I often get invited to serve in organizations as part of their attempts to diversify. I tend to take my Esther moments pretty seriously. If I’m the only woman of color sitting in a space (or one of a minority), then I believe that I am there for “such a time as this.” I speak up. I try to imagine who is not being represented in or served by the conversation. I offer alternative points of view, even if they aren’t my own. I’m the perennial “Yes, but…” person in the room. I’m that board or faculty member who is always going to ask the question or offer the rebuttal when no one else does.
Doing that is hard. It takes a lot of energy to be the outlier. It’s even more difficult in organizations with a conflict-avoidant culture. In those spaces, every utterance that differs from the normative or authoritative viewpoint – no matter how diplomatically delivered – is treated like it’s a betrayal or insubordination. In those cases, the outliers are not seen as offering a different perspective. They are seen as being disruptive or even creating tension.
In one meeting, for example, a male colleague and I had a disagreement about models of leadership. It was another space in which I was an outlier in multiple ways: a progressive African American womanist theologian in a room full of moderate and mostly male evangelical organization leaders. During a broader conversation, my colleague had suggested several authors who, he believed, embodied the standardly accepted understanding of what good leadership ought to look like. When I pointed out that all of his exemplars were men, he responded that gender had nothing to do with leadership.
You can imagine how that went over. He and I went back and forth a few rounds of verbal sparring. Both of us were respectful, calm, and receptive, yet firm in our convictions. That did not, however, prevent other people in the room from panicking over our open and persistent disagreement. “Are you two okay?” several people approached me to ask during a break. The question confused me at first. Then I realized that people assumed that our conflict meant that there had been a rupture in our relationship. They could not imagine that we could have an unresolved difference of opinion and still be collegial.
This pattern plays out frequently in Christian organizations, including congregations, parachurch organizations, and seminaries. Many Christians, it seems, think that conflict is synonymous with hostility. Thus, their strategy for managing conflict becomes preventing it from emerging. This often shows up as an excessive focus on niceness, a peculiar hallmark of predominantly White, middle and upper class Christian communities. The South and the Midwest even have their own names for it: “Minnesota nice” and “Southern hospitality.” It emphasizes conformity with group norms, keeping up the appearance of friendliness, and minimizing disagreement.
Notably, therapists think of conflict in a very different way. When I was finishing my doctorate in clinical psychology, I spent my internship year working on a family therapy clinical trial study. When we brought new families into the study, we did a comprehensive assessment that included several videotaped interactions. In one exercise, we instructed families to plan a dinner menu that included an entrée, two side dishes, a beverage, and dessert. One of the main points of this task was to help us understand how the family expressed and resolved conflict.
The therapeutic definition of conflict is simple: a difference of opinion between two or more people. In this sense, conflict was not inherently bad; in fact, it was evidence of the family’s capacity to allow and cope with self-differentiation among its members. In a healthy family system, members have both a strong sense of group cohesion as well as clearly developed individual identities. The way in which families managed the dinner exercise told us something about that. On this task, a healthy family was one in which people offered different ideas about what they wanted, and then they worked through it to agree upon a menu that accommodated some, although not necessarily all, of those differences.
In contrast, there were several types of unhealthy patterns. In a common one, a powerful family member simply announced what the menu would be, and everyone tacitly agreed without actually discussing it. In these families, people clearly did not want to address differences or disagreements. They tended to downplay or negate all problems or difficulties in relation to disagreements. When disagreements did emerge, they often refused to participate in the discussion or reacted defensively. For them, conflict was dangerous; it threatened the family’s cohesion or the authority figure’s power. The message was clear: respect, closeness, and harmony are dependent upon silence and submission.
At an extreme end, the absence of conflict results in groupthink, wherein differences or disagreements are repressed in order to maintain peace and harmony within an organization. With groupthink, even when an idea is bad, everyone goes along with it because they don’t want to rock the boat. This is what happened during the Bay of Pigs invasion. A roomful of very bright and talented people did not want to disappoint their charismatic president, so no one expressed their concerns about his plan to invade Cuba. The consequence was the most embarrassing failure of John F. Kennedy’s administration.
Conflict is not a threat than needs to be prevented or extinguished. It is an important dynamic for the growth and health of any organization. In fact, as Margaret Kornfeld states in her book, Cultivating Wholeness, the healthier that a community is, the more potential there is for conflict to emerge. Perhaps this is the understanding of conflict that the author of Proverbs had in mind when they wrote, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another” (Prov. 27:17 NRSV).
When conflict is expressed, acknowledged, and worked through, it can be a blessing that facilitates growth, strength, and positive innovation. The challenge for us is to learn how to be comfortable with the tension that conflict creates. After all, we don’t want to block the blessing.