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Belief Systems and Conflict

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When I tell people that a significant portion of my work includes working with churches in conflict, I receive one of two reactions.  Either the person says, “Oh, poor you.”  Or they say, “What?  I didn’t know churches had conflicts.”  Immediately, of course, I know whether the person with whom I am speaking goes to church.  But whether the person goes to church or not, the widespread assumption in society is that churches should be places of harmony, grace and forgiveness to the degree that conflicts should not typically emerge in this context. Yet, many of you reading this blog will know of situations where individuals and congregations have fallen into such disastrous conflict it appears they may never emerge, or at the very least, when they do emerge they will do so with deep wounds.  The easy answers to why good people end up in bad conflict might be that “nobody is perfect”, that “conflict is normal” or that “some situations are bigger than the people involved.”  All of these statements are true, but there must be other, deeper ways of exploring this dynamic.

According to conflict theorist Morton Deutsch, those who hold core values of cooperation tend to exhibit cooperative behaviours even in times of conflict.  These, in turn, generate cooperative outcomes, which reinforce cooperative values and behaviours.  Likewise, competitive core values induce competitive behaviours, which generate win-lose outcomes.  These reinforce competitive values and behaviours.  While research supports this hypothesis, it also presents a curious problem:  One frequently encounters people who espouse great cooperative values and beliefs with respect to conflict, yet in times of conflict still behave quite competitively and destructively.  These same people will say that they wish to resolve their conflict, yet in reality they find ways – often unknowingly – to escalate and entrench their dispute.  This occurs so frequently one can only assume that one of the following must be true:

A)  The inner belief system of the parties involved prefers a conflicted state, even when they suggest otherwise.  In other words, more deeply hidden values, competitive and destructive in nature, actually act as the driving forces for these parties.

B)  The parties in conflict lack adequate skills to behave according to their values.

C)  The pattern of being in a conflicted state is so deeply entrenched in the lives of the people involved, the parties involved neither recognise the disconnect with their values nor do they know any longer how to live any differently than they do.

There is certainly plenty of evidence for Option B.  Many who espouse cooperative values do so out of a fear of conflict to the degree that they miss learning the skills for managing differences well.  There is also significant evidence for Option C.  Over time, parties in conflict can become conditioned to behaving toward the other in destructive ways – even to their own detriment – such that they hardly notice or can imagine an alternate option.   In other words, the parties involved have come to depend on the existence of conflict to such a degree they have constructed their identity around it.  The parties do not actually see that their values and their behaviours do not match.

But what about the first of the three options above (Option A)?  Is it that many of our congregations actually have two belief systems – the one they espouse and the one they actually live?  In my experience this is not unusual.  Nor is it necessarily malicious in intent.  Many (most?) people – congregations included – live with two or more contradictory belief systems.   The outer, publicly approved belief system is typically positive while the inner, real but hidden belief system is less so.  Instead, inner beliefs can be based on inherited prejudices, fears, old wounds and ways of being which are quite inconsistent with one’s espoused beliefs.  When conflict happens, outer belief systems lose their power and the inner fear-based system takes over, causing people to behave in ways with which they would normally disagree.  The inner belief system can be so buried people may not even be conscious that it exists – even though this drives so much of their conflict behaviour.  Unfortunately, because this belief system is largely unconscious, it is also much harder to change.  To align one’s inner belief system with one’s outer beliefs – to live according to one’s espoused values – requires at least three things of the self:  Humility (as one accepts the gap between one’s espoused values and behaviour), a willingness to suffer (as one discovers how one has impacted others) and self-compassion (because the journey toward alignment is never finished).

The good news is that the journey toward alignment is full of promise and possibility.   Humility, suffering and self-compassion, as defined above, become the refiner’s fire by which the self is transformed and by which the self is moulded ever more fully into the image of God.  The promise is joy and a lightness of being.  The possibility is an increasing ability to engage in conflict in a manner that is life-giving – for all involved.  Inner and outer belief systems can align after all.

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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.   Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.

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