Engaging Conflict in Small Groups

Engaging Conflict in Small Groups

A look at the deeper issues underlying personality clashes

Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training tool called Handling Conflict in Small Groups.

Sooner or later, every small group will experience conflict. In some groups, conflict will become evident from the first meeting. In others, great pain is taken to avoid conflict. The members maneuver around it and make it clear that "we don't do conflict here." But the ways we behave in a small group reflect how we will behave outside of it, and handling conflict well in our group can lead to better ways of dealing with the uncomfortable issues people face every day.

A Case Study

Mary and Jim are group members. Mary sees herself as a "truth-speaker." She is perceptive and reads people like a map. She is always aware of the "temperature" of her small group. She listens to what is said and has an ability to hear what isn't being said—and she is more curious about the later. Her greatest desire is for authenticity and honesty.

Everybody sees Jim as a "grace-giver." He is trusting and takes people at face value. He values peace, and patience is one of his greatest virtues. He is affirming and very sensitive to the shame in others. His overriding desire for the group is that it feels safe, loving, and supportive.

Mary and Jim, to one degree or another, are in every group. Every group needs what they offer. But before Mary and Jim can offer what is best in them, they will have to face the inevitable conflict that their styles of relating will create.

Behind every conflict is a story that goes far deeper than the presenting clash. Jim grew up in a home with a dominating, angry mother. His father would work hard all day and come home to a wife who would dump her frustrations on him. Jim felt sorry for his father and felt contempt for his mother. She was not the virtuous "Proverbs 31" woman he heard about in church. But his father never complained. He was "longsuffering." Jim sometimes wished his father would step up and confront his mother, but he felt pretty sure his father would lose that battle.

Mary grew up in a home that had lots of secrets. No one talked about dad's alcoholism. No one dared ruffle dad's feathers when he came home, even though the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. When Mary was sexually abused by her father, and later by her brother, her mother had a lock installed on Mary's door but never talked about what happened. Mary sat behind her locked door angrier with her mother than with her abusers. Secrets and silence became the enemies that Mary vowed to fight.

Now, Mary and Jim find themselves in the same small group. It doesn't take long for a perceptive Mary to pigeonhole Jim as a weak wimp who is more comfortable with the appearance of harmony than the guts to be honest. And, hard as it is for Jim to admit, Mary's pursuit of people feels dangerous and makes him want to avoid her at all costs.

In group, Mary is frustrated every time Jim seems to dismiss someone's struggles with a verse from the Bible and an offer to pray. Conversely, Jim feels that Mary plows right into areas of shame with little sensitivity. Sometimes it seems that Mary's outrage over injustice is stronger than anyone else's. Jim feels that he must counter her impact by soothing the group.

Unless this conflict is addressed, it will further propagate the dysfunction that both Jim and Mary felt in their families growing up. The group will not be strong enough to bear "truth-speaking," and it will feel that its "grace-giving" is patronizing. The safe, loving, honest, and authentic community will be lost.

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