Overcoming Conflicts in Perception
We have come to the last “P” in our series on the four P’s of Conflict. As a reminder, the previous three are Power, Preservation, and Purpose. The last is PERCEPTION. Have you ever had a misunderstanding? Conflicts of perception result in two ways. The first is when two people entrenched on opposing sides of an issue fail to understand intellectually and empathically the positions of their opponent. The second is when we question or misperceive the intentions and/or character of the individuals involved.
Example 1: The perception – “Man, she is so pushy. I just don’t get why she makes such a big deal about politics. I mean, really! Is God in control or isn’t He?” The response: “Why does he refuse to pull his head out of the sand?! If we don’t stand up for what is right, who will?” The conflict: activism vs. passivism. Note that both sides probably have valid experiences that shaped their philosophies. Their emotions flare because they can’t or won’t understand the other.
Example 2: The perception – “That guys house is lavish! He must be one of those shallow socialites who have to one up everybody else!” The response – “Oh no, it’s one of those “holier than thou” vow-of-poverty types who relishes condemning others for enjoying a few of life’s modern comforts.” The conflict: Theology of stewardship. Here, both individuals are in the wrong because of their misperception of each other.
Think about how often our mistaken perceptions of the ideas and character of others create disunity and confrontation in our relationships. “He’s just lazy, she’s just stubborn, they are selfish, snobby, etc.” The rifts that result have damaged our families, our schools, our churches, our businesses and more. But even if our perceptions are correct, we fall short of resolving conflict if we do not seek to understand what has made each of us the way we are and work to empower each other to change. This being said, I’d like to give a few tips on dealing with conflicts of perception:
Regarding Cues: Clarify what’s communicated. We communicate verbally and nonverbally. Both are susceptible to misperception. Effective conflict resolution requires identifying and clarifying social cues. Fritz Pearls, the father of Gestalt therapy, was a master at picking up on the nonverbal cues in conversations. He would often ask clients to exaggerate certain shifts in body position to heighten clients’ awareness of hidden emotions. We certainly don’t need to be this confrontational in our everyday relationships, but we can ask for clarification when the messages we are receiving don’t add up: “You say you’ve forgiven me, but you cringe when I try to touch you. Is there something more you’ve not told me?” “I notice it’s been hard for you to make eye contact during our conversation. Is there something I can do to make you more comfortable?” Understand that some people will chose to remain unengaged. They will resist such attempts for transparency, but don’t be deterred. Your attempts at clarifying will serve you well in the long run.
Regarding the Past: Know but Don’t Go! As human beings, we like to categorize people and situations. This mental referencing is a natural way to improve our efficiency in dealing with common situations. You might think of it like the autocorrect on your phone when you text. But sometimes we make initial assumptions based on past experiences that are incorrect. We must stay judgment and give people the benefit of the doubt if we are to resolve conflict. Know your past experiences, but avoid drawing conclusions from them until you have all the facts from the current situation!
Regarding Motives: Trust but verify! We all know the passage in the Bible that says, “People look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) This is certainly true during conflict. We can never really know the motives of others, but to engage in conflict effectively, we must have some faith in people. Otherwise, why bother? If you have trust issues in a particular relationship, deal with that first. Then address the specifics of the conflict. If the pattern of someone’s behavior points to an overriding desire for Power or Preservation, then seek outside help from a counselor or trusted mutual friend. If you’ve been burned in the past, bring healing to your wounds by acknowledging and learning from the pain. Don’t surrender to a life of isolation!
Questions: How has your perception of a particular problem affected your relationship with people in your life? What happened when you took the time to clarify your misperceptions? Did it help to resolve the conflict?