Guidebook iI: Navigating Relational Challenges
How to support your group to navigate conflict.
From the moment they wheeled the patient into the bay, Gareth knew the man was going to die. As a medical trainee, Gareth’s role was to hover in the background until an extra pair of hands was needed to fetch, hold in place or adjust something. He was an omniscient observer, watching both the medical procedures and the unravelling family dynamics. They were equally messy. The anaesthetist met the eyes of the surgeon, and both nodded. They pronounced the time of death and removed their gloves. Gareth was asked to show the mother and siblings of the deceased to a family room. The journey did not take more than three or four minutes, but each step was heavier than the last as he fell privy to the grief of the family.
That evening, as Gareth took his seat at the Bible study, it was a struggle to maintain focus. The Guide was saying something about that week’s topic, but Gareth drifted in and out of the conversation. Notes that he had made several days previous now seemed unimportant and he could not bring himself to participate in the discussion.
He knew it was not fair to take it out on Susan. Her statement about suffering was well-intentioned, but he had lost all sight of reason. Gareth cut her down to size in a few short statements and ignored the silence that followed. When the Guide asked a simple question about respect, he knew it was aimed at him.
“I’m really sorry,” he said, glancing in Susan’s direction. “Work was really hard today.”
The Guide graciously acknowledged his apology, and Gareth was grateful that she did not probe any further. At the end of the evening, Gareth prayed for the family he had met that day. One by one, his friends offered words of truth and hope for the situation. He was buoyed by their care for him.
People communicate in different ways. Some use confrontation as a way of seeking connection, while other members may misinterpret this as aggression. Others lash out if they feel threatened or if they believe their perspective is not welcome. For some, it takes a lot of courage to share thoughts out loud.
When relational dynamics disintegrate in your group, you may need to intervene. Here is a helpful checklist for you to use when working out whether to weigh in or not.
Is the method of communication respectful for everyone involved?
Regardless of the heart behind people’s opinions, if they are not articulated in a way that honors other Group Members, a gentle reminder to adjust the tone might be helpful.
Are Group Members moving towards or away from one another?
Trust is essential in your group. People will not feel safe sharing their opinions, if they do not trust the ones with whom they are sharing. If debate becomes heated before the relationships are developed enough to hold the tension, you will need to deescalate the discussion and move on to something else.
Is sharing all points of view accepted?
If you sense intolerance among Group Members, it may be necessary to draw attention to it. Individuals need to believe that sharing their perspective is valid, regardless of whether or not people agree with them.
In order to share the load of respectful communication, it can be helpful to outline a group manifesto in the early days of meeting together. This process should be collaborative, where you decide together on guidelines that govern how you treat one another. If everyone contributes to the charter, it is easier to hold one another accountable during challenging times. Here are some suggestions to get the ball rolling:
We will endeavor to speak to one another respectfully.
It is ok to disagree with one another.
We will ask permission before we challenge another person’s perspective on something.
It is acceptable to challenge an opinion, but it is not acceptable to attack the person sharing the opinion.
If we have a personal problem with another Group Member, we will approach the Guide first to facilitate the confrontation.
Once you have a list that the group is happy with, type it up, and send it round the group. You could insert it into a group chat or print copies of it out to share at the next Gathering.
Advice for You
Holding space for open and honest discussion can be challenging. Relational disputes will arise, so it is better to anticipate and embrace this rather than avoid it. Below are some things for you to think about as you support your group to navigate confrontation:
Don’t take it personally
Conflict, if handled well, has the potential to deepen relationships. You are there to offer gentle reminders of the charter you agreed to at the outset of your group. Relational challenges do not reflect poorly on you - unless you are unwilling to address them.
Have courage to speak out
As Group Guide, you need to support the right for your members to hold different perspectives. This takes courage, as well as an ability to step back and reflect what you are hearing. Often you will need to listen to the subtext of the conversation and draw that out. It is possible to walk that line gently but boldly.
Ask for help
If relational dynamics are breaking down in your group, ask for help. Approach a trusted Pastor or Elder for their insight into the challenge and, if necessary, seek mediation for situations that appear unresolvable.
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