Group Communication and Conflict Guidelines (Work in Progress)

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This set of guidelines for communicating with others was originally published by Rev. John Groen in the Ann Arbor CRC newsletter a number of years ago. The ideas were brought to the attention of Pastor Church Resources in a recent conversation with a commissioned pastor (unrelated to Ann Arbor CRC). We found that many themes in this document are similar to themes that Pastor Church Resources raises with church leaders about communication. The document begins with a question from someone in Rev. Groen’s congregation:

“Can I have a copy of what you said at the congregational meeting?”

Yes, you may. The document is a work in progress. Things I’ve gleaned, borrowed, and stolen from my own thoughts and those of others—including Biblical theologians, philosophers, and wise people everywhere. I’m standing on the shoulders of others who take Jesus’ beatitude about peacemaking seriously.

When conflicts arise, when disagreements roll in, I have choices to make. I can draw a line in the sand, I can threaten to do this or that, to leave or strike back, to make my points with ears closed to your thoughts and what you are saying—or not.  

I can also draw a line in the sand for myself. A line that keeps me from disobeying what Jesus has taught. That’s what I’m hoping to learn and attempting to practice. I invite you to listen in. If you want to join me, that would be nice.

There is a Biblical warrant for what I’m attempting to learn. In the body of Christ we have received the gift of unity. I don’t have to create unity; it is given. I must protect this unity and I must be an agent of reunion when the gift is broken, when unity is shattered. Giving the Biblical background is the next step of this work in progress. It may seem backward to you, but that’s how this work in progress is progressing.

Here’s where I’m at so far.

Introduction

I realize that conflict can be destructive in a group. However, it can also be constructive and instructive. As a follower of Jesus, my goal—as group leader and member of the community—should be to avoid destructive conflict when possible and to transform destructive conflict into constructive and instructive conflict when necessary. 

As a follower of Jesus, I will commit to and attempt to use these guidelines to train myself in patterns of constructive communication so that destructive conflict can be avoided. And when destructive conflict arises, I can use these guidelines to evaluate what went wrong, learn from the experience, and reset healthy norms.

1. I will listen actively, ask questions, and refrain from giving advice.

I will listen to understand, not to assess agreement or disagreement. I will put what others say into my own words to test my understanding. I will ask those I dialogue with to do the same. When I am confused, I will ask a question or offer a paraphrase for them to affirm or rephrase. I will use language or statements such as:

  • Can you tell me more about that? I’m not sure I understand. 

  • Let’s see if I really understand you. 

  • You’re saying that. . .  

  •  Are you saying. . . 

  • Could you try to restate my position in your own words, so I can be sure I’ve communicated clearly enough?

2. I will work to understand and express differences instead of mere disagreement or judgement.

Instead of expressing win-lose disagreement or making a judgment on another person’s viewpoint, I will express my differing opinion as an additional or alternative understanding. Instead of telling someone they’re wrong, I will tell them that I see the issue or situation differently and explain how I see it. Then I will invite their feedback. I will try to articulate where my differences lie in terms that both parties would agree to, and demonstrate respectful difference. I will use terms like:

  • That’s interesting. I think I see it a little differently. . . 

  • Is there any common ground between our two viewpoints? Where do our differences lie? 

  • Here’s another way of explaining the situation. 

  • So for you. . . and for me. . . 

  • Our essential difference is. . . 

So, we understand where we differ, and we can respect our right to differ with one another.

3. I will listen for, and report, emotions and ideas (and, ask for / offer help when necessary).

I will share with people how I’m doing, what I’m feeling, and how my energy level is, so that my colleagues can better understand me. I will allow others, without pressuring those I am in dialogue with, to do the same. I will make my needs or wishes overt and clear if possible. I will use terms like: 

  • It sounds like you feel… 

  • Wow that must have felt… 

  • How do you feel about what I just said? 

  • I feel a bit ______ now, because my need for ________ isn’t being met. Would you be willing to ___________.

  • As I hear you speak, I feel…. 

  • My energy level is a bit low. Could we take a break? 

  • If I seem unusually quiet in today’s meeting, it’s because … 

  • You’ve seemed unusually quiet today. I’m concerned that we’ve offended you in some way.

4. I will work for win-win, not win-lose or lose-lose.

Based on my awareness of our interconnectedness, my goal is a win-win solution. I will avoid attacking or defending and engaging in us vs. them thinking. I will keep short accounts. I will bring out my mistakes and hurts, and ask for or offer forgiveness as necessary. I will postpone or sideline issues that will obstruct progress. I will use language such as: 

  • I feel a bit defensive at this moment, which might be a sign that we may be miscommunicating. 

  • I’m sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable by saying________. It was not my intention to make you feel uncomfortable. 

  • When you said ________, I felt __________. 

  • Can you see why I would feel that way? 

  • I don’t feel that you’ve understood me yet, but it’s OK for now. Maybe we can come back to this later. 

  • I’m satisfied with this decision. Are you? 

  • I can tell you’re satisfied with this conclusion, but I’m not there yet. Could we work a little more on this?

5. I will not blame, shame, or demonize others, or allow myself to become a victim.

I recognize that sarcasm, personal insults, derisive language, and insults are marks of desperation and should be avoided. When participants in a dialogue where disagreement is present slip into this kind of language, I will gently remind them by using language such as: 

  • I’m concerned our conversation has shifted toward demonizing others. Would you agree? 

  • Is there a way you could say that without using the term _________, which would be taken as an insult? 

  • I just used the word __________. I realize that’s not the most helpful word to use. Instead, I’d like to say _________. 

  • Sometimes I just let my ideas get steamrolled or marginalized, but I really feel I need to propose this once more.  

6. I will avoid absolutizing, and I will use softening statements when appropriate.

I will avoid language such as: 

  • They always… 

  • She never… 

  • You always… 

  • I never…

These statements are more than likely false and rarely helpful. Softening statements can keep the focus on the conversation, and not on the status, pride, or ego of a particular speaker. Such statements look like this: 

  • They have been known to… 

  • She seldom if ever… 

  • I try to avoid… 

  • I may be wrong, but… 

  • I may be overstating the case here, but… 

  • Let me think out loud, knowing that I’ll probably get it wrong the first time …

7. I will seek to like and learn with those I have differences with, and even disagree. I will look for agreement along with disagreement, when possible.

I will communicate to win friendship, not arguments. Others will care how much I know when they know how much I care about them and the issue. I will remember that diversity of opinion means an opportunity for everyone to learn and grow, regardless of whether anyone is right or wrong. I will use language and statements like these: 

  • I’ve never really had the chance to understand where you’re coming from …

  • Even though I don’t agree with your conclusion, I find you a charming person. 

  • I’m impressed with your passion and sincerity, even though I’m not convinced by your line of thinking.  

  • I’ve learned a lot from you this evening. I’ve really appreciated getting to know you better. Thank you. 

  • So we both value _____ and believe _____, but disagree on _____. 

  • We share a concern for ______, but differ on a solution.

8. I will not judge a person’s motives or reduce their position to a stereotype.

When I treat my interpretation of another person’s motives as a fact, rather than as just my interpretation, it says more about me than about them. Judging motives invites defensiveness. Treating another person’s position as a caricature or pushing it to an absurd extreme shuts down communication. So instead of saying, 

  • “You’re just trying to …,” or 

  • “You must hate immigrants!” or 

  • “So you’re a socialist …,” 

I will turn my judgment into a question or confession using language and statements like these:

  • Can you explain why it’s important for you to emphasize that point so strongly?

  • I’m tempted to say that you’re simply…but I don’t think that would be fair. 

  • I’m tempted to react by judging your motives, but I don’t want to do that. 

  • Please help me understand your reasons for saying that.

9. I will separate content from process.

When people move outside of agreed upon communication guidelines, I will gently comment on the process, apart from the content. I will use language or statements like these: 

  • You may be right in what you just said, but I’m concerned that our conversation is taking an uncharitable tone. 

  • I feel uncomfortable with what just happened. Let’s stop for a moment, review our guidelines, and take a break before we continue. 

  • Can we step back for a minute and talk about how our process is going?

10. I will not push too hard, I will back down when appropriate, and I will admit my communication mistakes, regardless of whether others do so.

We all make mistakes and it helps when we admit that. Ego makes communication hard; humility makes it a joy. Humor often helps too! Language and statements like these help a lot:

  • Before we continue, I just want to say that I feel bad about how I treated ______ a few minutes ago. 

  • I was wrong to ______, and I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?  

  • I don’t want to push any harder on this, so I’ll just drop that point. If anyone thinks it’s worth coming back to later, that’s great, but I’m willing to move on.  

  • Oops. I blew it when I said _______. My bad. 

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