How to Turn ANY Disagreement into a Nasty Fight at Your Congregation

Two goats with horns locked

By Ian Evison, MidAmerica Region of the UUA

With unfortunate regularity, we hear heart-breaking stories of how honest and important debates in congregational life descend into nasty fights. Often, those in congregations where this happens express bewilderment that a fight could erupt.
I too am bewildered, but my bewilderment is different. I am bewildered that thoughtful, insightful people could so often do the same things that lead with depressing consistency to the same result. The actions of some groups lead so predictably towards conflict that I wonder if they must have wanted to turn a disagreement into a fight.
So, for those who actually do want to turn a disagreement into a fight, here are twelve techniques—tested and proven to work with great reliability.

  1. Whenever possible, present ideas and opinions without context. Don’t encourage people to tell stories about their experience of an issue. When people attempt to give context, show impatience. This allows people to develop projections about each other, to presume motives, and generally to lose sight of each other’s humanity.
  2. Use no names. Encourage people to refer to each other in the third person, preferably the third person plural. You'll be amazed by the reaction you can get from peaceable, good natured people when you begin a sentence with "he thinks," "they think," or (best of all) "they ALL think."
  3. When broaching sensitive subjects, have a small, frustrated, and relatively unknown group introduce an idea to the largest possible group. If possible, introduce sensitive subjects without warning. With any given idea in any given group, this allows you to get the biggest bang.
  4. Use any instrument that will allow people to avoid communicating directly with each other. Surveys work well for this. They can be used to make people feel that they already know what each other thinks without allowing anyone to actually influence others' opinions and without disturbing inaccurate assumptions about why others feel as they do.
  5. Give as much air time as possible to those whose opinions are most polarized—giving particular attention to those who feel personally aggrieved or hurt (refer these people to rule #3). In any organization where there is a disagreement that could become a conflict, different people are energized at different levels. Even if most people are still having a good debate, some may be ready to say or do hurtful things. This method allows the behavior of these people to set the norm for the group.
  6. State all thoughts about those on the other side of the debate as global generalizations rather than as reports of personal experience. Don’t say "yesterday, I felt you didn’t listen when I tried to explain." Rather, say "you NEVER listen."
  7. Keep people guessing and uninvolved. If the group somehow does come to agreements, don’t review those agreements. It is amazing how cultivating uncertainty in this way can make people anxious and invite them to establish security for themselves in destructive ways.
  8. Encourage people to use authority, guilt, and other forms of one-upsmanship as primary strategies for getting others to do what they want them to do. "Because I said so" or "isn't it obvious?" are preferred responses to anyone asking for an explanation. This strategy leaves people feeling a need to re-establish their self-esteem. And if this technique is used well, people begin thinking it is legitimate to use behaviors that raise the level of conflict markedly.
    You may need to be patient. Sometimes the effects of such behaviors are not immediate. Instead, they bear fruit at unexpected times and in apparently unrelated circumstances. Consistent use of this technique is like laying hidden land-mines around a congregation.
  9. Hold difficult conversations in an austere, inhospitable setting. A room too large for the group—with the chairs all facing forward—provides an excellent setting for the development of conflict. Effects are multiplied if nobody greets people as they arrive, there are no refreshments, and the meeting starts and ends late.
  10. Encourage people to think of meetings as places where others are being given the opportunity to vent or blow off steam rather than to say something important or to say something that might change other people's perspectives.
  11. Find nothing in the other side's point of view that you can affirm or with which you can agree. Refuse to give on this principle. Make sure that the parties involved picture their respective ideas as far from each other's as possible. Don't give an inch. It reveals a spiritual weakness.
  12. Expect the clergy to make everybody happy. (Isn't that why they studied for the ordained ministry?) This one does double-duty: it escalates conflict and burns out the clergy at the same time.

Much has been written about how to resolve or manage conflict. Often this can be very difficult—especially once conflict has escalated to the point where people divide into separate groups or begin intentionally doing things to hurt each other.
In contrast, it is very easy to escalate a conflict. These methods are sure-fire, especially when used in combination.

About the Authors

Ian Evison

Ian is a UU minister who has served in a variety of ministries, including parish ministry, theological education, a research project at the University of Chicago in Family and Religion, and service at the Alban Institute as Director of Research. Current passions include future trends in American...

MidAmerica Region of the UUA

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