Gary Friedman wrote the book on mediating conflict. He’s considered a worldwide expert on conflict, having helped more than two thousand people work through divorces and other relational breakdowns. He’s taught negotiation courses at Stanford and Harvard.
But when he took office in Muir Beach, California, he found himself embroiled in conflict. “I am committed to bringing a tone of respect, enthusiasm and openness,” he wrote in his candidate statement. Once elected, Friedman began to implement changes, but soon found that things became more tense. His critics called him arrogant, power hungry, and inept. Friedman posted a letter on the town’s website criticizing his critics. “I feel like we have lost you,” his daughter told him. Eventually, he was replaced as president, and most of his changes were rolled back.
“Once I admitted that I was part of the problem, even though it’s really hard to do that, it’s actually liberating,” he said.
Friedman’s story, recounted in Politico and the new book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, serves as a reminder of how easily even the most peaceable among us can find ourselves in conflict. Systems, like political organizations and even churches, can suck us in, even though we think we’re wise enough to handle them. I’m still thinking about the times in my own life that I thought I could withstand a conflicted situation and got sucked right in, making it worse.
As I’ve thought about Friedman’s story, I’ve realized a few things, especially in these days of high conflict within the church.
First, I don’t trust myself, and neither should you. If an expert on conflict and mediation can lose his way in conflict, I can too. The more we’re convinced of our own rightness, the more it’s likely that we’ll start to disdain those who disagree, leading us to act improperly toward them. We are fallen. We are in danger of sinning against those whom God has called us to love. As John Newton wrote, “Your aim, I doubt not, is good; but you have need to watch and pray for you will find Satan at your right hand to resist you; he will try to debase your views.”
Second, I need to listen better. Friedman stopped listening to those who disagreed because he saw them as misguided, creating an us-them dynamic. “Know this, my beloved brothers,” writes James, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). We can rationalize our anger, but James calls us out: our anger often reveals that we haven’t listened to others and submitted to God’s Word. Our anger at others should be a sign to us that we need to listen better.
Finally, we need to be careful of ways of thinking that pits us against other believers. “Any system that pits groups of people against each other can lead to high conflict,” writes Amanda Ripley. “Under the influence of categories, we are less likely to cooperate with the other group and more likely to become hostile.” Others may disagree with us on important issues, but they are not our adversaries. We have an enemy, but it is not our brother or sister in Christ. “The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly,” wrote Newton.
We’re in the middle of a period of high conflict, even in the church. We can’t afford to trust ourselves. Instead, we should listen better and resist seeing those who disagree as anything but brothers and sisters. In a period of high conflict, let’s avoid becoming part of the problem. “If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honor nor comfort to ourselves,” wrote Newton. So much is at stake. Let’s take care in how we handle conflict.