Last week we explored why silence is an unexpected friend for most small-group leaders. Now we need to take a look at an even more sinister landmark of the small-group experience: Conflict.
Happens to the Best of Us
Let’s get one thing straight: All groups experience conflict. It may be subtle — it may simmer below the surface and never boil over — but any time you gather imperfect people together and ask them to “do life” together on a regular basis, conflict will happen. People will get frustrated. Personalities will clash. Priorities will be questioned. Relationships will get strained.
Surprisingly, these kinds of conflict aren’t always a negative occurrence in a small group. In fact, conflict can often produce growth and deeper relationships.
When it’s handled correctly, that is.
How to Harness the Power of Conflict
Obviously this is a big topic, and you don’t want to intentionally create conflict within your group for any reason. But when conflict occurs, there are a few things you can do to take advantage of the situation.
First, don’t attempt to eliminate conflict when it makes an appearance. That’s a common response for group leaders. If people start getting a little chippy or angry, many group leaders attempt to change the subject or somehow mediate the discussion in order to calm things down. But that’s not always the best response.
Conflict usually happens because people are experiencing strong emotions. And strong emotions are a great catalyst for growth — they give the Holy Spirit some “purchase” to work with in a person’s heart. So, by squashing a conflict at the very beginning, you eliminate any chance for your group members to make use of their strong feelings and reactions.
Second, help people examine the roots of their strong feelings. Once you see that two or more people are reacting strongly to a topic, idea, or conversation, one of the best things you can do is simply point out what’s going on. “Rob, it seems like you’re passionate about this conversation. Why is that?” “Tina, I get the impression you’ve thought about this subject quite a bit. Is that right?”
By giving your group members a chance to explore and articulate why they feel strongly about something, you can often diffuse a potentially painful situation. (People are less likely to argue pointlessly about something like alcohol, for example, when they know that someone in the group had an alcoholic father.) You also help group members get to know each other on a deeper level.
Third, don’t be afraid to step in when necessary. As a group leader, one of your main responsibilities is moderating a discussion. And sometimes that means stepping in to “table” a conversation until a later time. If group members are starting to argue pointlessly about a subject, don’t try to extinguish their conversation. Rather, ask them to continue it at another time so that the group can move back to the topic at hand. Again, this allows people to discuss deeper issues in private, which can increase relational bonds.
Once again, I am not encouraging you to seek out conflict within your group. I also think there are times that conflict can be damaging — especially when people start to get mean or insulting.
But for the most part, conflict isn’t something you should fear. Rather, it’s an event you can harness to improve the overall health of your group.
—Sam O’Neal is author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders (available now from InterVarsity Press!) and an editor for LifeWay Christian Resources.