarching purpose: provide for your family, maintain stability emotionally and socially). So which do you chose?
Example 2: Your church is in the middle of a fundraising campaign for an orphanage in Sudan. Because of your business experience, they would really like you to help out. Unfortunately, you’d be spending a lot of late nights trying to do event planning. You know it would be a strain on your marriage and kids, but it’s for God and the orphans, right? What do you do? (Contextual purposes: Parent and Spouse vs. Minister and Philanthropist)
Let’s face it. You may think you have an easy solution for the two scenarios above, but I guarantee you that real life gets very complicated. Whenever you find yourself asking the question, “What should I do here?” you are questioning your purpose. Let me give you a few tips as you struggle with the subsequent conflict:
1. Put Your Purpose on Paper – When you write a mission statement, you are essentially asking, “Why do I exist?” Can you articulate it in a sentence or two? How does this overarching purpose trickle down to your contextual and pragmatic purposes each day? Writing out a mission statement for your life can help bring clarity to the choices you make on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. You will be far more equipped to avoid unnecessary conflict and overcome the unavoidable conflict in your life if you have something tangible to which you can refer. There are two important questions to ask when writing your mission statement: 1. Who do I want to be? and 2. What do I want to do? Remember, that your purpose is essentially relational, so in writing a mission statement it is helpful to use your context to guide you: 1. Who do I want to be in relation to God, my family, my friends, my coworkers and boss? and 2. What do I want to do as a creation of God, a member of my family, a friend, coworker etc? When conflict arises, ask yourself how well you are living up to whom you want to be and what you want to do as outlined.
2. Clear away the Clutter – What are you willing to give up in pursuit of your purpose? Conflict of purpose is about making sacrifices and drawing boundaries. As a finite individual, you must choose what you will do and not do. This will inevitably (and usually temporarily) hurt others in your life who would like you to do or to be what they want you to do or be. It takes a certain resolve to stand up to these challenges, staying single-minded and entering commitments and obligations with eyes open and counting the cost. My rule of thumb is “When in doubt, think it over.” Don’t say yes or no unless you are willing to “let your yes be yes and your no be no!” (Matthew 5:37)
3. Clarify Expectations – No one can cover every angle, but as a rule, clarify the expectations of those whose purpose you choose to fulfill. Try to have the facts before making commitments. Don’t be afraid to clarify expectations along the way. It can also be helpful to set a time limit to reevaluate your circumstances. Once you have committed, give the task your all and see it to completion. Trust that God led you to this place with the knowledge you had at the time and He will give you the strength to see it through. If you feel discouraged, share those feelings with someone you can trust, someone who will empower you to keep moving forward.
4. Maximize through Compromise – When our purposes conflict, compromise can help align our goals. Compromise is not a dirty word. There is more “gray” to life than you might think. If you are willing to compromise when appropriate, then people will respect you more during those times when you must take a stand and refuse to back down.
5. Concede to the Higher Purpose – When you face a conflict of Purpose that cannot be resolved through the above means, always concede to the higher purpose. As a kid, my dad had a saying. “If your friends want you to do something with which you don’t feel comfortable, feel free to blame me!” Essentially, he was saying, your purpose as a son supersedes your purpose as a friend. As adults, we too, need a higher purpose to “blame” for the choices we make. Others may not agree with the decision, but they will understand if we live out our choices with integrity, submitting to our ultimate purpose of glorifying God.
Question: What conflicts of purpose are you experiencing? What tough decisions have you had to make and what was the outcome?