Transforming Conflicts into Moments of Grace and Gowth

conflict1Students Tom and John are assigned by the superior to organize the annual Christmas program for the residents in the neighborhood. Each year hundreds of people flock to the seminary to watch the program. Soon differences began to surface between the two organizers. Tom wanted to have a change this year and hoped to involve the neighboring children. He was teaching catechism to children in the nearby parish. But John was afraid that it would take lot of time and would interfere with his preparation for the forthcoming exams .He was also not happy with Tom’s ‘dominating’ character. John began to be passive in the meetings of leaders of various groups which Tom convened in order to organize the program. Tom felt the lack of cooperation from John and concluded that John was envious of his social skills. Tom and John went through the Christmas event with a sense of betrayal from each other. The hurt feelings that remained at heart made it difficult for them to team up again for other programs.

 As you read this account, you may be reminded of your own experience of conflict and differences with companions and team mates that might have caused you pain and discouragement. During the initial formation, conflict situations are excellent opportunities to grow in interpersonal relationships and to develop conflict management skills that would stand by you for life.

 Conflicts are natural in any group because people who form the group have different personality styles, sensibilities and value systems. Failing to learn from a conflict and letting a conflict run its own natural course can ruin good relationships and drain the power of the group to achieve its goals. Conflict management is an essential skill in the repertoire of missionary competencies. Conflict management should form part of the non-academic learning programs in any seminary.

 Once you accept conflicts as a natural part of life in any group situation and see the benefits of negotiating them well, you are better prepared to learn conflict management skills. The insights presented here will serve you well in your efforts to approach conflicts positively. There are no readymade solutions nor are there shortcuts to deal with conflicts. Each conflict is unique in the way it ferments and hence it merits your attention for its own right.

 What is a conflict?

 We are dealing here with conflicts that arise in interpersonal relations between people in communities. Here we do not deal with the intra-psychic conflicts which involve also unconscious forces. We shall define interpersonal conflict as a disagreement between two related persons on matters that are considered important by either or both of the parties in conflict.

There are content conflicts and relational conflicts. It is important not to confuse between them. A content conflict arises when the matter of conflict is outside of the persons in conflict. For example, it may be about the use of the community car on a particular day. Relational conflict has the cause of conflict in the persons. For example, the superior feels ignored by a member or vice versa. Relational conflicts often have intra-psychic factors playing a major role in them. Often a content conflict may turn out into relational conflict, if not taken care of as content conflict. For example, a conflict about the use of a car on a particular day can culminate in hostility between the two community members. We need to understand what the matter of the conflict is when we want to deal with them in a healthy way.

 Causes of Conflict

Art Bell and Brett Hart[i] point out eight common causes of conflicts in work places. They are valid also for other life situations. Identifying the causes of conflict is important to move towards its resolution. Conflict between persons or groups can arise with regard to resources, styles, perceptions, goals, pressures, roles, values and policies. We shall consider each one of them in the context of a formation community.

  1. Disparity in the allocation of resources

    Real or perceived disparity in sharing resources can lead to tensions in a group or a religious community. Differences in one’s access to the resources of the community often cause complaints and resentments in a religious group. Often they surface when there are already existing resentments to leadership. When a formandus who is considered favourite of the formator is found to enjoy privileges in the use of community goods like computer, vehicles or other facilities, the other formandi who consider themselves less privileged may resort to passive aggression and non-cooperation to vent their resentments.

Clarity about the conditions of the use of facilities in the community and opportunity for open communication about their uses/abuses will be helpful to deactivate the harmful effect of the conflict. Such situations can be taken advantage of by a formator to build awareness and communication skills. It also gives opportunity for leaders to look into whether the legitimate needs of members are met..

2. Conflicting Styles

All of us have different personality styles and ways of doing things. Some students are very organized and prepare their lessons in advance while others get things done in the last minute. There are early birds and late birds. When persons with different personality styles team up for some goals, their styles will eventually clash, unless they are aware of the differences and tune them towards the achievement of goals. An obsessive compulsive superior or formator may constantly get annoyed about a community member who is less organized and is often late for common functions. Such a conflict is an opportunity to become aware of one’s own styles and develop the complementary traits to become more effective. For example, the student could learn more self-discipline and the formator more flexibility and compassion towards the limitations of others.

Clarification of goals and awareness of the different styles of functioning and their contribution to realize these goals are important to deal with such conflicts. Workshops on Enneagram and Myrs Briggs personality styles help the community to increase their sensibility to different personality styles.

3. Conflicting Perceptions

All of us look at the world through the lens carved out of our past experiences and frame of mind. Each person in a community perceives the same situation differently. Both selective attention and selective inattention are mind tactics to fit in the data to their existing pattern of thinking. Differences in perceptions clash when we live in a community. One sees dust in every corner while another hears only complaints from the other. Differences in perceptions of events can cause conflict especially when one person knows something that the other person doesn’t know, but doesn’t realize it. This is all the more evident in intercultural communities as the shared meanings of a culture are not available to another who is from a different culture.

Conflicts escalate in communities when perceptions are shared in “gossips” and the affected member gathers only bits and pieces of the gossip and dig a pit of self-rejection and victimization out of what is surmised from it. Differences in perceptions arising from cultural, political, linguistic or racial differences can turn the conflict into covert or overt “turf-wars” or issues of “groupism” in a community. Regionalism, nationalism and tribalism (and other “isms” ) will raise their ugly heads and create cacophony in an otherwise orchestrated community dynamics.

Communication of differences openly and constructively will keep the conflict from escalating and gathering power to damage fraternity. Constructive accompaniment on the part of leadership will give space for learning when group goals are affected by perceptual limitations.

4. Conflicting Goals

When people work together with different goals in mind, there can arise serious conflicts. If academic excellence is aimed at by a student and his formator is more concerned with fulfilling the norms of community, there may arise misunderstanding in concrete community situations. When the team members pursue a work with different goals in mind, conflicts arise among them. The team of formators may end up in conflict among themselves and with formandi when they work with different perceptions about formation. For example, for one formator liturgical correctness is most important in formation while for another fraternal life may be more fundamental. Formators prepared in different schools of formation and specialized disciplines may act with different perceptions about formation leading to conflict among themselves. During transfer of formators, it is not rare that the new formator’s approach conflict with that of the outgoing one and force the formandi to accommodate themselves to the new formator.

Open dialogue about the goals of formation and active participation of all in the community project are important ways to work together towards commonly accepted goals. When formation community takes the formation goals presented in the formation plans and incorporate them in to the community project and evaluate them periodically, we can avoid lot of confusion regarding goals of formation.

5. Conflicting Pressures

When there are pressures on the formators or on students from different sources, they may live through the pains of a conflict. The following are some of the situations when conflicting pressures affect formation communities:

  • formator is involved in multi-tasking. They may experience the pressure of conflicting demands arising from different responsibilities.
  • The conflicting expectations of different formators may create inner conflict in the formandi.
  • Conflicting pressures from the community and the faculties where students study may also lead to conflicts.

Conflicting pressures are generally on the immediate and urgent tasks while conflicting goals are about enduring objectives.

When formators or students experience conflict because of different pressures, it is important to address the issue and find realistic ways to avoid burn out.

6. Conflicting Roles

Conflicts arise in a community when different roles are not clarified and people are not clear about their responsibilities in an institution. In such a situation one may perform a task which is seen as stepping into another’s “territory” resulting in misunderstanding and power struggles. On the contrary it is also possible that one may consider a task to be carried by someone else, but is not perceived as such by that person. In the context of teamwork, mutual understanding and open communication is necessary to avoid stepping into each other’s roles.

When there is conflict over roles, it is important to clarify roles and mode of conduct in situations of potential conflict.

7. Different Personal Values

Conflict occurs when different personal values clash. In intercultural situations differences in cultural values can cause misunderstanding between members in a community resulting in defensive sub-group formation. Traditional or liberal values or different political stand can lead to conflicts in a community.

Cultural pluralism which gives room for different way of looking at reality needs to be promoted in a formation community to avoid having missionaries with rigid thinking patterns. Cultural relativism is to be distinguished from moral relativism. Objective values of morals and faith should not be relativized, even though practices in a particular culture may over look such a value. For example, religious poverty cannot not be relativized in a religious community, even though transparency in the use of money is not a common practice in a particular culture.

8. Unpredictable Policies

When formators change rules or introduce changes without duly communicating to the team members or explaining it to the students, confusion and conflict can occur. Conflicts happen when members overlook the accepted community project in order to safeguard their own personal interests.
When there is a need to change a policy or a rule, it is to be communicated what will be done differently and, more importantly, why there is a change. People are more willing to accept changes when they know why such a change is made.


There are different approaches that help us deal with conflicts in community life. In this article we have tried to identify possible contents of conflicts in a formation community. A good formation program needs to take advantage of personal and community conflicts as learning moments to prepare the students for healthy community living. There is always an emotional aspect in managing conflicts such as awareness of emotions and adequate expression of them. It is often inappropriate expression of emotions that “misfire” the efforts to conflict resolution and create ‘impasse’ and more hurt in relationships. Hence growing in emotional intelligence too is important for conflict management. A valuable approach to conflict management is the use of empowering language in communication. The non-violent communication program of Marshall Rosenberg offers good training for interpersonal relationships. As a person grows in the gospel mystique and higher levels of consciousness, conflict situations open way to experiment and experience the values of the Gospel.

–         Mathew Vattamattam cmf

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