Category Archives: conflicts

Disagreeing in public? Are there some best practices?


I’ve written a post over at our Biblical Seminary faculty blog about the art of disagreeing with others in public. By public I mean the kinds of conversations that take place in face-to-face with an opponent, discussions of a thinker’s position in a classroom, or the kind that take place on Internet sites (e.g., blogs like this, news sites, etc.).

Check out  my 5 tips to more loving disagreements.  Try it out with your next conflict with a friend or family member.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, conflicts, counseling skills, Doctrine/Theology

What is an apology? Guest post at www.biblical.edu


I am a contributor to my seminary’s faculty blog and today one of my posts on apologies is up at www.biblical.edu. You can read it here.

Apologies are pretty simple things: ownership of responsibility without defense and willingness to make things right. Sadly, we have a hard time carrying out such a simple transaction because we invest in self-protection more than loving others.

For you, what do you most look for in an apology?

3 Comments

Filed under christian counseling, Christianity, conflicts

When some help isn’t better than none


When is some help worse than none? When it creates more problems than might have been there without it. While that is easy to say, determining the line between helpful and harmful is less clear.

If your help saves a life, that seems good. If your help saves lives but creates or supports a system that destroys others, when do you decide to stop helping or to change the help you offer?

This is what Linda Polman raises and a key issue in her The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? (2010, Metropolitan Books; first published in 2008 in Dutch by the title, De Crisiskaravaan).

Linda tells of a huge problem in the humanitarian aid industry (yes, it is one even if its primary purpose is to provide care for traumatized and displaced peoples). She puts the challenge this way in regard to providing humanitarian aid for those in warzones,

You do what you can for the victims, but soldiers exploit your efforts. They demand money for ever well yo dig and levy sky-high taxes, imposed on the spot, on all the sacks of rice and tents and medicines you arrange to have flown in. They consume a slice of your aid supplies and sell another slice. Among the items they buy with the proceeds are weapons, which they use to drive yet more people into your refugee camps or even to their deaths.

What do you do? Do you conclude that it is no longer possible to cling to the principles of the Red Cross, pack your bags, and leave to help war victims elsewhere? Or do you remain true to your convictions, believing that even if you save only one human life, some relief is better than none? (p. 1-2)

The first 2 chapters detail the problems of the international aid provided to Goma, DRC between July/August 1994 and 1996 when the Rwandan government used their soldiers to force the mass of Hutu refugees and former genocidaires back into Rwanda rather than allow the camps be locations for regrouping of the militias that would try to return to fight the new Rwandan government.

A couple of her observations

1. Not all refugees are the same. Some are truly in need. But a large number of the refugees in Goma brought a treasure trove of materials looted from their own country. Thus, they were less likely pushed there and more likely going there to reconstitute a machine against the RPF in a safe place.

2. The international community came in droves, almost seeming to try to make up for the failures in Rwanda for the past several months. But they didn’t understand that many of these folks were either perpetrators or related to them.

3. Not all of the deaths reported as due to cholera were in fact illness related. There were many that were killed for failing to be loyal enough to the Hutu extremist groups

4. NGOs have to market themselves and thus spend lots of money to get contracts to help more

5. NGOs hide the fact that many of their stuffs were taken by Hutu leaders so the NGOs would raise the number of people they were helping in order cover up that they lost a large percentage of materials/food to theft and corruption

6. Journalists are more likely to get their way paid to cover a crisis by an NGO, thus raising questions about the images they send back. Likely not going to be as objective.

Now, none of this suggests we shouldn’t provide humanitarian aid to refugees in warzones. But it does remind us that our help can also hurt others. Being wise as serpents and harmless as doves is a lot harder than we might expect.

Given our trip to the region next month, I have to remember that our good intentions are not always enough. I’m not sure how our help can hurt but if we don’t ask the questions, we won’t know either. Here are some open questions

1. Does short-term trauma recovery efforts start a healing process but fail to keep it going thus encouraging more hope than discouragement?

2. Does bringing people together to talk about trauma unintentionally trigger trauma or feelings of rage (we won’t know if some people are considered the “wrong kind of people”)?

3. How does taking pictures or filming any part influence the “data” we think we are collecting?

Leave a comment

Filed under conflicts, Congo, counseling, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Rwanda, Uncategorized

Resources about narcissism?


Cover of "The Drama of the Gifted Child"

Cover of The Drama of the Gifted Child

A few weeks ago I was asked about resources on the topic of narcissism, things a person struggling with some of the features might read to better understand their inner world. I didn’t have any really great “lay” materials on the topic so I’m going to poll the audience. A perfect entry for Valentine’s Day when we celebrate those people who make us feel special!

Narcissism is an ugly word if it is used about you, as in, “you’re so narcissistic!” This usually means someone sees us as being self-centered.

The truth is…most of us have a touch of it at times. We desire affirmation, we fantasize about being recognized for our achievements, we want to be special (or at least seen that way), we have times of feeling entitled and may even manipulate the feelings of others to get what we want. Our focus on self may limit our empathy towards others. We may be haughty. All of have some of these features some of the time. Some of us have these features most of the time.

Having these feelings doesn’t mean we are personality disordered. But, our willingness to acknowledge and work on being more other centered MAY reveal whether we meet diagnostic criteria. Meaning, if you can admit to the problem and improve your capacity for empathy then you probably aren’t meeting criteria for a personality disorder.

What causes narcissism?

The simple Christian answer is sinful self-focus. But since ALL of us are sinners and flawed…can we be more specific why some people seem to struggle more with the problem, why some have an enduring bent  or a fixed pattern of relating to the world? One theory suggests that narcissistic features arise out of a lack of mirroring which results in a deep fear that we aren’t special…or worse, are worthless. There is likely some truth to this. However, it seems that some narcissism is encouraged in a me-first culture.

Resources?

So, what resources do you know that get at some of these experiences, desires, feelings of narcissism that could help a person be more aware of their impact on others.

Here’s a few reads I know about:

1. Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller. A classic psychodynamic read about our emotions. She does a nice job illustrating the fears/cravings of narcissism and borderline features and how we all have a touch of these. Not necessarily helpful in what to do about the experience but good to delve into the experiences of depression, grandiosity, denial, and self-contempt and what these do for us.

2. Re-inventing Your Life, by Jeffrey Young. In particular, look at chapter 16. In fact, if you follow the link, you can search “entitlement” in the “search inside” box on the left and once you get results, scroll down to the one on p. 314. You can read a bit of the chapter to see how the authors do a good job describing the common symptoms of narcissism.

3. Anatomy of Secret Sins, by Obadiah Sedgwick. Well, not exactly about narcissism but definitely about uncovering our true self-centeredness. Sedgwick lived between 1600 and 1658! Excellent read on the problem of self-deception.

If you try to search for books on this topic, you will discover (not surprisingly) most are written to those who either have to live with the person or are trying to get free of them. Few are written to the person with the problem.

Any resources you might add to the list?

7 Comments

Filed under Christianity, conflicts, counseling, counseling science, personality, Relationships, Uncategorized

Uncomfortable with a conversation? Change the subject


What is your usual response to someone who brings up your “stuff”? You know, that stuff you’d rather not talk about because it is embarrassing or painful or causes you to have to confront some issue in your life? And yes, I know it matters WHO is doing the bringing up and HOW.

But if we are honest we probably recognize the tendency to blame-shift by bringing up their stuff or change the subject to some intellectual debate in order to get off of the topic of us.

At the end of yesterday’s post I mentioned the passage in John 4 that tells about Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well. Notice a few of her responses as a result of her discomfort:

1. Jesus asks for something………she’s suspicious and defensive and brings up Jewish arrogance against her kind of people

2. Jesus offers something………she’s wondering how he thinks he’s better than their forefather Jacob

3. Jesus tells her to get her husband (she is living with someone not her husband)……..she tells a partial truth

4. Jesus tells the woman her own private story–5 husbands and the one you are with isn’t your husband (notice he doesn’t call her a liar but actually validates her half-truth)………she brings up a doctrinal debate between Jews and Samaritans.

5. Jesus avoids the debate and gives a bigger picture…….the woman THEN drops her defensiveness and gets her village-mates to come see Jesus

We’re probably a lot like this unnamed woman of ill-repute. We blame-shift, focus on possible problems of the other, tell half-truths when cornered and then finally resort to rabbit trail debates all so we can avoid facing certain things about ourselves.

The good thing is that God rarely lets up in his gentle but persistent pursuit.

2 Comments

Filed under Biblical Reflection, Christianity, conflicts, counseling skills, Doctrine/Theology

Intractable conflict in marriage


The latest American Psychologist (65:4, 2010) has an interesting article on the topic of intractable conflicts. These can be seen in families, communities or whole country disputes like found recently in Rwanda and the Congo.

The authors make this point at the outset of the article,

Conflict resolution should be easy. Conventional wisdom…has it that conflict arises when people feel their respective interests or needs are incompatible….A conflict that has become intractable should be especially easy to resolve….After all, a conflict with no ed in sight serves the interests of very few people, drains both parties’ resources, wastes energy, and diminishes human capital in service of a futile endeavor. Even a compromise solution that only partially addresses the salient needs and interests of the parties should be embraced when they realize that such a compromise represents a far better deal than pursuing a self-defeating pattern of behavior that offers them nothing but aversive outcomes with a highly uncertain prospect of goal attainment.  (p. 262)

True, but since when does logic ever beat conflict? It doesn’t and these authors know it.

As a conflict becomes a primary focus of each party’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, even factors that are irrelevant to the conflict become framed in a way that intensifies or maintains the conflict. It is as though the conflict acts like a gravity well into which the surrounding mental, behavioral, and social-structural landscape begins to slide. Once parties are trapped in such a well, escape requires tremendous will and energy and thus feels impossible. (ibid, my emphasis)

This is EXACTLY why marriage counseling is so difficult. Everything is read through the lens of “He is so controlling,” or “She won’t respect me.”

Why does this happen? On the surface, an intractable conflict might seem to be about land (e.g., Palestinians vs. Israelis) or about ideological solidarity (republicans vs. democrats) or about bald desire for power. In marriage conflict may appear to be about respect, money, or power. But these authors suggest that conflict becomes intractable because the larger system is supported by the conflict and would more or less collapse if peace were to overtake it. Attractors, they say help maintain a coherent view of the world, a way of promoting unequivocal action without hesitation. Truth be told. We like living in a black/white world where our actions are always clear to us and the bad guys are always bad. A word about power. In conflict, we use power to get what we want (via direct use or manipulation). But there are always power differences between parties. Someone always has more power. In couples, one spouse will always want more sex than the other. This isn’t a bad thing. It only becomes bad when either party refuses to accept the differences or show any capacity to be influenced by the other.

When peaceful resolutions take place, it is because a new system has been developed; a new set of values and definers of reality.

How do you implement such a change? You cannot go directly after the thing that maintains the conflict. In other words, don’t say, “You, wife, stop believing your husband doesn’t love you”; or “You, husband, start loving your wife by…” Built into the maintainers of conflict is a strain of resistance. “I know you just did something nice for me but you really are just trying to get on my good side so you can [fill in the blank], but I’m on to you!”

The authors say, and I agree, that, “Attempts to challenge directly the validity or practicality of an attractor for intractable conflict are therefore often doomed to fail and in fact are likely to intensify people’s beliefs and energize their response tendencies.” (p. 273)

Again, how do we deal with these longstanding conflicts? How do we stop seeing the problem as a simple equation (you stink and I’m great) to something more complex (we’re both broken and here’s what I can do to make things better)?

1. Force self to step back to see the complexity of the situation. This sometimes happens when something blows our mind (we act in a way we THOUGHT we never would). To do this we have to believe that the simple answer is easy but ALWAYS wrong and desire to have a more nuanced view of self and other

2. Go back to see previous unity. So, a couple might go back to remember their first love. What affinities did they once have? Can they recover them? Some couples can. From here, they may find the power to fix problems that seem just a wee bit smaller because of a more powerful unifying narrative that was forgotten.

3. Focus on who we want to be in the midst of trials and tribulations. What kind of person do I want to be (that God empowers me to be) come what may?

Notice that only #2 has to work towards maintaining the marriage and living in close quarters. One can develop a more complex and realistic view of the problem (#1) or focus on character development (#3) and still choose to end a violent or destructive relationship. Both also require that we value something greater than self-interest. From a Christian point of view, love must be the reason for all three options–a love given to us by God alone.

2 Comments

Filed under christian counseling, Cognitive biases, conflicts, counseling skills, Desires, marriage, Psychology, Relationships, Uncategorized

Accepting our part of the problem


Notice how hard it is to own our own stuff? Especially when the other person is the bigger problem? Consider the following conversation:

Speaker A: He’s such a jerk! I never want to talk to him again.

Speaker B: What happened?

Speaker A: He never told me that the assignment was due today or that it had to be done up professional. He just yelled at me when I asked him a question and told me I was going to get written up and reported to _____.

Speaker B: Wow that was so unlike him. He must have had something that was bothering him. Aren’t your assignments listed for you ahead of time?

Speaker A: Yeah, they are listed, but I wasn’t there when they put them up and because I have so much to do I couldn’t check what was listed and anyway he should tell me or at least cut me some slack since I work my butt off for him.

Without considering the wrongs or the mistakes of leader (which may be numerous!), notice that speaker A doesn’t tell you that he/she has a habit of forgetting to look at the assignment list nor that when the unnamed “he” called speaker A on messing up, speaker A then spoke in sarcastic and demeaning and defensive tones.

This is a fictional account. And yet we all struggle with saying, “I didn’t like how he treated me but to be fair, I keep forgetting to do what he asked.” “I wish he didn’t yell at me in front of everyone, but I have to admit I was goofing off and talking when I shouldn’t.” If I yell at my kids it is because I was tired or they deserved it. If I speed, it was because I was late. If I’m late it was because of bad traffic. If I didn’t finish my writing assignment it was because of some last-minute crisis. Notice how we take truths and turn them into defenses and thus avoid any blame at all.

What if you are only 10% of the blame for a conflict and your child/spouse/coworker/parent is to blame for the other 90%? Do you find it hard to say, “You know, when we were fighting yesterday, I said _________ and that was hurtful and wrong. Will you forgive me?” Do you find it hard to stop at the end of the sentence without adding, “but you….”

I do. So do my clients and my kids. We seem to think that if we acknowledge our part we let the other party off the hook. In fact, most frequently, when we own our part, the other party is MORE likely to own their stuff too.

3 Comments

Filed under conflicts, deception, Relationships, Repentance

On political and marital fights


Recently presented on the matter of marital conflict. On the way home I had a vigorous (and fun!) political debate with a colleague. I came to the realization that there are many similarities between both conflicts. Conflict is almost always about power with the particular issues (or the content of the conflict) a very distant second. We take positions because we see the dangerousness of the other person’s position or direction (and our loss of power). For example, if we follow our spouse’s financial behaviors, we’ll end up in the poor house. If we allow Obama to make decisions, he’ll ruin America. And just like in marital conflicts, we ascribe intent–he WANTS to destroy us all.

What I notice is that while we barely admit our own failings, we love to play out the failings of our opponent/spouse. Obama is taking advantage of a financial crisis to get some of his interests cared for (which of course fails to acknowledge that Bush got the Patriot Act because of a crisis). We could easily say the same in reverse.

My colleague and I most definitely agree on some things–that most politicians are narcissists, that they are more interested in winning than cooperating for the greater good. Truth be told, marital conflict has some similarities. Being heard, getting the other to acknowledge our points may be more important to us than finding a common bond.

It should surprise us that these similarities exist. Since Eden, we’ve been fighting for position and power.

Leave a comment

Filed under christian counseling, conflicts, marriage, News and politics, Relationships

Sebarenzi on reconciliation


Am just finishing up Joseph Sebarenzi’s God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation (Atria Books, 2009). Joseph, A Tutsi, tells his story from childhood experiences of Hutu-Tutsi violence and state-sponsored discrimination to the 1994 massacre (he was out of the country then) and meteoric rise to power where he became the speaker of the parliament and then was pushed out by the Rwandan dictator.

I’m not sure if his story is accurate (about how Kagame tried to have him killed, but I found his views on reconciliation (and the lack thereof thus far) very helpful:

Ever since the genocide, I have asked myself how the nation could heal. How could we live together again in peace? …

Reconciliation brings enemies together to confront the painful and ugly past, and to collectively devise a bright future. It brings together communities in conflict to tell the truth about all past human rights violations and to create a society where they can live in peace with one another….

Reconciliation is in many ways the hardest option, because it requires effort, humility, and patience–whereas revenge is quick and easy. Reconciliation is complicated. it cannot be reduced to retributive justice…nor to forgiveness…. Reconciliation…includes several components: acknowledgment, apology, restorative justice, empathy, reparation, and forgiveness–and several accompanying measures, namely democracy coupled with consensus, peace education, and international assistance.   pp 214-215

The author goes on to describe what he means by each of these components (and some of the weaknesses in Rwanda). He subscribes to a rather Christian view of this process. It is not merely Hutu groveling to Tutsi but both listening to each other.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, conflicts, Forgiveness, News and politics, Repentance, Rwanda

Options for Burned-out pastors


I am working on a talk for pastors and church leaders regarding the problem of conflict with parishioners. One of the surprises for pastors is that Kingdom work means facing attacks from those who are supposed to be on the same side. We know from work with military, NGOs, and missionaries that the most difficult aspect of personal sacrifice is not threats from outside but lack of support from supposed friends and teammates.

So, when a pastor finds him or herself in a conflicted situation and feels burned out, where might that pastor turn? There are a couple of local options for help:

1. C4ML Coaching. As a mission of Biblical Seminary, Mick Noel provides coaching regarding matters of leadership and church culture. His coaching isn’t a substitute for counseling or needed retreat but Rev. Noel is keenly aware of burn-out and church conflicts and can guide the pastor in making a plan to address leadership matters in the church. C4ML also provides opportunities for small cohorts of pastors to meet to discuss how to handle culture change in the church and wider community.

2. ServingLeaders. David Wiedis is an attorney and counselor who provides coaching, consultation, and counseling for ministry leaders. The link will connect you to his thoughts on burn-out.

3. You might consider preventing such burnout by doing some education/personal work with a new ministry called, The Identity School for Christian Ministry. Rev. Bob Miller is offering material he believes is absent from most MDiv programs but necessary for survival in the pastorate. The courses are described on the website and run for 2 days at a time.

4. Retreats. There are a number of locations that provide retreats. Use your search engine to discover these. Some are low cost, some are free if they accept your application. Some leave you alone while others provide counseling and/or coaching. While retreats are good in that they provide a break, unless there is a change in how the situation is being approached, the pastor should not expect miracles.

5. Counseling. Lastly, a good spiritual director or counselor ought to be able to guide the pastor in personal assessment, re-orienting priorities, and choosing a new response set to the difficult situation.

1 Comment

Filed under Biblical Seminary, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, conflicts, pastoral renewal, pastors and pastoring