My best tip for conflict resolution

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The argument seemed dramatic at the time. I thought we should organize our books by color and size. But John wanted to organize them by topic! We spoke past each other, made assumptions, and hurt each other's feelings. A simple difference in preference turned into real conflict.

But then John changed the course of the conflict. He reflected on what had happened and identified what he could take responsibility for. He came back to me and said: "I was wrong when I did ____. Will you forgive me?"

That opened up true dialogue.

Of course I forgave him. His act of maturity helped me think about what I had done wrong. I likewise asked for forgiveness.

We laugh about that argument now. From the beginning, instead of letting bitterness take root and grow, John has led our family in discussing our problems and moving on without resentment.

One of our children asked recently if we had a good book to recommend about conflict resolution. I don't know of a great book* (do you?), but I did share our best tip:

Ask for forgiveness (don't just say "I'm sorry").

Our society loves to gloss over conflicts with a simple "sorry." We use it for almost anything: "Oh, I'm sorry you're disappointed. I'm sorry your package came late. I'm sorry you feel overlooked." We like to shove off responsibility by "apologizing" without accepting responsibility for what we did. It's like punching someone in the arm and then saying "Oh, I'm sorry that your arm hurts." (As if we have nothing to do with that pain.)

But when John and I had some fights in our early days, he would think long and hard about what he did for which he could ask forgiveness. He would determine what was truly his fault. He would be the first to say:

When I did this, I was wrong, will you forgive me?

That formula is almost magical. The hurtful arguments we've had over the years have all been erased ... they're not festering into bitterness.

Here are some specific examples of what we might say to each other:

  • I was wrong when I assumed the worst about you instead of asking what happened and listening to your response. Will you forgive me?
  • I was wrong when I was so focused on finishing dinner that I didn't stop to listen to you when you had something important to share. Will you forgive me?
  • I was wrong when I lost my temper and accused you of not doing anything to help around the house. Will you forgive me?

It takes humility and courage to admit you've done something wrong. Especially if you think the conflict was 95% the other person's fault. But responses like those above seem to disarm the situation. They open up true communication again. They help you treat each other as real people again.

Saying sorry isn't enough. It's a thin blanket you can throw over the issue. You can say "I'm sorry" in a way that communicates, "Even though I'm really OK, and I'm right, I'd like this tension to be over, so I'm going to say I'm sorry."

But when you ask for forgiveness - wow! I'm here to tell you, it is as healing as anything you can come up with. You get to the heart of the issue by accepting responsibility for your wrongs. You admit that you're a fallible human, and you therein remember that you're dealing with another fallible human.

This is not a magic cure-all. But I give thanks that John helped us implement it early in our marriage. Perhaps God will use it in your family as you continue to grow in your own relationships.

And if you have your own tips for conflict resolution, please share them below. I'd love to hear your thoughts.


*After I wrote this, a trusted colleague suggested the The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, by Ken Sande. I haven't read it myself, but I've heard good things about the book.

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