Disagreements are part of living in a world with humans who each have differing perspectives, personalities, experiences, preferences, opinions, passions, gifts, and expectations. Being different is okay. The problem is when being different becomes an opportunity for unhealthy conflict.
I mention unhealthy conflict because there really is a way to engage in healthy conflict. Yeah, that sounds like an oxymoron. But it isn’t.
The Bible says that just as iron sharpens iron, so one brother is able to sharpen another. Do you now how iron is sharpened? Friction. If there is no friction, swords can dull and soften, becoming ineffective tools.
While uncontrolled friction can be dangerous, purposeful, controlled friction can make beautiful things — not only the sharpening of an iron blade but the sculpting of marble, the inscribing of words on paper, and the building of a home through sawing beams and hammering nails.
What if there were a way to engage in relational disagreement that resulted in beauty rather than brokenness? The good news is that there is. The bad news is that it requires a choice that for most of us is an unnatural response to conflict.
“What if there were a way to engage in relational disagreement that resulted in beauty rather than brokenness?”
However, if you are willing to consider the options and make the unnatural choice, relational transformation is possible. The choice comes down to posture. There are three from which to choose.
Posture #1: Dominating to Win
For many of us, this is the most natural posture to take in a disagreement. The motive is to win the argument. To be proved right.
If I desire to emerge the champion of the argument, I will use the techniques of a boxer, attacking with right hooks and left jabs and defending with bobs and blocks when my opponent strikes. The entire time in the ring, I will be calculating my next move. Somebody is going down, and it is not going to be me.
The same is true in war, which in many ways, is a large scale boxing match. There is an aggressor who attacks against another who must defend. As the armies hurl themselves at each other, they take turns striking and retreating, only to regather their forces to strike again. The goal of the conflict is to stand upon the mountain and plant the flag of victory.
While one side may dominate and win the war, the cost in death and destruction may be overwhelming. Is war worth it? Sometimes. Are there better ways to engage? Usually.
The same is true with human disagreements. If my posture is to dominate an argument to win, I just might end up on top. But the cost is very rarely ever worth the relational carnage.
“If my posture is to dominate an argument to win, I just might end up on top. But the cost is very rarely ever worth the relational carnage.”
Posture #2: Withdrawing to Protect
With this posture, one party in a disagreement decides he or she is unwilling to wade into the fray of potential conflict that a difference of opinion might awaken. To protect themselves from the wounds of an attack, their tactic is not to fight back but rather to withdraw altogether. They are willing to forfeit a win with a loss before the bell rings, with no desire to even step in the ring.
While the dominating posture may be the most natural, the withdrawing posture typically is taken (whether consciously or unconsciously) by someone who is used to being dominated, defeated, and beaten down, whether verbally or physically. They may have stood up to the domineering opponent before but decided the bloodshed isn’t worth it. Hanging up their gloves, they retreat from the battle in a posture of withdrawal.
It doesn’t take a psychologist with a Ph.D. to recognize the adverse effects this posture will have on a relationship. This is not to blame someone who has been abused by a domineering partner for their withdrawal. Not at all. Especially when we consider that the withdrawal posture is a self-protective response to a domineering partner. In this case, emotional retreat is understandable.
If you are being abused emotionally, verbally, or physically by a spouse or partner, get out, and get help. I know that the kind of intervention and protection you need is beyond the scope of this post. But there are hotlines to call with information that can start you on the road to recovery. I know, it may feel easier to endure than take the giant step (with so much uncertainty) that it would require to escape. I would pray for you by name if I could.
But some who withdraw are not necessarily intimidated by their opponent. They just don’t care to engage and find it easier not to discuss difficult topics or issues. But without iron sharpening iron, the relationship, like a sword, will grow dull, bland, and pragmatic, and eventually, distant and estranged.
What if there were a third posture we could take — not domineering to win or withdrawing to protect — that would allow disagreements to lead to a deeper level of personal connection and emotional intimacy? Is that really possible? Yes, it is. But it will take determination, commitment, and practice.
Posture #3: Asking Questions to Understand
From this posture, our primary concern is not to win or protect but is to understand the position and perspective of the person with whom we disagree by asking questions. On the surface, this sounds simple, and it is simple. But it is not easy. Consider this posture an application of Philippians 2:3–4, “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
“Our primary concern is not to win or protect but is to understand the position and perspective of the person with whom we disagree by asking questions.”
By nature, we are radically self-oriented creatures who look out for ourselves far more than we look out for others. Oh, there is a spark of generous humanity here and there. After all, we are still image-bearers of God, with a remnant of common grace to be expected in even the most depraved.
But for the most part, we want to be understood more than we want to understand. We want to win an argument more than gain wisdom. We want to convince someone of the rightness of our position rather than be convicted that maybe we’ve been wrong.
However, the gospel tells disciples of Jesus that our “rightness” is not found in ourselves but in the rightness of Jesus. By grace and through faith, his record has been transferred to us. Therefore, as right (righteous) before heaven by the sacrifice and work of our Savior, we have nothing to prove or defend on earth.
This means that we no longer have to posture ourselves to win or withdraw. We can posture ourselves to love well by listening well as we ask questions that will help us understand someone else’s position and perspective. My goal becomes understanding before being understood.
Of course, all of this flows from an identity secure in Christ. Otherwise, when conflict arises, I either will try to establish my rightness by winning through domination, or I will protect my rightness by defending myself or through withdrawal. Only the gospel makes posture #3 possible.
“All of this flows from an identity secure in Christ.”
Taking this posture, asking questions becomes a lot like putting ourselves in their shoes. Questions help us get a feel for their unique life experiences, passions, and interests. Not to mention their wounds.
Maybe you can see how questions differ from assertions. An assertion is a statement about something you assume you already know. A question is an investigation that seeks to unearth something new and helpful. I would like to suggest that when conflict arises, it is more fruitful to ask questions more and make assertions less.
“I would like to suggest that when conflict arises, it is more fruitful to ask questions more and make assertions less.”
Questions may be asked at four levels, too — actions/behaviors, beliefs, emotions/feelings, and deep desires. Think of these levels as the stories to a home. The Wellspring Group describes the four stories as levels of the heart.
- 4th Story: Action/Behavior Questions: What practical difference has your perspective made in your life? This is where the smoke emerges visibly from the fireplace on the 1st story (as desire influences and works its way through the rest of the building).
- 3rd Story: Belief/Conviction Questions: What has most influenced your position and perspective?
- 2nd Story: Emotion/Feeling Questions: What emotions rise to the surface when discussing this topic?
- 1st Story: Desire Questions: On a scale of 1–10, how important is this issue to you? Why? If important, what would you want me to know about why this is such a sensitive/tender subject for you?
The reason why we would do well to consider all four levels (and especially levels 1 and 2) is that the ground floor of desire (like the basement or foundational level of a building that supports the entire structure) is what prompts the emotional response. Emotion is like a light on the dashboard of a car that helps us know what is going on under the hood, for the good or for the bad. A strong emotion often signals a strong desire. Understanding that desire is a prerequisite to moving to levels 3 and 4. If we begin or even focus on levels 3 and 4, we may easily talk past one another or create a scenario where the win or withdraw postures take over.
You can see how this process is not natural but must be intentional. Asking questions that get to the heart are not typical in any conversation, much less in disagreements. But if we can approach differences with a desire to understand and empathize, the potential for increased mutual respect may be established, leading to a much more fulfilling relationship.
What if I don’t change their mind? Remember, that isn’t the end game. We are not asking questions to manipulate and coerce but to understand. Period.
In the process, positions may be altered. Maybe not. But love will win, God will receive glory, and the relationship will grow deeper and richer in the process.