Conflict: The Medium of Learning

Conflict: The Medium of Learning

Conflict … We tend to avoid it at all costs. Don’t we?

Why is this? I think it’s because conflict is uncomfortable. It also forces us to expend energy as we try to resolve it. But perhaps most importantly it exposes us … our ideas, our fears, our weaknesses … to public scrutiny. There is nothing more anonymous than harmony.

I propose that when we avoid conflict, we also avoid learning, because conflict is essential to learning. When we are in a state of equilibrium, there is no movement, no challenge, no uncertainty and, therefore, no opportunity to learn. I would also say that the absence of conflict is a clear sign that you don’t have any goals, at least goals in which you truly believe.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating violence. When people and nations engage in violence toward one another, they are demonstrating that they have already lost the opportunity to learn.

No, what I’m talking about is the conflict of ideas and perspectives. Any time we move into a new situation — a new job or a new position — we must be prepared for the inevitable conflicts that always accompany the new.

First we experience conflict within … the re-definition of our self-concept. When I first went to the mission field, I remember the sense that my entire world had been turned upside down. It was both painful and exhilarating as I was forced to see myself — my nationality, my culture, my basic assumptions about life — critiqued by a people from an entirely different point of view. The defense mechanisms automatically kick in and I found myself clinging desperately to my prior knowledge. But, with my cultural context gone and surrounded by a new environment, a new context, I eventually began to adapt and even take on the new perspective.

But I know people — some even colleagues of mine on the mission field — who were never able to adapt, never able to learn. They did not last.

To learn we have to embrace the discomfort of conflict. We have to set aside our gut-wrenching desire to defend ourselves and our mental models. As the very foundations of our interpreted world crumble beneath us, we take comfort in the realization that those foundations were not strong enough to endure the challenge of learning and therefore were not worth protecting in the first place.

What about you? How do you handle conflict? Do you run from it? Or do you see it as an opportunity to learn?

You don’t have to create conflict. If you believe in something and if you are willing to move into unfamiliar territory, conflict will come with no encouragement from us. The real question is this: Do we learn from it?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at] to discuss the needs of your organization.

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