By Linda Hart Green
“Why are they so angry?” Have you thought that after reading comments on social media? Have you wondered the same about yourself?
I had time to consider questions about anger and conflict when I took an administrative position in a region of my Protestant denomination. Part of my responsibilities was helping churches navigate conflict. Several things worked against me. I was new to the job and to the area. I was young. And I was a woman. I couldn’t do anything about a couple of those factors. But I could do something about my lack of knowledge.
I started studying everything available. I gained experience via trial by fire. I encountered situations that involved lots of yelling at me and others. I was physically barred at the door from attending a meeting. One angry man at the opposite end of an oblong table lifted his end of the table and slammed it down so that everything on the table slid in my direction. In church. No kidding. It was rough going.
I wondered why I had left my home state and comfortable position. I had been a pastor for over a decade but had not dealt with high levels of conflict. My former group had started a new church, bought an existing building and extensively renovated it. We used to say, “We are so busy rowing the boat, we don’t have time to rock it.” That wasn’t the case in my new job. Long established congregations were facing aging and declining membership, long deferred maintenance on old buildings and a growing theological divide between liberal and conservative views. I had to deal with cases of clergy misconduct, both sexual and financial. I learned not to take the heated feelings personally. It was very difficult because I like to be liked.
About that same time, Disney debuted its version of “Beauty and the Beast.” I went to see it as a distraction from work. When Mrs. Potts (with the voice of Angela Lansbury) sang the theme song, tears of surprise sprang into my eyes. The song was about conflict resolution. Before you scoff at the value of Disney song lyrics, read the parts that resonated with me written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menkin:
“Tale as old as time. True as it can be. Barely even friends, then somebody bends unexpectedly. Tale as old as time. Tune as old as song. Bittersweet and strange. Finding you can change. Learning you were wrong.”
Sometimes we are the beauty and sometimes we are the beast. Sometimes we are a little of both. Learning you were wrong can be a remarkable and humbling discovery. How can that happen? Through unexpected bending!
I wish I could tell you that all the conflicts can be well resolved. There are times when conflict is intractable. Rigidly held positions don’t allow for any bending. In one instance, I was called to attend a meeting of a church that was considering firing its pastor. At the worship service beforehand, the pastor stood in the pulpit, pointed at the congregation and called them, “You people!” That partnership would not be happily resolved.
Careful listening is another key to conflict resolution. Listening while formulating a comeback is not careful listening. When there is a lack of trust, it is best to repeat what you heard the other person say and then ask if what you heard was accurate. It will amaze you how often it is not.
The next steps are to ask the other to repeat what was said or to ask further clarifying questions before offering any response. This takes time.
T.R. Richards from the Nassau Racial Equality Coalition gave wise advice for effective communication at a recent event. He said, “Leave your ego at the door. Realize that disagreement is OK. Take no offense at different perspectives. Don’t assume you know what another person means. Speak your truth with grace.”
If we stop name calling and listen, unexpected bending is possible. Name calling is demonizing the other. When this happens, both sides see themselves as all beauty and the other side as all beast. Any form of othering pushes us further from identifying with the humanity of those with differing views.
Another strategy for approaching a conflictual situation is finding a wide-ranging outcome that encompasses the best interests of all involved. This is called a “superordinate goal.” Parties involved have to want to do this work and have cool enough heads to accomplish it. Brain science tells us that the “fight or flight” mode we enter when we perceive a threat prevents us from doing rational thinking and responding well.
One such goal for us on Amelia Island might be as simple as “we want Amelia Island to be here for future generations of all living things to appreciate and enjoy.” Everyone could consider what it would take to make it possible and what part they could play in creating solutions.
I wish I could go to the movies now and discover a methodology that would help us unravel the complex issues and tensions in which our community is embroiled. I can offer my experience and suggestions. There are many smart, caring, knowledgeable and skilled people here. We can think and act in ways that bring out the beast in us. Or we can get so busy working together on wide-ranging goals that we don’t have time to rock the boat. In doing so, we may find that we bend unexpectedly.
Linda Hart Green is Pastor Emeritus of Emmanuel Church, Ridgewood, New Jersey and co-owner of Shady Ladies Art Studios and Gallery in Fernandina Beach. She holds an M.Div. and a Certificate in Pastoral Leadership Development from Princeton Theological Seminary.