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But I Had the Right of Way! Finding Our Way Out of Conflict
But I Had the Right of Way! Finding Our Way Out of Conflict

I’ve seen several versions of a cartoon which shows the unfortunate result of a traffic altercation – a person laid up in the hospital speaking or a tombstone inscribed with the words: “But I Had the Right of Way!”

It’s all too human to want to be right, to insist that we are right in the face of disagreement.  It takes introspection and patience to stop, take a breath, and try to look at things from other perspectives.  Without that perspective, we often do damage to our relationships, our organizations, and ourselves.

I remember an experience that gave me a path to understanding that my way of thinking was an explanation that I had actually chosen.

Think for a moment of a disagreement or unhappy relationship – and review the reasons why things are that way.   Perhaps your older sister got all the best antiques from your parents’ home, and you think they may have loved her more – or that she actively campaigned to shut you out.   Take a moment to frame such a situation in your mind. 

What is the story you’ve been telling yourself for years? Jot down some notes on the motivations of the people involved.

Now, what’s the fairy tale version of that situation? 

Now, what’s the mystery novel version?  The Sci-Fi version?  The romantic novel version?

Now, what actually happened with as little interpretation as possible?

My experience of this exercise taught me that I had wound a story around what really happened that suit my particular prejudices, and usually made me the protagonist of the story.  And my story really wasn’t taking other perspectives into consideration.  AND, my story wasn’t motivating me to reach out to others to heal relationships.

The climate in our nation is not helping – there is little real dialogue, and lots of reactive hostility in the news every day.  That can’t help but spill over into our conversation and relationships.

We are fortunate that our UU congregational life has its basis in covenant and mission.  This foundation gives us a basis from which to deeply and actively listen to one another, as well as a path to find our way back into right relationship when things go astray.

The UUA website https://www.uua.org/safe/conflict tells us the following:  Conflicts can be scary when they threaten to rupture or divide our precious community connections and relationships with one another, and we often seek help to resolve these issues.

Yet we've learned that conflicts can present great opportunities for building community by examining together what we value the most and clarifying our purpose and mission as a community.

Conflicts arise naturally simply because of the basic fact that we are different from one another! As Unitarian Universalists, we honor and celebrate difference, but often struggle with how to negotiate these differences when it comes to making decisions or taking positions.

Congregational growth, perspectives on ministry, staffing decisions, budgetary issues—all provoke sometimes wildly varying viewpoints among us. It would be strange if we didn’t have conflicts about these very important concerns.

Here are a few suggestions that have been found to be helpful:

  • Manage your own anxiety. As scary as conflicts may be to us, if our fears or anxiety overtakes us, we will not be effective in helping a congregation manage conflict. It’s not that you shouldn’t allow yourself to feel your emotions, but it is important to find a way to manage them so that there is maximum ability for everyone to feel some openness in expressing their concerns without overwrought feelings shutting things down.
    • What ways have your found to manage your anxiety?
  • Try to find the learning opportunity in a conflict. What is it that all of us need to learn about what is important to us as a community? Asking the broad and deep questions in an open and deliberate way can get you “unstuck” from haggling over a particular issue.
    • Name a situation where your congregation learned from a conflict.
  • Understand that a particular issue is always a part of a larger emotional system operating in a community. Rarely is a conflict only about a particular issue or person, as much as it may seem like that at the time. Find some help in uncovering the deeper concerns at play without scapegoating a particular person or engaging in the fantasy that you can “solve the problem.”
    • How can we “get on the balcony” to see things from another perspective?
  • Build safety into your communal interactions. Create congregational or group covenants in which you can name behaviors that might get in the way of healthy exchanges and deep dialogue. Using techniques such as “listening circles,” appreciative inquiry, and story-telling exercises can actually build community in the midst of conflict.
    • What are the opportunities you make to cool down hot topics?
  • Above all, ask for help! Call your UUA regional staff and utilize outside facilitators whenever possible so that you can gain the largest possible perspective on what’s happening. We are here to help.

About the Author

  • Andrea Lerner, retired as a Congregational Life Consultant for the Central East Region in 2019. She served as the District Executive for the Metro New York District for 9 years, and spent 4 years as the Program Consultant. Andrea is a graduate of Penn State University and attended graduate school in...

For more information contact cer@uua.org.

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