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Navigating Differences with Grace

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
– 1 Corinthians 12:12

Part of the richness of life is that we are not all the same. We bring different personalities, perspectives and gifts to our given tasks. When we work well together, we exemplify the Scripture above and can bring something beautiful and good to fruition. But there are times when our differences – political, cultural, religious or otherwise – prevent us from connecting with others. The resulting tension, whether it as obvious as a heated argument or as subtle as passive avoidance, is stressful for everyone involved.

When you find yourself in conflict with another person, it can be helpful to set an intention. This means deciding within yourself what you would like to happen with your relationship with that person. For example, your intention could be to create distance and put a specific boundary in place, or it could be to improve your working relationship. In general, most people want to cultivate positive, or at the very least civil, working relationships. The tips below can help mitigate difference and result in healthier interpersonal connections over time.

  • Be aware of and reflect on your specific feelings about the person and their behavior. This may seem obvious, but the more honest we are with ourselves, the more likely we are to name how we feel. Pausing to think, “this really annoys me,” or “I don’t like this person,” improves your chances of being able to regulate your response, as opposed to, for example, snapping at the person or reacting negatively in the moment.
  • Talk to a trusted friend about the issue. The goal is not for the friend to help “fix” it or even to agree or disagree with your position. But a close friend is likely to be empathic and express understanding about how you feel. Simply knowing that another person knows about your situation, can identify with it, and empathizes with you can help decrease the intensity of the emotion.
  • Try not to make assumptions about the other person’s behavior. It can be easy to create our own narrative about why the person acts this way and to assume we know this “type” of person. The risk, of course, is that we can be completely wrong. But we also run the risk of telling ourselves a story about that person that has more to do with us and our experiences than with who that person actually is.
  • Be curious about the other person. Ask questions. Most of us appreciate when others are interested in us or something we care about. When we show interest in someone’s background or position, defenses can soften. And the more we understand who the person truly is, the less we are assuming when differences inevitably arise.
  • Address differences when the situation calls for it. Sometimes a direct approach is best. In those moments, skills for handling conflict are useful. Choosing the right time and place for a discussion, using “I” statements instead of accusatory statements, and letting the other person know that you truly listened to what they had to say can go a long way.

Following the guidance above will not necessarily smooth over every difficult situation or help us to avoid uncomfortable confrontations. For most of us, our default is to be drawn to those who are like us. But when we refuse to face our differences and how they impact us, we miss an opportunity for personal growth. Giving voice to our feelings about differences can make us more emotionally vulnerable. That vulnerability sometimes creates a bond stronger than the differences. In other words, the person with whom we have conflict can sometimes end up being the person to whom we feel the closest, precisely because we were honest with ourselves and with them.

Even if the conflict doesn’t ultimately result in friendship, at the very least this type of candid interaction can often pave the way for a sense of mutual respect. Living with and ministering to those different from us can bring moments of tension, confusion and frustration, but it also can result in moments of joy, surprise and enlightenment. Learning to navigate the more complicated relationships can help us cultivate a healthier relationship with self and others and facilitate emotional and spiritual growth over time.

Tasha Dorsey, Psy.D., is a therapist on the staff of Saint Luke Institute.