How to help resolve conflict

One bright sunny morning, back when I was a congregational rabbi, I got a phone call from one of our members, Fred. “Rabbi, I’m so glad I caught you. I know how busy you are, but I just need five minutes.”


Now Fred is an anonymous, composite character, but you know what’s going to happen whenever someone says “I just need five minutes.” Fred wanted to tell me about a problem he had with Sally, and after 15–20 minutes it started to come into focus.

Yes, I’m poking fun at Fred, and I’m using a cutesy picture to illustrate the conflict, but I recognize that conflict is a serious matter, and often painful for those involved in it. My humor doesn’t imply any disrespect for Fred or Sally or anyone else in their situation.

Here’s what happened: the week before at the Oneg Shabbat, they were sitting around the table with three or four other members and got into a discussion of politics, which became pretty heated. Sally told Fred his view was “idiotic” and she couldn’t understand how anyone could believe that. “I didn’t appreciate being insulted in front of everyone,” Fred told me, “and I don’t think the others liked it either. No one said anything, but they changed the subject pretty fast. Sally does this a lot. So I tried to talk to her one-on-one and she said she was sorry if I felt insulted, but I shouldn’t be so sensitive. Rabbi, you need to talk to her before next Shabbat so she doesn’t do this to someone else.”

As soon as Fred tells me about Sally he’s drawn me into the conflict. It’s no longer Fred vs Sally, but a threesome, a relational triangle that includes me.

If I intend to get involved in helping to resolve this conflict, the first rule is, “Don’t take sides.” My goal is to help bridge the gap between these two, not to line up with Fred in judging, or doing something about, Sally’s behavior. There are times when I will need to do something about bad behavior, but in this case we’re looking at conflict resolution.

So, how do I not take sides here? I’ve just spoken one-on-one with Fred, so I should speak one-on-one with Sally—not to carry Fred’s message, or make Fred’s case, but just to let her know that I’ve been asked in to help the two of them resolve their disagreement. Therefore, I’d like to get her perspective.

This helps me guard against the very human tendency toward bias, toward finding one party more sympathetic, more attractive, more reasonable than the other and treating them accordingly. Your emotions or instincts might be ready to take sides, but don’t let yourself do it.

Not taking sides brings us to a second rule: Don’t make it win or lose, all or nothing. Both parties might see it this way: I’m right, and she is wrong! But your role is to get the conflict moving toward resolution, which doesn’t require a right-wrong verdict. Conflict resolution doesn’t settle every conflict, because they can’t always be resolved, and even when they can they don’t always get resolved within an expected time frame. Conflict resolution is less a matter of sure-fire methods or policy and more a matter of art. It takes creative sensitivity to help parties with differences move toward each other.

Here are those two rules again:

  1. Don’t take sides.
  2. Don’t make it win or lose, all or nothing. Keep it moving toward resolution.

So how do we keep moving in the right direction? Messiah Yeshua’s instruction in Matthew 18 focuses on the sort of one-on-one dispute that usually lies at the core of broader and more complicated conflicts, and provides steps for resolving it. It’s a template for conflict resolution in general, so let’s look at it step-by-step.

If your brother sins against you,

1) go and show him his fault—but privately, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother.

2) If he doesn’t listen, take one or two others with you so that every accusation can be supported by the testimony of two or three witnesses [Deut 19:15].

3) If he refuses to hear them, tell the congregation;

4) and if he refuses to listen even to the congregation, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Matt 18:15–17 CJB

Messiah’s instruction begins with a direct one-on-one encounter. There’s the possibility of a more complex process if that fails, but this direct meeting is indispensable. Of course, not every conflict begins with a brother or sister sinning against you, but the model still applies. The importance of the one-on-one encounter suggests our next step in mediation:

  1. Prepare the parties to meet productively.

Folks will often come to you because they want to avoid direct confrontation, but your job as a mediator is to help them get face-to-face. Fred had already met once with Sally and it didn’t get anywhere. He could go right from there into a meeting with one or two others (yourself included) a la Matthew 18, but it’s sometimes better to take another run at a one-on-one, after better preparation.

The art of conflict resolution includes timing—knowing when the parties are ready to meet and actually work on resolution. It’s not always best to jump right into a direct meeting between warring parties. You might do better to take time with each party separately to coach them in some items that I’ll list below. It’s best to delay meeting until they’ve both shown some flexibility and genuine insight and seem ready to move toward reconciliation, rather than to hold out for proving they’re right. It’s also sometimes wise to take time simply to let emotions cool down a bit.

Here’s what you can work on with the estranged parties in the meantime:

a. Teach them to use a gentle startup.

The direct confrontation should start with affirmation, which means recognizing and acknowledging genuine good in the other party. Coach both parties to speak clearly from their perspective, to avoid accusation and blame, and to be open to the other’s perspective. If they enter conflict resolution with their mind already made up, it will be much harder to achieve a positive outcome . . . and everyone will also be more anxious (“How can I convince her; how can I get him to admit his faults?”), which generally makes effective communication even tougher to attain.

A gentle startup (a concept developed by well-known marriage therapists John & Julie Gottman) is not just “making nice.” It’s the startup to an honest and frank discussion of the real issue(s). A gentle startup helps to shift focus from the (problem) person to the problem itself. “Sally, you’re a good friend and I enjoy talking with you. But I felt belittled when you ridiculed my opinions in front of other people.” Notice that Fred’s gentle startup first affirmed Sally, and then got into her specific behavior and how it affected him.

b. Help them articulate the remedy they seek.

Yeshua’s instruction, “Tell him his fault,” leads naturally into what the offender can do to remedy the fault. But the remedy that the offended one seeks might be excessive. He might want revenge, or perfect justice, which is rarely attainable. Fred’s original remedy for Sally was: “I know you’ve done this to other people. You need to repent and confess this to the whole congregation.” Or “You need to be banned from all political discussions.” To move the parties toward resolution, you as mediator might ask for a more moderate remedy. Fred might tell Sally—“I’m asking for an apology for what you said—not for how I felt—and for you to let the others around the table hear your apology.” If Sally has been insulting toward others on other occasions, they’ll have to speak up themselves—it shouldn’t be part of Fred’s remedy. But it is appropriate to ask her to apologize in the presence of the same people who heard her insult Fred.

It’s often best to talk with the offended party about possible remedies before the two parties meet directly. Conflicts often go beyond the simple offender/offended model that Messiah presents, however, so that both parties are offended and both need to identify a remedy. Try not to bring them together while they’re still rigidly adhering to one specific solution, or still seeking to win, or to humiliate the other.

It’s helpful to note the remedy in Matthew 18: If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. “Listen,” of course, is more than just auditory. It implies understanding and response, as with the Hebrew word shema in the Torah. Sometimes that’s remedy enough.

c. Ask what they’re willing to give toward resolution.

Conflict resolution usually demands something from both parties. I say usually because sometimes the offended party needs to just hold his or her ground and insist on the right remedy, as in cases of abuse, drug or other dependency, or clearly unethical behavior. But in many cases both sides need to give.

On the other hand, a mediator sometimes might need to ensure that neither party is giving too much—is making a concession to placate the other, or conceding something they won’t be able to live with later, for the sake of superficial peace. To find this balance you can ask each party (ideally in advance, but also when you meet), what are you responsible for in this conflict? Even if one party feels they’ve only contributed 10% to the conflict, they can take responsibility for that 10%. Don’t ask either side to take responsibility as a tit-for-tat or as appeasement, but as an act of humility for the sake of peace.

Fred said that he did go to Sally one-on-one, following Matthew 18, but he realizes now that his tone was accusatory and demanding, so it’s no surprise that Sally resisted. He also gets Sally’s objection to a total ban on political discussion. He’s in a better position to bring her into agreement on a remedy . . . but if that still doesn’t happen:

  1. Let the process do its work.

Don’t succumb to the pressure that one encounter has to resolve everything. This sort of pressure often makes it harder to communicate effectively, or even to initiate the process of conflict resolution at all. Accordingly, Matthew 18 outlines a four-step process, not a one-time surefire technique. By bringing you into the process, Fred already triggered step two. In the first step the offended party goes to the offender privately. Then comes step 2:

2) If the offender doesn’t listen, the offended party goes back with one or two others as witnesses (who by definition might disagree with the complainant and bring new light into the whole process).

And there are more steps:

3) If the offender [is still in the wrong and] refuses to hear them, tell the congregation.

4) If the offender refuses to listen even to the congregation, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax-collector.

As conflict mediator, have a clear sense of the whole process and how it applies in this case, and communicate that to all parties. A Matthew 18-based process instills hope, because even if the offender won’t listen, there are further steps to take. Each step creates room for the Spirit to do his work, and for both parties to gain new insight and potentially a new response. And if the whole process fails to get the offender to listen, he’s still treated as a gentile or a tax-collector, who are “people requiring evangelization” as the Jewish Annotated New Testament observes.

Conflict Resolution is an art. It’s subtle and creative, not mechanical or simplistic. The goal is not winning a dispute but winning a brother or sister. Following these guidelines when you’re called in to mediate conflict make that more likely to happen:

  1. Don’t take sides.
  2. Don’t make it win-lose, all or nothing. Keep it moving toward resolution.
  3. Prepare the parties to meet productively.

a. Teach them to use a gentle startup.

b. Help them articulate the remedy they seek.

c. Ask what they’re willing to give toward resolution.

4. Let the process do its work.

During the High Holy Days we often remind ourselves of the rabbinic saying, “The gates of repentance are always open” (Lamentations Rabbah 3:43). No matter how far we’ve drifted, teshuva is always possible; there’s always a way back to God and his ways. So it is with a conflict between followers of Messiah: it might look like a disaster, but don’t despair. Conflicts are inevitable in this life, but, we might paraphrase, The gates of resolution are always open. There’s always a way back, and the art of conflict resolution helps those we serve find that way and keep moving on it toward the goal of peace.


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