Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training resource Life-Changing Small Groups for Couples.
Picture this: it's Saturday night at couples' small group. Everyone has filled their plates and is sitting around munching and making nice conversation, when suddenly out of nowhere the embarrassing zinger, the digging barb, the snide remark sails across the room and smacks someone squarely on the cheek. Awkward!
So what's a group to do? Deal with it, says Sherry Burnham, Director of Small Groups at Lincolnway Christian Church in New Lenox, IL.
You Can Run, but You Can't Hide
No matter how you slice it, confronting someone's hurtful words or actions is difficult, even if you know and love the person well. According to Burnham: "It's natural instinct for most people to avoid conflict. In fact, people will go to great lengths to avoid conflict. They think, 'If I ignore it, it will go away.'" But it doesn't.
Conflict is conflict, and it needs to be dealt with biblically—especially within the context of small group. "Small group is a great place for couples to learn how to resolve conflict," Burnham explained. "They can witness each other do it, and they can have other people hold them accountable to doing it in a God-honoring way."
The biblical principles of conflict resolution come from Matthew 18, where Jesus addresses how to handle sin within the church. The first step is to go to the person who offended you (or who you offended) and seek forgiveness. "If a group member comes to me and has an issue with someone, the first thing I ask is, 'Have you gone to that person?'" said Burnham.
If no resolution comes from this face-to-face conversation, Burnham says the next step is to go to the small-group leader for help. "I would rather see the leader be a facilitator, not a fixer or a policeman," she explained. If no progress occurs using the leader as a mediator, the final step is to involve the pastoral staff.
Holding people accountable for their comments and behaviors is a value that grows out of small-group community. Ideally, the initial conflict resolution can happen "in the moment," during the group, and become a learning experience for all. However, Burnham did clarify that those immediate accountability conversations are more likely to take place in an existing group that has built up trust and rapport with one another. If it's a new group, or if people still don't know each other well, the leader needs to be proactive and encourage those involved to address their concerns with each other—perhaps being present to guide the conversation outside of group time.
It's Not You, It's Me
"I" messages become the language of love in successful conflict communication because they allow the offended person(s) to explain the hurt without going on the offensive. In a recent sermon series on marriage, Burnham said that they taught people dealing with conflict to say, "When this happens, I feel …."
"It helps people take control of their own emotions," she shared. When people explain how they are feeling and thinking without pointing fingers, it's easier for the offender to listen to the message instead of blocking it out. However, Burnham noted that sometimes "I" messages still aren't heard. "We are responsible for how we present things. We are not responsible for how people receive the message."