the shape of leadership

The $30 Phone Bill That Changed My Ministry

Three keys to resolving conflict

After a few weeks of training, I was finally transitioning to the floor. As a sales consultant for a telecommunications company, my job was to push products and make the company money (which also made me money).

I swung open the door and approached the first customer, cheerfully asking how I could help him.

“You idiots went up on my phone bill from $29.43 to $30.02,” he said.

“OK,” I replied, “let me check that out for you.”

As it turned out, his increased charges reflected a government tax that affected all cellular customers. I explained this in detail, but it didn’t satisfy the man. My patience wore off as I glanced over his account and noticed he had $125 in bill credits every month because he was an “accelerated customer” (he complained a lot).

“You know,” I said, “most people pay $150 to $200 a month for a plan like yours. You should be grateful to pay $30! That’s not normal today.”

We can’t hide from conflict; it will find us wherever we go.

Apparently, I misspoke. The customer unleashed a string of profanities. Then he mentioned a competitor’s ad offering cell service for $10 a month with unlimited data. Knowing he had no idea what he was talking about, I fake-smiled and said, “Man, that sounds great. You should totally do it!”

The angry customer caused a scene and left our store. Despite much chuckling from my peers who overheard the exchange, I quickly found myself in a meeting with our manager.

I had recently left a full-time ministry position. As a burned-out pastor, I had little tolerance for difficult people. I handled this situation as I would have at my previous job: I arrogantly told an individual he was wrong and waited for him to get over it. That’s not an ideal way to deal with people — in a business or church setting.

Conflict is no respecter of persons. We can’t hide from it; conflict will find us wherever we go. I believe there are three types of people in this world:

  • People who run from conflict
  • People who handle conflict poorly
  • People who thrive in situations involving conflict

Wherever you are on that spectrum, there’s always room for improvement. If you’re averse to conflict or prickly under pressure, there is hope. Even if you’re a master at conflict resolution, you can still refine your skills.

Although my title was sales consultant, damage control specialist would have been a more accurate description. About 80 percent of my customers came in with a problem, and many had a bad attitude to go with it. My job was to fix the problem and sell them new products. To do this, I had to learn to handle conflict well. Over the course of a year, I turned conflict resolution from a glaring weakness to a strength. Here are three important lessons I learned.

Don’t Dodge the Issue

At one time, I loved evading conflict. In the church world, you can say hyper-spiritual things like, “Let me pray about it,” or, “Now isn’t the season for it,” or, “I haven’t heard from God on that yet.”

When that didn’t work, I used the busyness of ministry as an excuse to put off meetings and avoid any direct contact. Of course, you can only put off these things for so long — and avoidance makes an uncomfortable situation worse. The tension kept building, often leading to an angry confrontation or a stressful meeting.

In the business world, I couldn’t use spiritual-sounding delays. Instead, I stood by the door waiting for a new customer to walk in, knowing that person would likely be angry at our company. I couldn’t hide in the back; I had to stare directly at conflict to bring home a paycheck.

You may work in an environment where you can hide from conflict, but if you don’t deal with problems, they will only escalate.

Listen and Acknowledge

When I heard about a problem, my initial reaction was to give pat answers or dismiss it altogether. However, this doesn’t work in healthy conflict resolution.

When a ministry leader expressed disappointment that the youth service was on the same night as his program, I blurted out, “Well, they must not like your program if they don’t attend.”

I never acknowledged his feelings or asked for his suggestions.

People want to know we’re listening. While their problems may seem insignificant to us, these concerns are important to them. In many cases, they have been worrying and stewing over them for a while.

When people complained about their phone bill, it was a real issue for them. So, I started listening and acknowledging their perspective. I put myself in their shoes. I said things like, “I wouldn’t enjoy my bill increasing either,” or “I’d be frustrated too if my new phone just broke,” or, “It is a pain when you don’t know how to download an app.”

One woman had to replace two new phones after declining insurance two months earlier. Because I took the time to listen and acknowledge her situation as a real-life problem, I created a positive relationship. Even though she had to spend an additional $1,100, she later gave me a 10 out of 10 rating. I’ll never forget what she wrote: “Matt made my awful situation better. I know he’s a salesperson, but he made me feel like everything was going to be OK. I strongly recommend working with him, and I will always go back and see him.”

People want to know you care. It starts with listening and acknowledging, not minimizing their problem and coming up with an immediate solution that only benefits one side.

Don’t Take It Personally

Even your best efforts will not make everyone happy. In fact, some people will never like you. I used to take everything personally. This meant that if we had a serious disagreement, there was a good chance we would never be close. One Sunday, I was shocked when not one person welcomed me at church. They walked by me like I was invisible. Why? I had disconnected myself from any relationship where there were past conflicts or disagreements. In other words, I had almost no friends.

Throughout my year as a damage control specialist, I endured profanity and insults. And I realized people under stress often react by saying hurtful things. It wasn’t personal.

People will become upset with you. People will leave your church. People will even say and post hurtful things about you or your organization. It may initially sting, but we must develop the emotional stability to endure it and respond with the love of Christ, who prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

I never became a great salesman. But I did learn how to handle conflict. At one point, I was the top-rated employee in our region for WTR (willingness to recommend). It led to some great opportunities, including the assignment of training our stores employees on how I achieved that.

Those attributes and learned behaviors were even more useful when I transitioned back into church ministry. While the “why” behind the conflict is different (people in our church typically don’t complain about a phone bill), the “how” still applies.

I now know I can’t outrun conflict, but that’s OK. I have discovered solutions for handling it better. It begins with staring conflict directly in the face, making the effort to acknowledge and listen compassionately before jumping in. And when things don’t go as planned, I give it to God and refuse to take it personally.


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