It’s inevitable. Conflict WILL happen. As leaders, if there’s one mistake we make when leading change, it’s not properly navigating conflict when it happens, or perhaps worse, pretending conflict doesn’t exist at all. The truth is, when people work with other people, conflict is guaranteed. The question is: will you let conflict sink you? We’d like to think we don’t avoid conflict, but more often than not, we don’t address it very well. At best, we tend to make a big deal out of the silly conflict and ignore the serious situations. I get it – it’s easier to highlight the surface issues and much more difficult to address the real conflict before it gets out of hand. We just make a mess of it.

To help navigate the ‘conflict conversation,’ I define conflict in three ways: Silly Conflict, Small Conflict, and Suffocating Conflict. If we’re going to become great leaders, we must navigate all three well.

1. Silly Conflict

Sometimes people are just having a bad day. Someone peed in their orange juice, or maybe their kids left the house that morning in the middle of an argument – the list is never-ending, really. With that, comes short tempers, a lack of patience, and otherwise uncharacteristic actions.

When we’re dealing with people, however, we have to remember they have private lives. And those lives are often completely hidden from us. It’s also helpful to remind ourselves that these moments are just that – moments. Just because Monday was tough, doesn’t mean there’s a big issue at play.

Sometimes the conflict is just simply ‘silly’ and we need to extend a lot of grace, give them space, and ignore it. If you don’t mind addressing conflict, do yourself a favour and don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.

There’s something else to look out for when silly conflict happens. When someone has a bad day (and people notice), a common reaction is to have private conversations about ‘how bad that person is today.’ I call them ‘watercooler conversations’ (when people gather around the break room to gossip). As the leader, encourage them to extend some grace and space. After all, it could be them having a bad day next week. Create a culture of trust over suspicion.

Simply put, if the conflict is limited to a bad day, or a particular situation, just ignore it. If a pattern starts to form, you may be experiencing the second type of conflict.

2. Small Conflict

When conflict expands past the one-time situational occurrence and becomes a pattern, it turns into ‘small conflict.’ These moments are usually simple in nature but are awkward enough, that we’d rather not deal with them.

Here’s the problem – we can’t afford to ignore the small conflict.

All conflict is serious, but most conflict can be dealt with before it becomes unbearable. The key is recognizing when the small conflict arises so that we can deal with it as soon as possible.

When bringing up small conflict issues, I’ve learned some important lessons:

  • Start with the benifit of the doubt by using an inqusitive tone, rather than a offensive tone. Asking something like: “I’ve noticed you’re not yourself lately, is there anything going on we don’t know about?” This is much better than starting off with an acusation.
  • Always LISTEN to UNDERSTAND before SPEAKING to JUDGE. Most people want to be heard, not told they are a problem.
  • Ask WHY, without asking WHY. Instead of saying, “Why do you think that way?” You could ask, “How did you come to that conclution?”
  • Tone is everything. If you’re going to navagite conflict well, you need to always be calm, collected, compossed, and ready to hear whatever the person needs to say – no matter how much it may hurt.

How many times have I heard, ‘If it isn’t a problem, don’t make it a problem’? I agree we can’t look for conflict. But that’s the purpose of the first category of conflict (Silly Conflict). When a pattern emerges, people will start to notice and the conflict will quickly escalate. And if it escalates faster than we can address it, then we allow problematic situations to become ‘suffocating.’ More often than not, that ends in unresolvable hurt, pain, and lasting negative emotions.

Which leads to the last type of conflict.

3. Suffocating Conflict

When we ignore the small conflict, issues have a tendency to grow on each other. The more we ignore it, the more tangled the situation becomes. What’s even stranger, is that the conflicting situations don’t even have to be directly connected to each other for them to become tangled. Once a situation becomes suffocating, anything can happen.

Before we know it, we have a tangled mess of heated opinions, emotional reactions, and leadership stress.

I call this suffocating conflict because it puts a stop to ALL missional activity within a church or organization, tears people apart, leads to church splits, and resignations of pastors.

Sometimes this level of conflict actually shows itself as ‘silly conflict.’ You might wonder why someone is really upset because the church changed the colour of the carpet. It may not be ‘silly conflict,’ but rather built up unresolved conflict that is being expressed in frustration. They really don’t care about the carpet, but it’s the easiest way to release all the tension.

When we allow conflict to morph into suffocating conflict, it’s almost impossible to navigate without major change and overhaul. It’s when ministries fall apart, volunteers quit, members transfer, pastors resign, or board members leave the church. At the end of the day, it’s simply not where God wants us to end up, and yet where so many local churches end up.

So, the question is…

How do we navigate conflict before it becomes suffocating?

Let me give you three concepts I use to help mutually navigate conflict. Hopefully, it helps in your leadership journey.

1. Grace & Understanding

Conflict is often the result of a change. If people have done something the same way for a long period of time, change doesn’t come easy. In fact, it’s quite uncomfortable and it will almost always lead to conflict. It’s usually the main sign that change is actually happening.

In order to navigate conflict, we need to have grace with those who are concerned about the new venture or ministry. The tension is real and the concern is real. After all, if we’re passionate for the Kingdom, we would only expect people to be concerned for the future. Let’s follow Christ’s example, and extend grace.

We also need to understand that leaders desire to grow the Kingdom, not bulldoze the past. New ideas don’t mean old ideas are wrong, it just means we’re trying to advance the Kingdom. Old ideas were once new ideas that were given the space to become normal. We can’t forget where we came from, but we also can’t stay there either.

2. Passion & Commitment

Passion drives us to make a difference. I love watching new leaders and believers jump into ministry opportunities. They just want to change the world! In the church setting, it often creates conflict because new people don’t know ‘how it was always done.’ Instead of squashing the passion, let the passion drive our ministries.

Commitment drives us to make a difference for the long haul. I talked with a senior couple of a church family we were a part of a while ago. While they didn’t always connect, or even agree, with some of the new initiatives, they ensured me that they were still committed to our local Assembly. Their commitment outweighed their internal conflict.

Passion has to be paired with long-lasting commitment in order for us to navigate conflict, and experience sustained growth.

3. Transparency & Honesty

Transparency is key to navigating conflict. We can fake leadership for a period of time, but lasting influence is driven by transparent leadership. When conflict arises in a transparent environment, ‘small conflict’ doesn’t have a chance to hide. It’s alright to struggle through a situation; it’s not alright to avoid a struggle in order to remain visibly ‘strong.’

Honesty is also key. Leaders can only lead when they have the right information. As a leader, I am always willing to hear someone’s dilemma and struggle. We may not always see eye to eye, but we can journey together every step of the way! It’s impossible, however, to journey together if we’re not honest with each other.

These three leadership elements work together as we mutually navigate conflict.

How do you navigate conflict? I’d love to hear from you. Comment on the post, or send an email to !

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