the shape of leadership

How to LEAD Through Conflict

Four keys that open the door to resolution

There’s no such thing as leadership without conflict. The truth is leaders face conflict in all shapes and sizes. It might be opposition to a new vision, conflict between team members, or a disagreement about a change initiative that threatens a department’s program. If you’re a leader, conflict comes with the territory.

In the book of Acts, we find a rather unique conflict: whether or not Gentiles should be circumcised. Paul, Barnabas, and a group of men from Judea were in the middle of this disagreement, but from this situation, we discover four keys that can help us LEAD through conflict today.


LISTEN to Both Sides

The conflict over circumcision arose when, “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5). However, one person or party’s opinion doesn’t constitute a solution. Instead, the other side also needs an opportunity to respond.

Acts 15:6–7 says, “The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them … ” (emphasis added). Notice, there was ample opportunity for discussion. The apostles and the elders had the opportunity to share differing perspectives, and it’s quite apparent that the discussion was lengthy and in depth.

This is important to point out because most leaders have a bias toward action. A failure to listen carefully — and to welcome feedback and discussion — will only undermine your leadership efforts.

In fact, failure to listen is usually interpreted in two ways: insensitivity or insecurity. First, we are insensitive to others when we fail to listen to their perspective. Second, when we don’t listen, others perceive us to be insecure, afraid we won’t get what we want.


EXPLORE the Facts

When these leaders explored the facts, it involved a three-part process that included clarification, connection, and corroboration.

First, Peter clarified the facts. Rather than operating from assumptions or opinions, he stated the following: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (15:7–9).

Notice, when Peter said, “you know … ” he was gently reminding the brothers of the facts they were already aware. After clarifying those facts, Peter pointed out that God did not discriminate between them and the Gentiles.

Second, Peter connected the facts to the other side’s argument by simply posing a question: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” (15:10).

I love this response because Peter acknowledged that the demands of the other side were not only unreasonable for the Gentiles, but also unreasonable for Jews. Neither side was able to bear it. Then Peter capped it off by saying, “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (15:11).

Finally, the facts were corroborated by others. Verses 12–18 state, “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wondersGod had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, Jamesspoke up. ‘Brothers,’ he said, ‘listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things” — things known from long ago.’”

Rather than having a winner and a loser, good solutions create win-win scenarios. This isn’t always possible, but great leaders work hard to articulate a solution that creates buy-in, rather than a solution that bulldozes the other party.

Again, exploration of the facts involves three things. The facts (which both sides were already aware of) were clarified. Then, a clear connection was made between the facts and the argument on the table. This made the facts relevant without chasing rabbit trails. Finally, others (Barnabas, Paul, and James) corroborated the facts by contributing to the discussion. They even quoted the words of the prophet Amos.



There will always come a moment when a solution must be clearly articulated. Discussion without a solution only leads to frustration.

That solution came about in 15:19–21 when James said, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols,from sexual immorality,from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

Notice, both sides were able to buy in to the solution because it was sensitive to both of their concerns. For the Gentiles who were turning to God, they wouldn’t have to be circumcised. However, it was also clear that the Gentiles would need to abide by some clear standards that the Jews upheld.

This is usually the path good conflict resolution takes. Rather than having a winner and a loser, good solutions create win-win scenarios. This isn’t always possible, but great leaders work hard to articulate a solution that creates buy-in, rather than a solution that bulldozes the other party.


DELIVER the Solution

Once a solution is determined, it’s important leaders deliver the solution to everyone impacted by it. In other words, communication is a critical step to ensure the solution is broadly understood and embraced.

That’s what the apostles and elders did when they chose Judas and Silas to join Paul and Barnabas in delivering a letter to Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. The letter clearly articulated the solution (15:24–29). Verses 30–31 state, “So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.”

As obvious as it seems, too many leaders drop the ball on this final point. They come up with a solution but fail to deliver it to the people who will be most impacted. Those people may be leaders, team members, or sometimes the entire congregation. A thoughtful communication process will ensure the solution is widely embraced and produces the desired impact.

What conflict are you trying to lead through right now? Take time to really listen. Explore the facts with clarification, connection, and corroboration. Then, articulate a solution that seems good to “the Holy Spirit and to us” (verse 28).

Do your best to create a win-win scenario without compromising what matters most. Finally, deliver it carefully through the communication channels that will keep everyone abreast of what is happening. This may take some time, but as you LEAD through conflict, God will guide and direct you each step of the way.

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