Conflict is inevitable. Being a jerk is optional.

Dear member of the human race:

I know you. You have a sincere desire to play nice with all the other members of the human race. That’s an excellent goal. The Bible even challenges us, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

What’s more, getting along with others increases your chances of making friends, making money, finding romance, raising decent kids, and doing other stuff you want to do.

But conflict, as you already know, is inevitable. And it seems to be on the increase. Without getting too specific, recent months have seen polarizing hostilities spring up from politics, civil unrest, generational misperceptions, military invasions, social agendas, class warfare, unfair taxation, royal riffs, Oscar assaults, billionaire buyouts, and holiday gatherings with our extended families.

It’s clear that playing nice is not always easy. Still, for the most part, reasonable people (like you) are sincerely seeking peaceful solutions to a wide range of ongoing differences of opinion. Even so, your pride and ego want no part of any quick fix that requires you to be a wimp or settle for a compromise that leaves everyone unsatisfied.

The answer begins with the revelation that conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact, when approached with wisdom, common sense, and a whisper of optimism, conflict can often be a force for good. Examples are easy to come by:

On a high school baseball team, the two best athletes inevitably want to play shortstop. A good coach will use that rivalry to make the entire team better. Plus, those two boys who started the season as enemies will invariably become best friends.

Manufacturers may panic when they ship a defective product concerned about damage to their reputation. But a well-run customer service department effectively mitigating a crisis can often improve their reputation and secure a loyal client for life.

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis nearly launched World War III. But dealing with that conflict led to the infamous “hotline” between the White House and the Kremlin keeping the peace for more than 50 years. Someday historians will wonder why presidents Biden and Putin failed to reach for that red phone early in 2022.

When I lead marriage retreats, I’ll ask, “How many of you have hit bottom in your marriage?” About half the couples will raise their hands. With a wry smile I’ll add, “Ain’t it great?” The nodding heads and laughter confirm that couples who endure a rough patch or challenging season have stronger and longer marriages.

For decades, Union Auto Workers and the Big Three Automakers made headlines with their contentious negotiations. Yet, even during the grandstanding and posturing, both sides knew that when they finally came out of those smoke-filled rooms, a fair contract would be signed and well-built cars would keep rolling off the assembly lines.

An intervention organized for an alcoholic uncle is certainly preceded by all kinds of painful chaos and conflict. However, done right, he gets the message, goes to rehab, and God works a miracle.

Without conflict there would never be any reason for heroes, mentors, compromise, empathy, rules, reconciliations, or apologies. All good things!

James 1:2-3 reminds us that conflict can test and strengthen our faith, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

We think of our workplace as the most obvious place for conflict, but really it’s our family and social relationships that may be the most blatant source. Just about everyone has memories of one, two, or twenty uncomfortable Thanksgiving gatherings. Lifelong friendships are often built on conflict as individuals find themselves vying for recognition in academic pursuits, on sports teams, or on the job with people of similar age, interests, and abilities.

Perhaps the most exasperating conflict conundrums come as a surprise. Your lovely niece is planning her wedding and suddenly your family gets sucked into her bridezilla vortex. While driving home from a nice evening out, red flashing lights appear in your rearview mirror. I’ll never forget the surprising conflict early in my marriage when Rita and I found ourselves locked in a relentless battle in the supermarket peanut butter aisle over creamy vs. crunchy.

In other words, there’s a lot riding on the challenge of how to resolve conflicts. That’s all the more reason we need to have an effective plan for dealing with them. In every case, we have a responsibility to ask the question: Do you want to escalate or de-escalate?

Answering that question will determine whether or not you pick up a copy of my latest book, Don’t Take the Bait to Escalate: Conflict is Inevitable. Being a Jerk is Optional.

I hope you do.

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