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How to Engage Conflict in Small Groups

Depending on the severity of the conflict and who is involved, you may need an outside person to facilitate a resolution. If so, you will want to make that person’s role clear—to facilitate and mediate the resolution process, not to resolve the conflict themselves.

A Practical Method to Address Small Group Conflict

So how does a group enter into conflict resolution for the good of its members? Here are a few simple steps to work through:

  1. The group leader should define the conflict as he/she recalls it. “Our conflict is about the differences between Jim’s way and Mary’s way of engaging the group and the tension we and they are experiencing as a result.”
  2. Ask the group members if the conflict has been defined correctly as they recall it. Go around the circle and give each person an opportunity to respond. Some will have something to say; others may simply nod their heads in agreement.
  3. Ask, “How has this conflict felt to you?” Or, “What has been stirred up in you as the conflict has become evident?” The purpose here is to give each group member an opportunity to acknowledge and express their feelings. There is no right or wrong answer here. Silence or withholding does not support the conflict resolution process, so encourage everyone to speak.
  4. Invite group members to ask questions of any other group member for clarity. Be careful to make sure one person does not dominate this time so the process begins to lose momentum for the others.
  5. Ask each person: “What were you hoping would happen in this meeting?” “What did you want for yourself?” “What did you want for Jim, Mary or the group?”
  6. Ask each person what needs to happen for them to feel this is a safe and healthy group again. What a member may express may not necessarily be something the group can guarantee (e.g., the conflict will never happen again). The leader’s role is to make sure all have been heard and to stay engaged in the process for the sake of the group. Allowing the process to stall or wander will make the group feel unsafe and lose trust.
  7. Ask each person, “Can you recommit to this group?” If someone says “no,” go back to points 3 and 4 and try again. Typically, a group will want to get going again and not remain stalled.

This process relies on the integrity of the group to call one another out. At its best, it is a way for the body of Christ to minister to each other. Here are some questions for a leader to keep in mind during this process:

  • Did the people in the conflict hear one another accurately? It is often helpful to ask Jim what he heard Mary say. Then ask Mary, “Did Jim hear you accurately?” Reverse the process, asking Mary what she heard Jim say. Many conflicts escalate due to faulty perceptions as communication passes through each participant’s emotional filter.
  • Did each person take ownership of what they perceived to be his or her part in the conflict? If your group is at a stage where you can go deeper, these discipleship questions can lead to real change: 1) Is this a pattern in my life? 2) How does this pattern in my life affect those in relationship with me? 3) How do I feel about the way I impact others? 4) Of whom or what does this situation remind me?
  • Has any group boundary been broken? If so, is this something (or is there something else) we need to need to talk about now or later?

When you notice small group conflict be ready to pull out this list and walk through it. Believe me, your group will be grateful for you and your courage. Many of your group members live daily with chaos and conflict that never gets resolved, so your willingness to enter into conflict resolution is a real gift to them!

Mark Bonham; copyright © 2008 by the author and Christianity Today International.