Butting Heads Without Cutting Hearts

by Andy Wood on July 29, 2011

in Enlarging Your Capacity, Leadership, Life Currency, LV Cycle

Leading Individuals and Teams Through Conflict

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were great friends.  Throughout their near-lifelong friendship, as far as we know they never had a problem.

Never had a solution, either.

Friends?  Yes.  And boring.

Jefferson and John Adams?  Boy, was that a different story.  One looooong, near-lifelong debate.  Fiery exchanges.  Icy periods of silence.  And one of the warmest, most profound collections of letters in history between these two icons, who died on the same day, 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Friends?  Oh my, yes.  They each had busts of the other in their homes.  And Adams, not knowing his friend had already died, departed this life with these words:  “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”

That said, let’s be honest.  Few of us get up in the morning hoping to cross swords with friends.  Or spouses.  Or parents or kids or team members or employees or constituents or customers. (Dear Mark:  Please call again soon – I promise I’ll be nicer on the recorded line for quality assurance purposes.)  And yet the quality of your relationship is measured – not by the lack of conflict, but by how those conflicts are managed and solutions are forged.

(Dear Congress… Oh.  Well.  Never mind.)

Here’s how Thomas Gordon puts it:

A conflict is the moment of truth in a relationship ‑ a test of its health, a crisis that can weaken or strengthen it, a critical event that may bring lasting resentment, smoldering hostility, psychological scars.  Conflicts can push people away from each other or pull them into a closer and more intimate union; they contain the seeds of destruction and the seeds of greater unity; they may bring about armed warfare or deeper mutual understanding.

What’s a little scary is that some people avoid conflict in the name of God.


Uh huh.  (Oh Lord, now I’m talking to myself.  Anyway…)

Read through the New Testament and you’ll find a steady stream of people with different opinions, different interpretations, and different priorities – all of whom sincerely believed they were serving God and seeking His truth.  Sometimes they handled their conflicts badly – see 1 Corinthians.  Sometimes they handled it beautifully – see Acts 15. But something profound happens in a church, a team, or a relationship when people take the initiative to deal with conflicts from a position of faith, hope, and love.

So how conflict-ready are you?  How conflict-equipped is your leadership?

Here are some ideas for leading individuals and teams through conflict situations, inspired by Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

1.  Build steadfastness into yourself and your team.

If you have built a team of people who smile and nod and rubber-stamp everything you do, you have no team – you just have a bunch of doo-wop backup singers.  And you may think that’s a good thing, but it’s safe and predictable and boring.  More importantly, it leads to groupthink and glorious expressions of mass stupidity.

You’re welcome.

Instead, focus on building a team where each member knows who you are and where you’re going.  One that is committed to the goals and ideals of the relationship or team.  That combines skill with passion, and expects good results.  Remove the word “quit” from your team’s vocabulary.

2.  Lead by encouragement and building relationships.

Yeah, yeah, I know you have a job to do.  You have deadlines and budgets and goals and vision.  Competitors, too, in some situations.  But those are still humans you’re working with and depending on.  They need a leader who will give them reasons to value what you’re doing and offer their best to the team.  How does that happen?

Look for value in what the other person thinks, feels, or does – even of the “other person” is your four-year-old.

Build trust in them that is rooted in giving first, then receiving.

Communicate confidence and optimism, even in the face of problems.

3.  Don’t settle for agreement – pursue unity.

Agreement is one thing; unity is something more.  You’ve probably experienced that.  You agreed to a group decision, but there certainly wasn’t any unity involved.

A genuine spirit of unity is a powerful conflict buster.   But unity doesn’t mean unanimity.  You don’t always have to agree to have a united spirit.  You do, however, have to have common commitments to something larger than, and outside yourselves.  You must be committed to the success of your team members or relationship partner.  You must be pursuing the same general goals and priorities.  One spirit… one mind… one effort.

Elusive?  Terribly.

But so worth the pursuit.

4.  Lead with humility.

You rarely see “leader” and “humble” in the same sentence, or even on the same page.  Yet Paul says that our relationships should be characterized by humility, and he even offered Christ as the ultimate example of that.

Humble leaders don’t demand rights or entitlements.

Humble leaders serve first rather than seeking to be served.

Humble leaders have the audacity to consider others as more important than themselves.  Truth is, you’re not nearly as important as you may think you are.

Yes, you can do all that and still lead.  And in the process you will be able to get your point across with kindness, civility and a generous spirit.

5.  Model unselfishness.

Let me risk being the first since your Mama to tell you – You don’t always have to have your way.

In order to be relationally strong, somebody – particularly somebody in leadership – must be willing to let go of their self-will and do what is best for the greater good.

Can a driven, visionary, task-oriented leader model unselfishness?  Yes.

It starts with empathy.  “Seek first to understand,” Covey says, “then be understood.”  It also takes equality – recognizing that the concerns and priorities of others on your team are as important as your personal concerns.  Oh, and throw in some authenticity.  Be real.  Tell the truth.  Keep your commitments and promises.

6.  Manage communication.

So many of the complaints, disputes, and division we encounter are matters of communication.

He said.

She said.

We said.

They said.

NOBODY said.

When I’m in a group setting, I no longer fear what people have to say.  But I’m terrified of what they’re not saying.  The best team leaders I know elicit feedback first, fast, and often from the least talkative in the group.

They also look to communicate in a variety of formats.  Gripe all you want about meetings, but face to face beats email every time.  And if all you use to communicate are your thumbs, you probably haven’t read this far anyway.

Know why people hate meetings?  Because they don’t get a chance to say anything.

Or worse, they do get a chance to say something and nothing is ever done about what they have to say.  So they feel as though their time has been wasted.

Or nearly unforgivable, they said something once and were abused by their so-called leader and verbally beaten into silence and submission.  (How’s that for conflict management?)


Imagine the difference it would make in your approach to conflicting ideas, priorities, or concerns if your team was led by someone who did this:

Complete my joy and be of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose. Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well.  You should have the same attitude toward one another that Jesus Christ had… (Philippians 2:2-5, NET).

Imagine if that leader was you.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Evelyn July 29, 2011 at 2:57 pm

KaPOW! I love being smacked upside my tired mind by your words, Dr. Wood. With God’s Wisdom and Truth, you concoct an invigorating reminder of what really matters… and why. The world needs more of this kind of encouragement — this swift-kick-in-the-pants kind of love!

Andy Wood July 29, 2011 at 4:07 pm


Your encouragement is priceless, as always. Thanks!

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