Engaging Conflict and Learning to Listen

By Scott Hughes

Courageous Conversations

How could anyone write 300 pages on listening? That was my first thought when I was assigned to read a 300-page book on the topic. My assumptions included: listening is innate; everybody is relatively good at it; there is little to learn about the task of listening. My presumption was that the author had to be a terrible writer. However, my takeaway from the book was that Americans, including myself, are terrible listeners. Today, I would add that our culture does not shape us to be good listeners. In high school and college, we require students to take a class in speech. I am not aware of any requisite classes in listening.

The same lack of shaping is true regarding conflict. Many, including myself, describe themselves as conflict-averse. We are not good at dealing with conflict in our relationships, and we seem especially conflict-averse at church. It would be easy to assume that values such as compassion and mercy would aid in a church knowing how to handle disagreements. But combined with inferior listening skills, most churches either deal poorly with conflict, or avoid it altogether. Also at work is the myth that good Christians are to be nice and thus don’t disagree or argue (this seems especially true when in “God’s house.”) The reality is that we haven’t been formed — by church or culture — to effectively handle our disagreements. In a partisan culture, disagreements among church members are many and deep. Yet, we often continue to act politely. When disagreements do surface, we act as if we’re listening when we’re really thinking, “If they would just listen to me, they would have solved this already,” or “Where in the Bible did they get that idea?” or “What are they teaching in that class or that church?”

The first step to remedy this situation is to begin to see conflict as advantageous. That’s right — conflict should be welcomed, not avoided. When we encounter conflict, we have the opportunity for growth and learning.

The second step is to learn and resolve to be better listeners. It is tempting to desire unity, conformity, or polite agreement when we really need to take the more difficult steps of discerning our differences. In our churches, there are a variety of political ideologies, theological spectrums, biblical hermeneutics, and so on. Instead of pretending those don’t exist, what if we become a culture that intentionally engages in conflict and listens? What if we listen for and raise up points of disagreement? What if we listen for life-shaping experiences that undergird our beliefs? What if we learn to listen and to be a culture that listens? What if the church becomes a model community of compassion and mercy?

Nowhere in Scripture does it say that unity equals uniformity. We shouldn’t strive for uniformity. Or as Drew McIntyre reminds us in his recent blog post, “Unity is not the God I worship.” Instead of seeking unity, what if we pursued being a culture of listening that demonstrates compassion and mercy? Jesus stated that the church will be known for how we demonstrate love. Perhaps if we, as faith communities, were intentional about learning to listen better and demonstrate mercy and compassion, then our local communities would be curious to discover the root of our commitments to one another as disciples of Jesus Christ seeking to transform the world. Do we have the courage it will take to enter Courageous Conversations?

Reflection Question for Church Leaders:

  • How do you call attention to disagreements that exist in your church?
  • How do you create healthy environments to engage conflict?
  • What steps can you take to help disciples become more curious and better listeners?

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