March 2016

Conflict: Is Everyone Being Heard?

We all do conflict. But we don’t all do it quite the same way. Finding live-giving ways forward in times of congregational conflict requires some awareness of and attention to the ways that culture and personality affect communication and participation in community conversations.

People of every culture, every shade of human experience, and every personality type, end up in conflict with others from time to time. Cultural expectations about communication in times of conflict vary widely. At the same time, conflict heightens our sensitivity to offense, rigidifying our sense of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable communication. In a multicultural environment, tensions and misunderstandings can arise quickly when we find ourselves without a mutually agreed upon set of rules and strategies for opening up communication. Norms developed in one cultural context may serve to silence some of the voices that need to be part of the conversation in order to move forward. Limits on acceptable ways of communicating will privilege some voices over others. Multicultural and multigenerational congregations will often need multifaceted strategies for eliciting input, and even for detecting the presence of conflict as it develops. Even in a congregation that is relatively homogeneous, a wide-open approach to seeking feedback may balance differences in personality and personal style.

Even knowing that conflict is brewing can be tricky if we aren’t attuned to the range of ways that people communicate. In cultures that prize direct communication, someone will usually tell you they are upset. A letter will be written, an item put on the vestry agenda, a combative question asked at the annual meeting. This may mean that the person who brings up the issue is the primary one with this problem. Or it may mean that there has been a long series of conversations among the disgruntled, and someone was finally designated to speak up. In less direct cultures, the cues may be much more subtle. Conflict may whisper around the edges, manifesting in general irritability over small issues, coming to the surface in the course of long, convoluted conversations that seem to be about anything and everything but the issue at hand. People who expect directness may be frustrated in trying to “get at the issue,” or may even miss the signs that conflict is happening. Those who have been raised to show respect through indirect communications may find direct expressions shocking or rude, and may find it impossible to bring their concerns straight to the table.

Some of the norms that come out of the dominant Episcopal culture are meant to make communication healthier. Yet they may have the opposite effect in a multicultural setting. For example, I often hear blanket condemnations of anonymity. Anonymous communications are viewed as cowardly and poisonous. My experience, however, is that there are some people who will never feel comfortable expressing their concerns without the option of anonymity. Putting a name on a critique of a position held by an elder, clergy person, or member of a dominant group may seem impossible. If we insist that all input must come with a name attached, some people will simply opt out of the conversation. Another dominant norm is the bias against “triangulation.” Triangulation is an oversimplification of an otherwise helpful concept in systems theory, but it has come to mean any communication involving a third party. I have a problem with you, so I tell someone else and they tell you. In a culture that values directness above all, this creates unnecessary obstacles and thwarts the goal of resolution through direct exchange or confrontation. In many cultural contexts, however, an indirect approach is a sign of respect for the status, age, or how beloved the person or people involved. Using a third party or even a complicated chain of third parties to effect communication can be a sign of the weight of the issues involved and the desire to preserve relationships.

If our primary goal in approaching conflict is strengthening our relationships in the service of ministry, we will want to find ways to bring as many voices into the conversation as possible. We will want to keep an eye out and an ear to the ground for both obvious and subtle signs that conflict is brewing. Being flexible enough to receive and perceive both direct and indirect communications will be essential. We will sometimes have to listen through long stories that wind through various subjects and territories before arriving at the most important points. Checking our impulses to assign negative labels to other people’s approaches and dismiss input that comes in surprising, unfamiliar or even rude-seeming formats will help us to hear what others are saying rather than focusing on how they are saying it. Moving forward in love will likely only be truly possible if everyone can find a way to be heard.

Try This
Understanding your congregation’s communication patterns (verbal and nonverbal) is a good first step towards strengthening relationships by encouraging healthier behaviors. Anna Olson suggests congregational leaders consider these questions:

  1. What are the signs that conflict is brewing in your congregation?
  2. What styles of communication are considered acceptable and unacceptable in your congregation?
  3. Who tends to be heard in times of conflict? Whose voices get left out?
  4. Are there ways you might expand the number of voices at the table?
  5. Could you create opportunities for both written and spoken feedback?
  6. Could you use small groups or mutual invitation to encourage people who are uncomfortable speaking up?
  7. How do you help people who tend to talk a lot to make space for people who tend to talk less?
  8. Are there patterns that reflect the diversity of race and culture in your congregation?
  9. Can you find respectful ways to ask people how they are most comfortable handling conflict?

Anna Olson is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary and Stanford University, and was ordained in the Diocese of Los Angeles in 2000. She lives and works in the diverse Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, serving since 2011 as rector of Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church, Los Angeles’ only historic Japanese-American Episcopal church. Her interests and expertise in parish ministry include working with historic congregations to connect with the needs and gifts of new neighbors; developing models for multilingual and inculturated liturgy; liturgy in public spaces; and opening space for marginalized communities to reshape and revitalize the church. She has a partner and two daughters, is fluent in Spanish and holds a second-degree black belt in taekwondo.

Anna's first book, Claiming Resurrection in the Dying Church: Freedom Beyond Survival, will be published by Westminster John Knox Press April 1, 2016. Also available through Amazon. Learn more here.


  • Making Room,” Nancy Davidge, ECF Vital Practices’ Vital Post

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This article is part of the March 2016 Vestry Papers issue on Conflict