When you’re in conflict, don’t take yes or no for an answer

As a wife, a mom and a full-time pastor, my life is full of plenty of conflict. It’s not always loud conflict or bad conflict necessarily, but whenever you put multiple people in the same house, family, church or organization together, there will inevitably be conflicting opinions, ideas, needs and wants.

When it comes to the conflict in my life, my instinct has always been to figure out an infallible solution to the problem and restore the peace. In other words, if my kids are fighting over the remote control, I’ll figure out who had it first and give it back to that person. Then I’ll tell them they need to rotate every 30 minutes. Problem solved.

I should never have to deal with it again.

The problem with this way of problem-solving is it doesn’t always work.

I mean, it works in the short term. It’s effective for the time being. But in the long run, what I always find is that no problem is really “solved” in an instant. Conflict resolution which looks only at the two possible answers—either he gets the remote, or she does—tends to leave both people feeling cheated in some way.

What if there was a third option when it came to problem solving?

What if, beyond just “yes” and “no” or “right” and “wrong” there was a third way of looking at problems and solving conflicts.

This was the advice I received a few years ago when I was listening to a teaching by Andy Stanley. In that message, he said something about conflict resolution I’ll never forget. It went like this:

“A lot of things are not a problem to be solved, but a tension to be managed.”

At first, this advice felt a little hard to swallow. After all, who wants to spend their lives managing tension? Like I said before, my instinct is always to minimize tension, to reduce it. I want to live with as little tension in my life as possible. Duh.

Can you relate? I hate tension. I just want everyone to be happy.

But at the same time, the more I began to reflect on his advice and apply it to my life in a practical way, the more I started to realize he was probably right. There was really no way to get rid of conflict forever.

And part of my job as a leader—both in my church and in my family—was taking the responsibility to choose this third option.

The third option, beyond “yes” or “no” is this: manage tension.

There are ongoing conflicts at churches. For example, some people feel very passionately that servicelengths should be longer and the content should be deeper. Other people wonder how they could possibly make the logistics of this work with kids ministry, classroom management, limited volunteers and more challenges.

The answer here wasn’t yes to longer services or no to shorter ones.

It was a tension to be managed.

This was actually a huge relief to me. This question had been weighing on my shoulders: which do I choose—long services or short ones?

But thanks to this advice, I realized I didn’t need to know a “yes” or “no” answer when it came to service lengths. What I needed was to learn to manage the tension.

This approach has been effective in my role as a wife and mother as well.

My husband and I are both busy but committed parents of two great kids. God has been really good to us over the years and has opened all kinds of opportunities for us both to minister inside the family, as well as outside the family, in unique ways.

And because we both have opportunities to serve outside the home—it would be easy to get stuck in the question:

Who stays home and who leaves?

But if we answered this question with “yes” or “no” we would miss out on the beautiful thing that happens when we’re willing to live in the tension. We both have unique and important roles inside our family. We both have unique and important roles outside the home, too.

This is not a problem to be solved. It’s a tension to be managed.

When it comes to conflict resolution, if we’re constantly looking to solve problems rather than to manage tensions, I think we’ll miss out. We gain so much when we’re willing to avoid thinking about “yes or no” answers and be willing to see what exists in the space between.