Family Focus

Resolving Conflicts

Steps we can take to increase family harmony and foster spiritual growth.

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A number of years ago, emeritus law professor Gerald R. Williams participated in a panel discussion about religion and conflict resolution. A Jewish scholar explained his culture’s approach to disagreement over religious doctrine, saying that “we relish conflict because out of vigorous debate comes truth.” Williams, on the other hand, told the audience that many “in the Mormon culture avoid conflict like the plague.”

The wisdom in the LDS approach, Williams believes, is that it preserves harmony and unity within the Church while opening the door to revelation. A downside, he says, is that Latter-day Saints may overlook the fact that conflict in homes, families, and other relationships is a necessary and valuable part of mortal experience. You could say it is part of the Lord’s plan.

Conflict is part of the plan? Doesn’t the adversary use conflict to drive wedges between family members? He uses contention, says Williams. Contention arises when two or more people allow a conflict to fester and grow. Conflict is an early warning sign of contention. It is a mirror, showing us where we need to repent and improve. In Ether 12:27 the Lord makes this promise: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

How does the Lord show us our weakness? One of the ways, Williams says, is by permitting conflict, and to ensure a steady supply, he gave us families—parents, brothers, sisters, spouses, children, aunts, uncles—and family reunions. Conflicts are mirrors, reflecting back our weakness, our need for humility before the Lord, and our need to change.

Williams is an internationally ac­claimed expert in negotiation and conflict resolution. He has been a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and has taught seminars for dozens of organizations, including the U.S. Department of Justice, Apple Computer, and General Mills.

During his more than 30 years of experience, he has observed that when conflicts reach a point of contention or impasse, resolving them involves a five-step process. In mediating legal cases and in his own life, Williams has come to believe that taking these steps can move people from division toward harmony. An example of how his ideas might be applied to a struggling couple is provided by an LDS counselor who is familiar with Williams’ work.

A Couple in Conflict

Dean and Helen have been married for 22 years of mostly misery. He has a domineering personality and can be harsh and unyielding. She is more passive and has learned to exert power through manipulation, such as overspending and withholding affection. They fought frequently early in their marriage, but Dean almost always prevailed. Helen finally gave up having a say in decisions or even bringing up most problems. They live in a cold pattern of avoidance, punctuated by brief explosions on the surface that never get to the underlying problems.

Helen wants to end the marriage but cannot bear the thought of breaking her temple covenants. In a meeting with their bishop, Helen complains that Dean is a dictator while she works hard to be a good wife and mother. Dean insists he is behaving as an LDS man should—presiding and leading and making decisions. They appear to be at an impasse, but Williams’ five steps can help them transform their relationship. (It should be noted that no approach resolves every conflict. Also, in situations where either or both parties have a serious emotional disorder, professional help should be sought.)

The Five Steps

Denial. When conflicts come up, most of us believe the other side is the problem. It’s natural for us to think this, just as it’s natural for the other side to place the blame on us. If we remain stuck in these positions, we are refusing to let the Lord show us our weakness.

Both Helen and Dean are in denial about their part in the breakdown of their marriage. Helen conveniently failed to tell her bishop about her intentional manipulations of affection, her resentment of Dean, and her exploitation of family finances. Dean refuses to admit that he is not living gospel principles of kindness, gentle persuasion, and equality in marriage.

Acceptance. To reach resolution, the next step is to admit to ourselves the possibility that we are part of the problem. “If we can’t imagine that we’re part of the problem, we are unlikely to learn or grow from the conflict” says Williams. When the conflict is within our family, and is alienating us from an important person in our life, such as a spouse or a child, it’s all the more critical to be willing to shoulder our portion of blame. Even if we’re entirely innocent, we can accept the possibility there is something we can do now to move the conflict toward resolution.

A powerful way for Helen and Dean to move from denial to acceptance is to follow the pattern of Ether 12:27 and humble themselves before the Lord and petition him to teach them their weakness. Both will need the Lord’s help to discover the subtle ways they are contributing to the problem. A third party such as a bishop or an LDS counselor might be needed to help them overcome denial and recognize their negative patterns.

Sacrifice. Accepting our share of the responsibility is difficult. We prefer not to be the one who needs to change. In this sense, moving toward resolution requires sacrifice. “That sacrifice might be my pride. It might be my need to always be right,” says Williams. If a person tends to accommodate others too much, the sacrifice might be to give up the pleasing behavior and assert his or her needs, while a person who takes advantage of others might need to give more and take less. Pride in all its forms is almost always a necessary sacrifice.

To heal their relationship, Dean and Helen will both need to humbly ask the Lord for the strength to change. Helen will need to give up her manipulative behavior just as Dean gives up his domineering behavior. By pondering D&C 121 Dean might recognize his unrighteous dominion; then he can decide what to sacrifice in order to live more in harmony with gospel principles.

Leap of Faith. The fourth step is to take multiple leaps of faith for the relationship. This is risky, because the other person may not be ready to reciprocate. “Suppose I swallow my pride and apologize. It’s possible the other person will say, ‘Well, you darn well better apologize, because it’s all your fault!’” Williams suggests when we’re unsure how the other will respond, begin with small leaps of faith to test the water. “Leaps of faith open us to the chance of being exploited or ridiculed, but also to the opportunity to change, forgive, and be forgiven.”

Helen’s vulnerability will be exposed if she shares with Dean what it feels like to be controlled and to hide her feelings from the person she once loved so much. It’s risky, too, for Dean to communicate the reasons for treating Helen with disrespect. Each might take advantage of the newly expressed vulnerability of the other, but if they both keep trying, the chances are good that these first leaps of faith will begin to bridge the gulf between them. They will need to make more leaps, such as giving up power, apologizing, and forgiving. This process will take time and the road may be rough—even very rough—for a while, but continued effort will yield improvement.

Renewal. It may take many tries, but Williams believes that this process can bring a change of heart toward our loved ones and that our relationships can experience a healthy renewal. He has found this to be true in his own marriage. “I have noticed that when my wife and I are out of sorts with each other, and we work our way through this process, trust is increased and our bond is strengthened.”

As Dean and Helen persisted in their determination to learn from their conflicts, they eventually built a partnership more satisfying than either thought possible. Neither changed overnight, but over time they learned to talk more openly, to trust each other with their thoughts and feelings, and to be, more often than not, truly of one heart and one mind.

Learning from Our Conflicts

If we can move through these steps, our hearts will open to new possibilities and we will gain insights into building stronger relationships. As Helen faced the conflict in her marriage, she discovered she was not as honest as she thought she was. She learned that resolution means giving up hidden agendas and subversive behavior to become a person of integrity. When Dean was willing to join this process, he was able to give up his unrighteous dominion and became a person more like the Savior—both gentle and strong. At the end of the journey from conflict to resolution was a strong and loving marriage.

From everyday conflict to deeper discord, Williams believes these five principles can work: “The Lord can bless us by helping us become conscious of our own fault in our conflicts and giving us courage to repent and change. As we learn to let go of our weakness, trust is increased and relationships are renewed.”


Sue Bergin is a hospice chaplain and a writer in Orem, Utah.


Lessons Learned

• If you have the courage to face your conflicts early, they will be easier to resolve and to learn from.

• If you don’t learn from a conflict, wait a while and it will come around again until it either destroys a relationship or you learn from it.

• Working through a conflict can make a relationship feel worse before it feels better.

• Even if you’re in the right in a conflict, if you’re presumptuous and rash you will harm the relationship.

• Conflict is a good teacher only if you reflect on your conflicts and remember them.

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