Collaborative conflict resolution

January 4, 2012 | Viewpoints | Number 1
Melissa Miller |

In the last few columns, I’ve written about different ways to manage conflict, including avoidance, competition, accommodation and compromise. Each of these responses can be quite useful, and each one also has limitations. It’s good to develop a repertoire of responses, and to sense when to use which one. The final conflict resolution strategy that I will discuss is that of collaboration, which is best used when significant decisions are at stake and often in longstanding relationships.

Collaboration is full-throttle, double-barrelled commitment to the relationship with the other person, and to one’s own values and goals. It is not easy or quick or superficial. It requires deep, respectful listening to the other person, and to the message underneath that person’s words. It also requires a solid personal core, with the capacity to speak of one’s own hopes and goals in an honest and straightforward way.

People often use collaboration:

  • When tackling an important issue;
  • When they have sufficient time and energy to speak and listen carefully and deliberatively; and
  • When a creative outcome is possible and desirable.

It is not the strategy of choice when time is limited, or when the issue is a minor one. It is also not advisable to “over-process.” Too much deliberation can weary participants and stifle creativity. And, of course, collaboration is not the correct response when the other person’s goals are obviously wrong, destructive or immoral.

Biblically speaking, collaboration is a manifestation of the Golden Rule. When Jesus says, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” he is pointing us to a collaborative way of responding. When Jesus engages in thoughtful, spirited conversation with the woman at the well (John 4), he demonstrates collaboration. He listens to, and takes seriously, the woman’s perspective, responding to her spiritual questions and ideas. At the same time, he speaks clearly and forthrightly of his own values; he offers himself as “living water” and challenges her to new ways of seeing and understanding God.

When collaboration is successful, both parties feel satisfied with the final decision. Both parties feel listened to, respected, heard and valued. Both parties have a sense of accomplishment in having persevered through long and possibly tedious dialogue to arrive at a point of agreement. On such occasions, Christians often report a sense of God’s Spirit in the process, nudging, guiding, calming and inspiring creativity and risk-taking. The oft-repeated phrase from Acts 15:28 comes to mind: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

Friends, we have options in our conflicts. We can “agree and disagree in love,” which is the theme of a very useful information sheet for Christians in conflict available through the Mennonite Church U.S.A. website. While many of us have experienced conflict as negative, we can learn ways to respond that turn conflict into a positive experience, a place where we can engage differences with our sisters and brothers in hope and confidence, a place where we see God at work in and through us.

Melissa Miller ( lives in Winnipeg, where she works as a pastor and counsellor. Her family ties include that of daughter, sister, wife, mother and friend.

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