Three Ways to Keep Conflict from Becoming Contention

Contributed By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 17 September 2015

A relationship can overcome adversity when members accept that challenges are a part of life and that often what make a relationship great are the differences that are present.  Photo by Ryan Morgenegg, Church News.

Article Highlights

  • Different perspectives and opinions and failure to communicate or listen effectively can create conflicts.
  • Conflict is a natural part of life.
  • Using proper tools and communicating and listening effectively can reduce or eliminate contention.

“There is no place in the scriptures where the Lord warns against conflict. He warns against contention. It is something entirely different than conflict because it is expressing anger one against another.” —Brother Kevin P. Miller, international leadership and communications consultant

Inevitably, with the relationships developed in life there will be some challenges and disappointments. Sometimes a wonderful long-term relationship is destroyed by a horrible disagreement, missed expectation, or poisonous contention. But can such problems be avoided by implementing some simple techniques?

Kevin P. Miller, an international leadership and communications consultant, taught a class on August 21 during the 2015 BYU Campus Education Week on the topic of keeping conflict from becoming contention in relationships. “In our conversations, we have to have the Spirit with us,” he said.

Brother Miller shared a quote from Brigham Young to explain his position: “In my experience I have learned that the greatest difficulty that exists in the little bickerings and strifes of man with man, woman with woman, children with children … arises from the want of rightly understanding each other” (Journal of Discourses, 4:370).

Making his point clear about the importance of understanding one another, Brother Miller said, “We never see things as they truly are. We see things as we are.” A person sees the world through his or her own perspective.

1. Make regular “deposits” of trust

When working on relationships with other individuals, it is important to realize that the two people involved are constantly making a series of deposits and withdrawals, he said. “The currency of these relationships is trust.”

A certain deposit or even the exact same deposit might have a different value for each individual, said Brother Miller. It’s good to find out what deposits are most valued by the other person. Is it time, affection, kind words, or other things that are most valued? He quoted Stephen R. Covey, one of the world’s foremost leadership authorities: “The more constant the relationship, the more constant should be the deposits in that relationship.”

Effective listening and communicating can help diffuse a situation and avoid contention.

As an example about the nature of deposits, Brother Miller explained that a wife might express to her husband that she feels unloved because she hasn’t been told recently that she is loved. The husband might feel that saying “I love you” once a year or when the couple got married is more than enough. These separate perspectives can create tension or conflict.

“The first concept to realize is that conflict is a natural part of life,” said Brother Miller. “It is not to be feared and avoided.” He then quoted Brigham Young from the Millennial Star: “If there is no conflict, I cannot gain a victory; if I cannot gain a victory there is no crown of reward.”

2. See conflict as an opportunity

Recognizing that conflict is part of being a leader is important, said Brother Miller. He then shared a quote from Warren Bennis, noted for his work in leadership studies: “Leaders do not avoid, repress, or deny conflict, but rather see it as an opportunity. Once everyone has come to see it that way, they can exchange their combative posture for a creative stance, because they don’t feel threatened, they feel challenged.”

“Conflict comes about because people are passionate and care about something,” said Brother Miller. “We need to be careful that conflict doesn’t turn into contention in our relationships,” he said.

“There is no place in the scriptures where the Lord warns against conflict,” said Brother Miller. “He warns against contention. It is something entirely different than conflict because it is expressing anger one against another.” He then quoted the Savior in 3 Nephi 11:30: “Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.”

Brother Miller asked those present to raise their hands if they believed that the strength of a relationship often lies in its differences. A number of people raised their hands in agreement. He confirmed that.

He said one of the challenges people face when they reach a disagreement or conflict is the nature of their body to react using the “lizard brain,” the more primitive portion of the brain that sees a threat and then causes a fight or flight response to occur. “They may experience a rush of adrenaline, quickening of their breath, a quicker pulse, tension in the muscles, and thinking is impacted.”

To avoid such problems when a conflict arises in a relationship, Brother Miller suggested that a person examine the relationships in life by asking the question, “What do I really want for myself and others from this relationship?” This question can help set expectations and provide perspective.

3. Create win-win situations

If conflict does arise, remembering some guiding principles can help prevent the conflict from becoming a contention. “Don’t destroy a relationship for the sake of being right,” said Brother Miller. “Maintain the self-esteem of the other person. Focus on the problem and not on the person. Don’t label them. Define the problem and clarify the expectations. Explore alternatives and create a win-win situation rather than thinking that a single person has to win.”

As an example of a win-win situation, Brother Miller shared the story of a mother of several children who was becoming resentful about cleaning up after dinner because it was time consuming and difficult. A solution was needed to avoid conflict and diffuse the growing contention in the home.

He said the mother invited her children to clean up after meals in exchange for some money that would be set aside for a once-a-month outing. Whatever money was earned that month, the family could go out and eat at a restaurant or enjoy a treat together. If the children failed to help, the mother was given the daily allotment of money to use as she desired.

Brother Miller explained that this win-win situation was good for each person in the relationship. He said that most nights the children, working together, had things cleaned up in about five minutes. She would just sit at the table with a huge smile on her face and watch them go to work.

Remember that the failure to communicate or listen effectively can create conflicts, but using proper tools, communicating effectively, and listening effectively can reduce or eliminate contention, said Brother Miller.

“Brothers and sisters, we often create conflict and confusion because we haven’t worked it out,” said Brother Miller. A person must have a desire in a relationship to work things out so that eventually the Saints can become a Zion people.