Conflict Kills Community (But It Doesn’t Have To)

The most extreme conflicts conclude with bullets flying and bombs dropping. But the vast majority of conflicts in our world don’t make the CNN scroll. They begin with far more subtle differences of opinion, and they destroy relationships and community. Siblings fight over, well, everything. Teenagers fight over the best ways to feel liberated. In marriages, we constantly disagree about who is giving more to the relationship, and the peaceful community within our four walls is splintered. In our churches, we disagree about how to worship or which people deserve to be loved—we wear our smiles like armor but nothing is redeemed or reconciled, and eventually a group of us start a new church community down the block. In our workplaces, we disagree about how frequently to meet or whose project should get funded, and the cubicle walls become like prison cells, everyone in their own solitary confinement. In our nation, we slander anyone with a different political ideology—we do it via commercials, telephone campaigns, debates, and dinner table conversations, and we become a national community in gridlock.

Differences between people create tension, discomfort, and fear. Tension leads to conflict, and conflict results in distance at best and violence at worst. All of it becomes fatal to relationships and connectedness and the community we so badly need. Conflict kills community. But it doesn’t have to.

In fact, sometimes, conflict can be the beginning of authentic community.

Several years ago, I stumbled into a particularly heated marijuana debate between two acquaintances—not a couple of half-baked high school kids raging against “the man,” but two highly educated professionals. One man was militantly in favor of legalizing marijuana, the other man violently opposed to it. And they wanted my opinion. I remember feeling a sense of dread, like I was wading into dangerous waters, with hungry things swimming beneath the murky surface. The debate did not go well. They never do.

Only later, on the way home, did I get a glimpse beneath the surface of those ideological waters. My wife explained that the legalization advocate had recently watched his father die a slow and excruciating death from cancer, while marijuana was the only thing that relieved his father’s pain. And, as it turns out, the marijuana opponent had been raised in a family torn apart by drug addiction. That’s when I realized what was floating beneath the surface of these competing ideas.

Stories.

The stories of two hurting people. Stories of pain and anguish and loss. Stories that have formed their ideas and opinions and beliefs. Stories that have delivered them to a natural conclusion about the way the world should work. A person’s ideas are never simply their ideas. Opinions and beliefs are never born in a vacuum. They are the logical result of a story. The intensity of any given opinion usually depends upon the intensity of the story that gave rise to it. If you want to understand a person’s ideas, you need to understand who they are and the story that has been told with their lives.

The therapeutic space is a small and hidden community of two. And it may be our first experience of a relationship that can graciously bear the burden of disagreement, without distance or violence. In this space, we may express an opinion or value that directly opposes the beliefs of our therapist. Yet, the therapist does not respond defensively, or with a desire to change or alter. Instead, the therapist responds with a gentle curiosity, with a desire to understand the story that gave birth to your belief.

This spirit of curiosity and gentle exploration is disarming. We no longer have to respond with reflexive defensiveness. In the safe space that is created, we can piece together the origins of our beliefs. Whereas before, the need to quickly and effectively defend ourselves obscured our life-story, we now develop a deep, wise understanding of the ways that we were formed. We discover that we can have opinions, and so can others—we don’t need to hide them fearfully, but we also don’t need to wield them violently.

And in doing so, we become a people inviting others into the fullness of their own stories. We become walking storybooks, differently-shaped and differently-believing, but nonetheless writing new chapters of our lives together. We discover that conflict need not be the death of relationship and community. It can be the birth.

I think we assume communities are comprised of like-minded people, so we believe in order to preserve community—a marriage, a friendship, a collegiality, a church—we must be like putty, changing our beliefs to match the beliefs of others, or conversely, convincing everyone to believe what we believe. But perhaps an authentic community is a group of people with a vast array of opinions and differences that range from semantics to fundamental incompatibilities in worldview. Yet they are a people committed to living in the tension, refusing the temptation to do violence to the other’s philosophy or worldview. They have decided they will value people and the stories those people are telling, above feeling perfectly at ease, or right, or validated.

If this is true, when people disagree with us, or when we disagree with them, we don’t need to immediately eliminate those people from our lives or escape their community. Instead, the decision to be (or not to be) in relationship with that person can be based on other questions. Are they willing to step graciously into disagreement with us? Do they have the courage to break the surface of their opinions and enter into the danger of knowing and sharing their own stories? Do they have the patience and tenderness to be an audience for our story? Because there will be some people who use their opinions like a shell, like impenetrable armor. You can offer them the opportunity to engage their own story and yours, but they may not be willing to do so. If they have locked their own story away somewhere inside of them, they may not even be able to offer it to you. And you can’t make them. Others, you will find, share your hunger for authentic community.

Are you hungering for genuine relationship and authentic community? Why not begin today? Start by disagreeing with someone for whom you care deeply. But do so graciously, with the desire to understand who they are and why they believe the way they do, and with a loose-enough grasp on your own opinions. And if they are ready for community with you, they won’t run and they won’t fight back.

You might even see a look of relief flooding their eyes, because they may share your hunger for something new and healing and beautiful.They, too, may be eager to put down the weapons of opinion and ideaology. Eager to trade them in for the soothing balm of an attentive ear. Eager for a relationship in which their story has infinite value. Eager to forsake the isolation of the winner’s circle for the complicated fellowship of authentic community.

I hope we settle for no less in our friendships and families and neighborhoods, and in our communities of faith and townspeople and countrymen. I hope we disagree, and I hope our stories are told.

What’s Your Story:  Do you disagree with anything that I have written? If so, feel free to do the courageous, community-making thing and participate in the UnTangled community by graciously sharing your disagreement in the comments below.  Or perhaps you agree with what I have written, and your story testifies to the reasons why. Please feel free to share your story in the comments. If you are reading this by e-mail or RSS feed, click here to comment.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • visakanv

    Wow, I absolutely love this. I built an online community last year, and I’ve witnessed fantastic growth from nurturing constructive disagreements. Everyone needs to think about this, and learn to embody it. Thank you for writing this.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for reading. 🙂 You’re doing important work. Keep going!

  • Catharine Phillips

    Ok. I*ll wade in. I agree with the importance of expressing disagreement and honoring conflict for genuine relationship and authentic community. I also agree that the therapeutic relationship can be one place to experience this… ideally. There*s the rub for me. The ideal part. As a therapy consumer (therapee?), I have experienced a small sample of therapists, short-term and longer-term. A couple have provided the space you name. A couple have not. As a newer therapist, I hope to be that therapist you describe. I know I will not be able to do that with everyone.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Catharine, Thank you for this important observation. It is incredibly important for “therapees” to be reminded that they are ultimately in charge. If a therapist is not able to provide this kind of space, I recommend first trying to process that with the therapist, and then deciding whether or not to transfer to a new therapist. I also think it’s very wise of you to know that, as a new therapist, there will be some clients with whom it is difficult to do so. There is nothing wrong with that; the problem arises when we have blindspots about this.

  • ktina1

    I am speechless. This is something I long for in every relationship I have, yet I often find myself unable to give it, and often only to those I’m closest to. It’s a work in process and one that matures more every year. Your writing is inspirational Kelly.

    • physque

      hopless!

  • R. Sadler

    As a psych nurse I couldn’t agree more…the value of allowing someone to tell their story and giving full attention to it is huge and has amazing healing power! We all need the validation of a listening ear, someone who is interested in our perspective!

  • Dacia Wilkinson (@DaciaLene)

    You eloquently just put my heart into words. Thank you.

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  • Mel

    Reblogged this on Mel and commented:
    It’s not often that I reblog something. So it’s gotta be something really good.

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  • marie coppolaro

    Thank you, very helpful information here. Can I use your image (two hands holding over the gap) for a presentation on conflict resolution? I will acknowledge the source.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Marie, Please feel free to use the image; it isn’t mine actually. This is an early post, before I started using Creative Commons licensed photos and crediting them properly, so I likely just pulled this from a Google search. I hope the presentation goes well!