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Transforming Church Conflict (Part 3)

By June 6, 2013 2 Comments

Nearly ten years ago I discovered a resource—a set of practices actually—that has contributed again and again to my capacity to stay connected to God, others, and myself in the midst of difference, disagreement, outright conflict, and institutional chaos. Unlike many models of conflict resolution, this one, Compassionate (Nonviolent) Communication, schools us in transforming conflict from the inside out. As such, it flies in the face of many of our assumptions: that conflict is primarily an external reality; that experts are needed in order to manage conflict; that compromise resolves conflict. Compassionate communication teaches us to focus on our internal experience of conflict and then to practice the simple (but far from simplistic or easy) skills of honesty, empathy, and self-empathy. These skills become concrete ways of loving God and neighbor as oneself when interpreted in light of the Gospel.

In my previous post, I discussed honesty as a way to “speak the truth in love.” Today, I take up empathy and self-empathy. In empathy, we set aside our own feelings and needs and life experiences in order to hear another person in all of their uniqueness. Fully attentive and receptive listening, which God first gives to us in Jesus Christ, is the paradigm for empathy. Yet such listening, if we are honest, is not easy. It does not come naturally. In fact, we are socialized to respond to others with all sorts of non-empathetic responses: giving advice, educating, minimizing their experience, trying to reassure them, persuade them, or control them.

As a finely honed skill, empathy involves hearing and acknowledging the spoken or unspoken needs within another person’s speech and action. In empathy, we listen for life-serving needs (understood as qualities that contribute to the flourishing of life, on one level, and analogies for life in God’s kingdom, on another level). Sometimes we make empathetic guesses to discern other’s needs. It doesn’t matter so much if our guesses are “right” or not.  What matters is the quality of the attention and presence that we bring to the other person. 

Transforming conflict involves not only honesty and empathy but also self-empathy.  In fact, self-empathy is indispensable to leading in the midst of conflict. In conflicted situations and relationships, criticism or angry words are often spoken with ease. In response to such messages, most of us resort to one of two reactions: we lash out or we lash in.

          1.  We lash out when we attack back. We hear the other as attacking or blaming us.  We might think we are justified in attacking them back. We might become intent upon proving ourselves right and the other wrong. Or we might see the other as deserving punishment for whatever we judge as wrong with their behavior or attitude. This lashing out leads to intensified anger and it promotes self-righteousness.

          2.  We lash in when we agree with and internalize the other’s harsh words. Now we criticize, blame or shame ourselves for whatever it is that we have done.  “I should have known better.”  “What an idiot I am; I can’t believe that I said that.”  “I’ll never learn.”  Lashing in leads to isolation, exhaustion, inability to make decisions, and even depression.

          3. Lashing in and lashing out aren’t our only options. We could empathize with the other person, translating their criticism or ad hominem attack into needs. We might wonder what would lead them to speak this way. In other words, we focus not on ourselves, our actions, but rather we focus on what matters most to them in this situation.

          4. The other option is self-empathy.  In self-empathy, we identify and value our own needs with the same kind of care that we offer to others in listening to them empathetically. In self-empathy, we place attention on our own thought processes, our judgments about ourselves and others, so that we can move out of self-blame into centeredness in our identity as children of God.

When undertaken as a Christian spiritual practice, self-empathy can lead to prayer. For God alone is ultimately the source of our needs. When our best efforts to transform conflict fall short, we find peace in God through Jesus Christ. When we fail to listen with empathy or speak with honesty, we find forgiveness and acceptance in Christ. When we lament our desperate unfulfilled desires, the Spirit of God sustains us by reminding us of God’s promises.

Take together, empathy and self-empathy may help us pray more like the psalmists. Too often in the church, our prayers are superficial. We often do not experience authentic fellowship because we do not break through to authentic confession, intercession, lament, or exuberant thanksgiving in the presence of one another. Not only conflict but also our very neediness before God and one another remains hidden. However, when we dare to pray to God and with one another with honesty and vulnerability, when we dare to name the the pain of ongoing conflict, we fellowship with each other. We break through to communion. This kind of honesty in prayer that flows from empathy and self-empathy transforms conflict because through it we actually love God and our neighbor as ourselves.


  • Anonymous says:

    What if one party in a conflict has authority over the other, and has a need for power over?

  • Theresa Latini says:

    Great question. Conflicted situations in which there is a power balance have another layer of complexity to deal with wisely (not naively). Yet it is precisely these skill sets, in my experience, that help us navigate through those tricky waters. This really calls for an extended conversation, but I'll try to be brief.

    If someone is operating out of a power-over posture rather than a power-with posture, then self-empathy becomes really important. Self-empathy gets us connected to our own internal power–to our choice, voice, and wisdom–at a bodily (not just intellectual) level. This prepares the way for speaking honestly to someone who has more external power in a given context and who seeks to use that power over us. We are less likely to be emotionally run over when we are grounded in our own internal power. Also, self-empathy may help us get clear on the various options before us, because self-empathy decreases anxiety, and anxiety decreases our capacity to think creatively and to act assertively.

    Though not guaranteed, persistent empathy and honesty may (and frequently do) lead to the other hearing us with respect and understanding. Persistence is the key–what NVC originator Marshall Rosenberg refers to as "dogging for our needs." Also, there are structured dialogue practices (discussed in the book) that support this kind of persistence.

    To think about this on a larger scale, empathy, honesty, and self-empathy are extremely helpful skills for folks working for social justice. Whether they are living in or confronting "domination systems," such folks report that these skill sets keep them from acquiescing to others, from villifying others, and from burning out.

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