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Bishop Richard's Weekly video Message - Transcript 29.02.2024

February 29th, 2024

Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video. I’m in the Chamber at General Synod, a place where conflict can become intense, but a place where I have also seen people come together across difference and grow in trust as a result.

I’m grateful for those of you who have told me how they found last weeks video helpful. Do check it out if you haven’t had the chance to look at it. Last week I was mainly focussing on the internal aspects of peace making. A lack of self-knowledge and unreflective responses can easily make conflict worse. I have been called to try and help situations of entrenched conflict where patterns of behaviour consistently snatch defeat from the jaws of victory!  Tentative steps towards reconciliation and trust are crushed by easily avoided mistakes. So, I wanted to share in this video the worst types of behaviour that are almost guaranteed to make things worse. I do this with some authority as I have done all of them myself at some point. 

The first is to always react before you have heard both sides of the story. Every person who is hurting as a result of conflict will have their own convincing story. All our stories are necessarily selective. If we are hurt, those aspects are inevitably amplified and filter out other perspectives. Really hurting people find it almost impossible to see a perspective other than their own.  As observers we can easily jump in on the basis of another’s emotional intensity. But inevitably we encounter a different perspective in the other. They will have filtered out other and different aspects, to the extent that it sounds like they are describing completely different events.  I am not talking here about clear cases of assault or abuse. Here the argument breaks down. Someone has been wronged and someone has done the wronging! A peace maker in what I would call ‘normal’ conflict without a mismatch of power, is there to interpret the different stories to each side.

The second mistake is to listen through your own filters, or not to listen properly at all. There are two types of listening – to listen to understand or to listen to respond. In the first, one suspends judgement, seeking to grasp the other person’s motivations, baggage and background. The very act of listening in this way is deeply healing.  We are listened to, really listened to, so very rarely. Indeed, some conflict has its roots in people feeling they are not understood. Real listening can be a gift. Listening to respond doesn’t really listen.  It’s a state of heightened awareness, looking for faults in the other person’s story to store up as ammunition for a future argument. If you are especially hurt this listening is very hard.  Everything within screams to make the case for the defence. That’s when you need friends and support.

The third way to amplify conflict very easily is to go straight to email or text. Jesus, advising on conflict in Matthew 5: 23, said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Go and do it personally!  Don’t send them a text or an email (unless it’s a grovelling apology with and offer to meet in person), don’t make a phone call; take courage and go and see someone face to face. So much of communication is non-verbal. Mere words divorced from tone, facial expression and context don’t communicate the true depths of our soul, nor do they foster connection. The advent of social media and electronic communication has helped us in many ways but it has unequivocally made conflict worse.

A final suggestion is the use of self-restraint. Everyone should have a furious of Hereford (or wherever you happen to live) file. By all means use such a thing to brain dump but silence and patience will deflect a lot of anger. James said, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

I think of conflicts that I have tried to help mediate, and some contemporary ones. In every case there has been a major violation of at least one of these principles. People so locked in their own pain that they can’t see or hear the pain of the other. People out of cowardice or insensitivity going straight to email – especially to blind copy all and escalating small scale things into a major spat. People responding immediately from their anger without allowing calmer counsels to prevail. I’ve probably done all of these things myself, and when I have the only option is to fess up and seek forgiveness. I would encourage all of us to take these things to heart. We can be a community that can disagree, but disagree well.


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