Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Avoiding conflict

Should Christians ever argue?

In my online class on leadership, I ask my students whether they prefer “fight” or “flight” when it comes to conflict. By far, the majority tend to avoid conflict. We feel uncomfortable with passionate arguments on mission teams. But can conflict and disagreement on mission teams ever be productive? Could it even be necessary?

For many years, I have been intrigued by Patrick Lencioni’s claim that one of the five dysfunctions of a team is a fear of conflict.1The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. See diagram of the 5 dysfunctions on the SEND U wiki. Recently, I listened to a podcast by Pat Lencioni and his Table Group on “The Upside of Conflict.” He made the startling statement that very few companies that he has worked with have even close to enough conflict. This view seems to radically differ from the prevailing view that Christians and Christian organizations should avoid conflict at all costs! Often our organizational cultures seem to discourage any open expression of disagreement. We do not want to undermine our unity in Christ.

The Scriptures clearly teach us that we are to live in unity with our brothers and sisters. This is central to Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17 – “that all of them may be one”, “that they may be one as we are one” and “that they may be brought to complete unity.”2John 17:20-23. But does living in unity preclude any type of passionate debate or argument? I don’t think so. To prove my point, in a future blog post, I will examine Jesus’ and Paul’s attitude toward conflict.

A conflict continuum

Lencioni makes a clear distinction between mean-spirited attacks on other people and productive ideological conflict. He defines the latter as

“passionate, unfiltered debate around issues that are of importance to a team. It focuses on concepts and ideas and avoids personal attacks.”3Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, p. 144.

But Lencioni also talks about the conflict continuum. Conflict ContinuumOn the far left end of the continuum, we have no debate or discussion, which is actually an artificial harmony. On the far right of the continuum are destructive, harsh, personal attacks on one another. Both ends are dysfunctional and unhealthy. But because the far right is so scary and painful, we often do everything to stay on the far left, as far away from the destructive conflict as possible. But I am increasingly realizing that for the good of the organization and the good of our relationships, we need to venture toward the middle of that line.

Why do we seek to avoid conflict?

I think the following list might be a good start to uncovering our reasons:

  • To protect ourselves from attack. We do not trust our team members to respond appropriately.
  • To avoid hurting feelings. We think that disagreeing with a person’s opinion might be seen as a rejection of that person as a friend.
  • To avoid having to say something is wrong or right. We want to be seen as tolerant of different points of view.
  • To avoid having to expose our ignorance about our own position. We are not sure that we could defend our position if we were to engage in a debate.
  • To keep things as they are. We don’t want to face the possibility that we might have to change.
  • To keep the peace. We are uncomfortable with any type of interpersonal tension.
  • To not appear to be insubordinate. We believe that people would look down on us if we voiced disagreement with the direction we are going.

Can you think of other reasons why we steer away from passionate debate with your missionary colleagues? How many of these are sound reasons in light of our identity in Christ and our commitment to take up our cross and follow Jesus (Matt 16:24)?

What do we lose if we avoid conflict?

We won’t enjoy deep relationships

In that podcast that I mentioned above, Lencioni talks about the huge cost of not engaging in conflict. He says that without conflict, we won’t have deep relationships. Just as in a marriage, if people never learn to talk through their differences and disagreements, their relationship will never go deeper. By avoiding conflict, we also lose the possibility of the intimacy that is possible if we work through the differences.

Gary Thomas in “Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy?” says,

When disagreements arise, the natural tendency is to flee. Rather than work through the misunderstanding (or sin), we typically take a much more economical path — we search for another church, another job, another neighborhood, another friend, another spouse.

Marriage challenges this “flight” tendency. It encases us with a rock-hard, given-to-God promise that insists we work through the problem to arrive at some sort of resolution.

Mature adults realize that every relationship involves conflict, confession, and forgiveness. Unless you truly enjoy hanging around a sycophant, the absence of conflict demonstrates that either the relationship isn’t important enough to fight over or that both individuals are too insecure to risk disagreement.4Thomas, Gary L.. Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? Kindle Edition, location 2445.

We won’t encourage innovation

Without conflict, we won’t become innovative. Innovation requires a diversity of opinions and perspectives. But those diverse opinions need to be expressed and explained in ways that help us see how the opinion is different from the one that we hold. In a previous blog post, I talked about why multicultural teams are not necessarily more innovative. Unless people trust one another enough to be able to share their different perspectives, multicultural teams are no more creative than other teams. David Livermore in his book “Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity” says:

We need to move beyond politically correct, culturally sensitive agendas that minimize debate and overemphasize common ground. And we need to move toward action-oriented, robust discussions that lean as much into our differences as our similarities, for therein may lie our greatest in-sights for innovation and action.5Driven By Difference, p.31.

We won’t make good decisions

Unless we have “passionate, unfiltered debate” about the issues, we will not hear all the pros and cons of a proposed course of action. We won’t uncover the potential pitfalls in the direction proposed by the first person to speak in the meeting. We won’t recognize why our “solution” to the problem is not really going to work after all. In talking about fear of conflict, Patrick Lencioni says,

teams that trust one another are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decisions that are key to the organization’s success. They do not hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions.6Lencioni, Patrick M.. Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team (J-B Lencioni Series) (p. 8).

We won’t commit deeply to our team decisions

Before they can really buy into a decision, people need to feel that their objections have been heard and understood. Mature people do not demand that the decision that the group makes is what they suggested. This should be even more true of followers of Jesus. But they want to know that the group has listened to their ideas and carefully considered them before deciding to go in another direction. As Lencioni says,

teams that engage in unfiltered conflict are able to achieve genuine buy-in around important decisions, even when various members of the team initially disagree. That’s because they ensure that all opinions and ideas are put on the table and considered, giving confidence to team members that no stone has been left unturned.7Lencioni, Patrick M.. Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team (J-B Lencioni Series) (p. 8).

We will have more interpersonal problems

If none of the other costs of avoiding conflict have persuaded you to engage in a passionate debate about the issues that your team faces, maybe this one will. I believe there is evidence to show that if we avoid all conflict and debate about the issues we face, we will not have less interpersonal conflict (that is the unhealthy kind) but actually more. Because we are not able to openly disagree in public, we begin to criticize one another behind their backs. We speak disparagingly about their character rather than focusing on the ideas with which we disagree. Because we can’t express our disagreement or resolve the frustration, we bottle up those negative feelings. We pretend that everything is fine.  But eventually what is hidden inside does express itself in unhealthy ways.

We all understand that not all conflict is good. We also recognize that conflict makes us uncomfortable. But the cost of not having productive conflict is too high to allow us to avoid it. In future blog posts, I will talk about what the Scriptures tell us about entering courageously into conflict and what leaders can do to facilitate productive conflict.


Theological Triage: Which theological issues are worth fighting for?


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1 Comment

  1. Art

    Well said Ken. As I tend to avoid conflict it is good to see the upside of processing our differences

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