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Face-saving Models of Conflict Resolution
There are ways to resolve conflict without direct confrontation. These indirect approaches can be critical to "preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

The first assignment I was given by the national bishop of the church was to dismiss a pastor. We had just completed six months of language and cultural learning in a village setting in western Zambia. We had now moved into town. We were ready to begin our ministry of leadership development in the church. With only one trained pastor for every 20 plus church congregations, letting one go from the outset was not what I had on my agenda. But the bishop had spoken, and the task was clear.

… I was told not to "beat around the bush"…

Or was it? Thankfully I knew a little something about characteristics of a collectivistic culture, and had already established a friendship with a cultural insider. I went to him and asked his counsel on how to go about this not so pleasant task of confronting a brother I hardly knew. His immediate response, "Brother David, you have to learn the skill of beating around the bush!"

I came from a context where from an early age I was told not to "beat around the bush," to "tell it like it is" and "get to the point," all reflective of our direct approach to relationship. Now I had to learn to tell a story in such a way that by the time I got to the bad or hard news, the recipient was prepared to receive it. This would be the first of many opportunities to practice this and a number of other models of indirect or face- saving conflict resolution.

Following are descriptors of a few of these models:

1. Storytelling: This was the approach the prophet Nathan took when confronting David, on behalf of God, about his sins of adultery and murder (see 2 Samuel 12). He laid out a story with which the confronted could identify, and make application, and then broke the hard news of what and who it was really about. Of course prayer and the conviction of the Holy Spirit are critical in the process, especially when it is about sin, but then again, most breaks in relationship are about just that.

2. Mediator: I struggled with the use of a mediator in light of Jesus' instruction given in Matthew 18:15, which specifically engages a context of privacy—"just between the two of you." It was not until I understood some of the dynamic of identity in a collectivistic culture that the common use of a mediator began to make sense. In our world, with our independent orientation, one's sense of identity is tied to the individual in question, and mediators are often told to "mind their own business." In the majority world, one's identity does not stand alone, but is derived from one's connectedness to others in community. A mediator is an extension of myself (and the other party) in that context. Both parties in the conflict, and the parameters of privacy, as understood by those involved, are not breeched.

3. One-down: A major missing ingredient in many of our relationships is known as a "transfer of trust." Much of our effort to build trust is contingent on our retaining control. In times of conflict we respond with hurt feelings that we are not being trusted, and so often respond by asserting our "rightness." The "one-down" approach releases control and suspends our rights. So it is risky. It transfers trust to the other person involved. Essentially, it places responsibility for our well-being into the other's hands, asserting both their authority and ability. The concern for saving face, ours and theirs, moves them to bring help and resolution to the problem being addressed. Asserting our rights and control would produce just the opposite result.

There are other indirect approaches that some will engage, such as inaction and indefinite responses. These approaches tend to be less helpful in actually resolving conflict since they simply avoid conflict. For sure, one of the greatest challenges for many of us is to take a less direct approach to resolving conflict. Yet as we interact and minister in an increasingly multicultural context, amongst many who come from a face-saving value system, learning these indirect approaches is critical to "preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3).

Dave Roberts is the missions mentor in the department of student life at Tynale.

Originally published in Connection, Summer 2008.




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