Untying the Knots of Conflict

I have a comfortable pair of sweatpants that I have had for almost 20 years now. They are warm, comfortable, and an essential part of my life now that the weather is turning cold. There is only one thing about these pants that drives me crazy: it is impossible for me to untie the drawstring without getting the strings tied up in a frustratingly impossible knot. I never remember which string I have to pull to get out the knot and I often make the matter worse by pulling on the wrong one.

Much like the drawstring on those pants, we often find ourselves tangled up in relational knots, even with those we love the most. Until Jesus returns and His work in us is complete, we will live with conflict in our marriages, friendships, churches, and neighborhoods. The question is not whether we will have conflict, but rather how we will handle it when it comes.

A key component in dealing with conflict is knowing where to begin. The last place we often want to look is in reality the first place we should look: at ourselves. Before we do anything about the other person’s role in the conflict, we have to own how we have contributed to it.

Ken Sande, in Resolving Everyday Conflict, writes, “Have you ever noticed in a conflict where our focus naturally falls? It’s on the other person and what that person did wrong. We maximize his or her sin and minimize our own…We won’t begin to find peace until we ask ourselves a tough question: How can I own my part of this conflict?”

To return to the example of my old sweatpants, the best way to get our knotted relationships untangled is to pull on the string with our name on it. We have to begin with ourselves and own our part of the conflict. In almost every conflict, we shoulder some blame somewhere, even if we think it is very little. Sande reminds us that even if we are responsible for only 2% of the conflict, we are 100% responsible for our 2%.

Owning our part of the conflict goes beyond merely acknowledging our faults to ourselves. We haven’t owned our part until we acknowledge and confess it to the other person involved. Though this can be difficult, it is amazing how often this simple act relieves the tension in the conflict and melts the hearts involved into loving reconciliation.

Knowing the importance of confessing our part of a conflict, Sande offers seven qualities of a good confession.

  1. Address everyone involved – Our confession should reach as far as our offense. We need to think through all the people who have been affected by our sin and address our confession to each of them. If I give a sharp response to a co-worker in a conflict but others overheard it, I need to confess not only to the one who received the comment but those who heard it as well.
  2. Avoid “if,” “but,” and “maybe” – Want to shipwreck your confession? Include these words that lessen your responsibility and make it sound like the fault doesn’t really rest with you.
  3. Admit specifically – Don’t say, “I’m sorry I snapped at you.” Say, “I selfishly wanted to watch the basketball game and when you came to me with a problem I didn’t want to take the time to fully address it; I just wanted you to leave me alone. I am sorry for my selfish attitude and not loving you as I should.” Specific confessions address attitudes, words, and actions.
  4. Acknowledge the hurt – If you demonstrate that you realize how painful your attitudes, words, and actions were to the other person, you are already on the track to being on the same side with them again.
  5. Accept the consequences – We often think that apologizing makes all the consequences for our actions go away. “I said I was sorry didn’t I!” Realize that your sinful attitudes, words, and actions have consequences and express your willingness to work through them.
  6. Alter your behavior – Want another way to shipwreck your confession? Make no effort to change. Some people are like the boy who cried wolf in their confession. They say “I’m sorry” so many times without sincerity and repentance that people stop believing them when they say it.
  7. Ask for forgiveness – They may be ready to offer it right away, and often are, but some people may need time. Give time for forgiveness and maintain a humble posture.

May God grant us humility to own our part in conflict and give swift resolution to the knots in our relationships.

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