In my first year of marriage, I was watching several other marriages close to me fall apart. My therapist was helping me work through this (Yes, I said T-H-E-R-A-P-I-S-T. If you’ve never tried one, I highly recommend a dose of Life Processing Assistance.)
Anyway, my therapist recommended I read the book Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas. And it was there that I was first exposed to the concept that my relationships might not actually be completely about me after all. I was offended and I was intrigued.
Thomas maps out a key concept in his book in which he explains that sharing life with someone is impossible to do without conflict. And often that conflict can drive wedges into the relationship. But we can experience true sanctification if we continue to pursue relationship with our life partner, even if it feels threatening or weak.
Thomas was writing specifically about marriage, of course, but I believe that these concepts can be easily transferred to other relationships, especially within our teams on the field.
Interpersonal conflict is impossible to avoid. We are a people who desire to be deeply understood by our peers, and when we feel misunderstood, underappreciated, or undervalued, we tend to get very defensive.
As we examine the following metaphor, I want you to imagine that tense relationship you have with a person in your community. It can be a family member or an old friend, but for the sake of this article and for the sake of your team overseas, let’s imagine a coworker.
You’re standing face-to-face with this person, but there is a brick wall separating the two of you from the waist down. At baseline, you’re different people. You work differently, think differently, express yourselves differently. There are enough external factors working against the two of you at baseline that your relationship is likely to struggle.
Each time this teammate says something that feels like a sting, a brick is built into a wall that separates you two. Each time this teammate appears unengaged when you’re sharing your heart, another brick is built into a wall that is now growing up towards your shoulders. Each time this teammate appears defensive and closed off, another brick is mortared into this wall so high now that you cannot see his or her eyes.
Here you are, expected to make decisions together and work alongside each other and worship together, but all you can see is this massive wall that divides. You can hear a voice on the other side of the wall, but there are no eyes to connect with, no hands to hold.
And friends, that metaphorical wall can feel as tangible as real life brick and mortar when you’re in the middle of interpersonal conflict. The stinging words feel real, the apparent disengagement feels real, and the defensiveness feels real. There’s a clear divide, and it can seem hopeless to that we’ll ever make any progress in moving toward community together again.
I won’t pretend that reconciliation is easy. I won’t EVEN begin to act like working through conflict is fun or fulfilling or confidence-boosting.
But reconciling interpersonal conflict is possible, and it might just be the holiest experience you have on the field.
Forget launching Eternal movements or baptizing hundreds near river banks. Loving your teammate enough to move past your own happiness and SERVE HER WELL is a mission field itself.
There are lots of great resources on the internet, but something we can all do without training is to ask better questions of our coworkers.
Get curious about your teammate. And seek to understand him or her before you seek to be understood.
This is an art I’m practicing, and one that I’m honestly terrible at in real life. But here are some questions for those of us who need a little nudge in pursuing the people in our direct communities:
- What is bringing you joy in your life right now?
- How can I better serve you in your role on our team?
- What is your love language?
- What’s the best gift someone has ever given you?
- What inspires you to keep living overseas?
I need to clearly say that if the interpersonal conflict you’re experiencing has been building for years, bring in a professional. Here I am, a survivor of team intervention. (Again, if you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it.)
If there is any kind of physical or sexual abuse taking place, ABSOLUTELY speak with someone you trust and seek professional help and guidance.
HOWEVER, if you are repeatedly encountering conflict with another personality on your team, check yourself. Consider the story from the other side of the brick wall. And if you can’t imagine yourself as one who mortared half of those bricks, ASK YOUR TEAMMATE AND FRIEND TO HELP YOU UNDERSTAND.
Seek her first. Seek him first.
And then, through an albeit humbling and heart-wrenching experience, watch the Father piece back together a relationship you thought was long gone.
I am not promising you’ll be happy throughout this process, or even in the end. But I can guarantee there will be a sanctifying holiness that emerges from this transformed relationship.
How has question asking helped you in relationships? What has helped you ask better questions?