Book can help untie the knots of conflict

By Ann M. Garrido
Published by Ave Maria Press, 288 pages, $15.95

Those who are not leaders in Christian communities of any sort (parishes, schools, hospitals, congregations of vowed religious) might be tempted to pass over Ann Garrido's Redeeming Conflict: 12 Habits for Christian Leaders, thinking the book has little to offer them. But by moving on too quickly, readers would miss a thoughtful, easily digestible approach to resolving conflict (or at least addressing it more constructively) in interpersonal relationships, be they at home or in the office.

Garrido, an associate professor of homiletics at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, begins the book by examining conflict as an inherent part of the Christian tradition and of human nature. Indeed, she writes, "the roots of conflict seem inherently structured into the design of creation itself."

This is not a reference to humanity's seemingly insatiable desire for war, but rather to the diversity of the world as conceived by God. "Exposure to diversity, with its resulting experience of discomfort, surprise, and disagreement, appears to be the way that God matures creation."

If conflict is foundational, though, she also believes it can be redeemed, as she subsequently describes through her 12 habits. Habit is the word she chooses, based on the Latin term habitus. As used by St. Thomas Aquinas, she defines it as "a behavioral choice made over and over again with such regularity that it becomes part of a person and characteristic of who he is, an attitude with which he consistently approaches life."

It is that pesky business of human nature, Garrido acknowledges time and again, that often comes between us and a more constructive resolution to our differences. Conflict, after all, is uncomfortable, so we try to draw others into it to advocate our side, or at the very least, to give comfort by telling us we're right and the other is wrong.

This is triangulation, which is a no-no; it sets the participants up as victim, rescuer or, worst of all, villain. Nobody really wants to be the villain, although many embrace the role of victim or rescuer.

To elegantly "sidestep the triangle," Garrido invokes a third party and suggests modeling our interactions after those of Leo the Great and Attila the Hun.

It is here, with these "companions for the journey" at the end of each chapter, that Garrido really strikes gold, providing historical role models for how to engage in each behavior.

For example, learning to distinguish intent (of the other's words or actions) from impact (their effect on you) can be difficult, given our all-too-human propensity to assume the worst of our offender. Garrido calls upon the "principle of charitable interpretation" to be our guide, then offers St. Jane Frances de Chantal (who transformed from angry, grieving widow to forgiving founder of a community of religious women) as our instructress.

In the third chapter, "Listen Toward Understanding" -- which, for most of us, should probably be a book unto itself -- she draws on the stories of the Tower of Babel and encourages "Pentecost" or "empathic" listening as we seek to understand each other and sidestep our pre-existing views of any given situation. Those views are usually based on our selective intake of data, on which we form our beliefs and from which we draw our conclusions.

Her story of St. Francis of Assisi and Malik al-Kamil (nephew of Saladin and ruler of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade) is particularly apt during these times of religious suspicion and intolerance. Their example of respectful conversation -- which didn't end with conversion, nor did it even end the Crusades -- gives hope to faithful readers who fear our culture is devolving into one that is positively hateful and un-Christian, particularly in our treatment of the stranger among us.

The questions at the end of each chapter are helpful for self-reflection but could also serve as a starting point for conversation in work settings among groups, as well as between individuals looking for a more thoughtful way to approach and improve the ways they interact.

Her modeled dialogue within the chapters comes across as a bit stilted; it's hard to imagine anyone but a disengaged professional therapist saying, "Could you say more about how you felt when I ... ? I'm guessing you have some pretty strong feelings behind what you are saying."

But her aim is true, that is, to give readers some language as a starting point for untying the knot of misunderstanding, hurt and fear that is at the heart of much of our conflict.

She concludes where she began, invoking the Last Supper and Jesus' desire that the disciples "remain" with him. Don't do; just be. This may be the most difficult task: to remain in relationship. There will inevitably be conflict. The real challenge is to resist fixing it and, instead, to redeem it through our presence and commitment.

[Julie Bourbon is editorial director at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.]

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