Why do we do conflict so badly?

Angry scene - couple and mother-in-law

Why do we get so interested in the conflicts of others? There is a viral email doing the rounds from a potential mother-in-law to her potential daughter-in-law. It makes for excruciating but fascinating reading. It is a car-crash of an email for both sender and receiver.

But what fascinates me more is how bad we are at dealing with conflict. Let us assume that neither side in the dispute in case is awful. Let’s assume that the prospective daughter-in-law managed to unwittingly upset her mother-in-law. Let’s assume that the mother-in-law was deeply upset and didn’t know how to deal with the situation.

But most of us have similar stories (maybe not as extreme) but never-the-less real awful stories where we have been badly hurt by others. Where what has been said has led to deep anger and hurt.

So how should we deal with these situations?

My first piece of advise would be to try not to get into the dreadful situation in the first place.


Well, don’t do conflict over email (or letter either for that matter). Email is remote. It allows for views to be expressed without the give and take of voice and facial expressions. I remember having a “flame war” with the head of development in my previous employment. Email followed email to each other. The circulation list got larger and larger. We worked on the same floor. Eventually the President of the company intervened and told us to speak together and to stop being so stupid. It worked. Sometimes these email flame wars can lead to such entrenched views that there is no way that we can back down without loss of face.

If you have to write an email don’t do it until you are calm. Sleep on it. Every time I reply to a “seemingly” angry email on the same day disaster strikes! I tend to read them in the worst possible light and respond accordingly.

Not good.

Not good at all.

Remember too that once you have sent an email that you no longer have control of it.

Assume that anyone could read it.

Anyone at all.

That also applies to someone receiving the email and sending it to friends – as in this case – you lose control of it.

In this case how on earth will they be able to speak with each other? How on earth will the situation be recovered? It seems hard and even more so given the public nature of the situation.

What about the two men in this situation? Caught in the middle of this.

A phrase that resonated with me recently was “what you don’t say runs you”. In other words if you feel unable to tell someone something that riles you it will mess with you and dominate you. So how can you deal with this situation in a positive way? Well my advice (and it would be good to hear others views) would be:

Think carefully about raising an issue and make sure that you can calmly consider it first.

Don’t react on the spur of the moment. As the book of proverbs says:

Those with good sense are slow to anger Prov.19.11

Look to yourself first and see whether there is anything that you need to deal with in your own attitude to it before tackling the person.

Separate out the issues. The problem is often the latest of a series of “offences” and that this one tipped you over the edge. Keep to discussing an issue and don’t let yourself be side-tracked. But also don’t let it develop into a wide-ranging attack – that becomes, like this case, too damaging.

Don’t attack the person or someone that they love. Talk about how the behaviour made you feel and the impact of the behaviour on you or others.

Try to find things to affirm them in although don’t use a “but” in there. For instance telling them how good they are at some things BUT then saying something is awful means that the person will never hear the positive. A “but” in a sentence negates what went before the “but”. Separate them out. Tell them the things that are positive. Then make sure that they have heard that. Then raise the issue maybe with a question – “I was just wondering what you meant when you said…..?” or similar. Questions extract information and maybe some understanding of what they may be feeling. Within the context of those questions we can then ask questions of how something may have made you feel.

I remember at theological college having a dispute with my summer placement incumbent. Who was determined to mis-represent me. When I tried tackling him I got nowhere. It was only when I asked questions that he started processing what I was saying.

Good conflict can help people grow in understanding and regard for one another. Bad conflict often leads to alienation and separation. The taking of sides and long-lasting damage.

Something like the conflict described in most papers today will probably require mediation to get anywhere. It may well be too late already. Or there will be silence between the parties.

As the father of the bride-to-be is quoted as saying

 ‘I don’t care if she apologises. You can’t take back what has been said once it’s said.

That is the point. Once things have been said it is more difficult to unravel things and to get to a point of forgiveness.

It is possible. It requires openness and honesty and a preparedness, by both parties, to want reconciliation.

So, what are your tips to help you when there is a conflict?


7 comments on “Why do we do conflict so badly?

  1. Geoff C
    June 30, 2011 at 7:27 pm #

    I think you covered that pretty well Will.
    I find, more and more, that knee jerk reactions are bad reactions
    It is nearly always better to sleep on it and take time to chew a situation over before any kind of response (not always possible I know).
    Sending an e-mail can be disasterous unless you are really sure it is what you want to say and that it will stand up to others reading it.
    also – I often decide not to react at all and wait to see how it pans out. someone may say or do something I am not happy with – but invariably a few days later they will come back and say something like they were out of order or having a bad day and hope I didn’t take it to heart (or something like that).
    We really need to be wise in these situatons

  2. Will Cookson
    July 1, 2011 at 12:03 pm #


    I think that you are right. It often is the case that silence can be an effective response. The problem is when people show very little self-awareness and then it can need tackling in, hopefully, a good way.

  3. Esther Somerson
    July 3, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    A couple of your blogs, lately, Will have the tone of you being hurt by something or people. Things about community and grumbling and not listening, things as you state above.

    One cannot offer advice but maybe thoughts. Sometimes people challenge one another, like my Bishop said yesterday at a fabulous celebration followed by community and food – with a marquee ( spelling probl’y wrong). Try to take time away and just ‘be’ in God’s silence and there you and others will find peace. There are so many promises in the Scriptures. A friend once gave me a promise box ..poss you know of them.
    I went for a walk today and a man saved my life. He and his wife

    saw me not concentrating at a new type of crossing. He apologised incase he upset me . I thanked him and may never

    see him again. Makes one think one must have a purpose in being.

  4. Esther Somerson
    July 3, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    P.S. I was unable to add text above but was unsure about your bit re the virus and if one opens it then it might cause a PC problem. Some of us are ‘allergic’ to mother’s in law. Some of us do wish our men had had the strength to wean themselves away from the milk but they never do….and like you say for some it is too late. M-i- l jokes often other way around about men’s m-i-l. Women should never do some things to one another – people should never. But we have a good an gracious God and He can help us move on. Hope yr party in yr park as good as Ours was into last night….and sun filled, same as ours was. God Bless.

  5. Will Cookson
    July 4, 2011 at 4:03 pm #

    Hi Esther,

    Interesting your thought about conflict and whether I am feeling hurt by it at the moment. Actually I’m not. If anything I am aware that conflict done well can help. I was struck by something someone said recently and realised that there are aspects of it that, done well, can help – within relationships and within teams – and I am reflecting on it “out loud” if you like. Done well it can help a team to ensure that the best advice is being offered and received for example rather than saying things not to offend or discomfort us.

  6. Esther Somerson
    July 5, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

    Yes I did realise that a poss – re what you state above, because someone I know puts a statement on a social network site to see what debate it provokes…clever plagiarist!! Surprised vicars don’t get handling conflict training. Did you mean effective handling of conflict in ‘done well’ or did you mean that conflict itself can be done well? Some people do conflict brilliantly and they don’t half become nonplussed when somebody who is trained shows others how to stop doormatting and explain the side issues of ‘turning the other cheek’. Lotsof Christian issues point to forgiveness, absolutely lovely and reassuring in lot of circs but never change some people’s vitreol and spite and best get out of situations.Googled yr e.g and hope the woman drops
    Freddie, like astone!!

  7. Esther Somerson
    July 5, 2011 at 6:56 pm #

    She was diabetic so the bit about ‘demanding’ her own food from the prospective m-i-l showed the m-i-l’s ignorance of the young lady’s health – or maybe she wanted to see her go into a hypo to find out if she was genuine…. it is not Freddie’s natural mother anyway. I found it very interesting. This might be an idea for an agony aunt web site -expect loads of them already, ha, ha. Or if she doesn’t drop Freddie like a stone hope they get to live miles away. Maybe the woman deliberately sent mail so it would be shared – am sure you thought of that poss too.
    ‘Mary had a little lamb’ once given by barrister in a lecture re how many definitions. Spoken / written – fascinating. ‘In the beginning…

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