Understanding Conflict in Small Groups

Practical information that will help you prepare for that inevitable clash

Depending on how conflict was dealt with in our families—and depending on our own conflict style—we may be more or less comfortable with this area of small-group life. Personally, I assume that conflict is a normal part of all human interactions. Nonetheless, some types of conflictive behavior are easier to deal with than others.

When interacting with my family, I prefer a forthright sharing of feelings and thoughts with all parties committed to finding a solution. I do not like name-calling, temper tantrums, and shouting. But other family members like to have a good fight with lots of theatrics, floods of tears (called "a good cry"), and a cathartic act of making up to round everything off. As a family, we have learned how to deal with the differences in our conflict behaviors and styles, although this learning is an ongoing process.

In a small group, each person brings his or her own conflict styles and preferences from a unique family background. Some people prefer peace at any cost, so their style may be avoidance. Some people have a more persuasive style and feel compelled to convert others to their point of view. Others with an assertive style simply like to wade into an argument and get excited when a discussion heats up.

That's why it's vital to talk about how the group would like to deal with conflict when setting up a covenant in the first gatherings.

Levels of Conflict

In her book How to Mobilize Church Volunteers, Marlene Wilson suggests a helpful approach to conflict within groups and congregations. She highlights four levels of conflict and how they may be addressed.

  • A first level of conflict is informational. People do not have the same information, and a simple exchange of facts and sharing of conflicting viewpoints is sufficient to clear up any misunderstanding.
  • A second level of conflict occurs when people disagree about how things are to be done. Brainstorming or problem solving is a good approach that encourages input on how the group might proceed.
  • At the third level of conflict, differences are evident in why we do things the way we do. This level needs more attention and may require a time apart for deeper discussion, or an outside mediator.
  • At the fourth level of conflict, dearly held ideals, beliefs, and values are in opposition. This can be the most difficult area of disagreement and requires finding common ground before proceeding.

Addressing Conflict

In my experience, small groups dedicated to theological reflection rarely get to levels three and four because the reasons for members' involvement in the group—and the underlying assumptions about the group and its processes—are clearly laid out at the beginning. Certainly a variety of theological viewpoints will be represented, so encouraging an environment of respectful sharing that assumes theological differences does increase the possibility of fourth-level conflict.

But groups typically get bogged down in Level 1 and Level 2 conflict. Level 1 is easily addressed by clarifying information. But Level 2 needs a little more attention. Here's an example of Level 2 conflict at work:

Stella had become very frustrated because she thought another member of the group, Alex, needed to claim a lot of the group's attention. When Stella finally expressed her views, because she felt that Alex was getting in the way of group discussion, Alex was understandably upset. He wanted to know whether others felt the same way. Feedback from others indicated that they had observed a similar pattern in Alex but had not reacted as strongly as Stella had.
After hearing the feedback, Alex wanted time to think things through, so the group agreed to come back to the matter at the next meeting. When the group met again, Alex apologized for monopolizing group time and energy and said he wanted to try to be more attentive to his interaction in the group. Stella also apologized for hurting Alex but added that she thought that for the life of the group, she had to name her feelings. Once Alex and Stella had spoken, group members decided they did not want to discuss the issue further and wanted to move on with the theological reflection.
Nothing more was said in the group about the matter. Alex indeed became more sensitive about how he used group time, and Stella was pleased that there was improvement, but learned to let go of her frustration with Alex.

Finding Help

Learning to live with our differences is a reality of family and community living. Usually, a facilitator mediates discussion to find a common ground of understanding, or simply to help people agree to disagree. However, in extreme cases, if conflict moves to another level and differences become too intense and beyond the skill of the facilitator to resolve, then an outside mediator can be helpful in working through the issues.

A wise and trusted person who is experienced in conflict mediation and comfortable with group processes is ideal. In my experience, an outside mediator is rarely needed, but being prepared for this possibility can make it easier for us to deal with whatever might happen. If you are a new facilitator, consider finding someone with whom you can check in about the progress of group life and about facilitation issues that come up. Because I am a teacher, my students often ask me questions about different group dynamics that arise in their ministry placements. Thinking through various possibilities is helpful preparation but cannot cover all the issues that spontaneously arise. Facilitation is a spontaneous art, and being able to respond in the moment and being creative on the spot are important skills.

Group facilitation is similar to jazz improvisation in that it is a spontaneous, creative process, drawing on life experience and personal and interpersonal dynamics to respond and create something new within the moment. Facilitators do not need a briefcase full of right answers as much as they need the creativity to respond to a variety of situations. Later, there will be time to reflect theologically on what took place, and in that reflection, greater wisdom will emerge.

For many of us, conflict is not a comfortable aspect of group life. However, conflict is a normal part of human interaction. In small-group life, we have an opportunity to respond to God's call to faithful living. As Christians, we are called to love one another—not just our friends or those people we get along with, but all people. Loving one another does not mean sentimental love that tolerates all behavior. It does mean being authentically in community, respectfully offering and receiving different points of view and ways of being.

—Abigail Johnson; excerpted from Reflecting with God: Connecting Faith and Daily Life in Small Groups, © 2004 by the Alban Institute. Used with permission.

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