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How to Respond to Conflicts- Choices that Determine our Lives

July 24, 2013

As unpleasant as conflict is, it seems to be an inevitable part of life.  There are many reasons for this, but such are not the subject of this post.  I would rather like to focus our attention on the three main options available to us in responding to a person who wrongs us, namely: aggression, passivity or assertiveness.  It should be clear from the previous posts on anger that aggression against another is an unchristian and decidedly unhealthy manner in which to respond to conflict.  An aggressive response will likely lead to an escalation of grievances rife with negative consequences that further damage domestic, social, and professional relationships.

A passive response is also undesirable, because it cowardly avoids the truth of the matter and may lead to an angrier response in the future.  The manual authors write, “The basic message of passivity is that your feelings, thoughts, and beliefs are important, but my feelings, thoughts, and beliefs are unimportant and inconsequential.” Although this may seem humble, it is a false humility before others rather than genuine humility before God, for it is not grounded in the truth concerning all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. According to divine revelation, every soul with its thoughts and feelings, including my soul and your soul, is worth more than even “the whole world” and every soul, both my soul and your soul, is precious in the sight of the Lord. The message of passivity that your feelings matter, but mine do not, is a lie that even the passive can feel at their very core. The manual authors continue, “Acting in a passive or nonassertive way may help you avoid the negative consequences associated with aggression, but it may also ultimately lead to negative personal consequences, such as diminished self-esteem, and prevent you from having your needs satisfied… Passivity or nonassertiveness involves failing to express feelings, thoughts, and beliefs or expressing them in an apologetic manner that others can easily disregard.”

Aggressive and passive responses to conflict are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, but are each in its own way an unhealthy strategy for dealing with conflict.  The good news is that both passive and aggressive responses are learned behaviors and are not innate, unchangeable personality traits. This means that another behavioral approach that is superior to either one of these bad options can also be learned. And that approach is being assertive. According to the manual, “from an anger management perspective, the best way to deal with a person who has violated your rights is to act assertively. Acting assertively involves standing up for your rights in a way that is respectful of other people. The basic message of assertiveness is that my feelings, thoughts, and beliefs are important, and that your feelings, thoughts, and beliefs are equally important. By acting assertively, you can express your feelings, thoughts, and beliefs to the person who violated your rights without suffering the negative consequences associated with aggression or the devaluation of your feelings, which is associated with passivity or nonassertion.”

The ascetic fathers would by and large agree with this approach to conflict, although they would, as expected, come at it by another way. For them, being passive or being aggressive results in a distortion of the truth. The hardship-avoiding (φυγόπονοι) passive are neither fully honest, nor truly brave. The more-than-an-eye-for-an-eye aggressive are often self-centered and lacking in love. Neither path characterizes a life of virtue, holiness, and Christian heroism. For the fathers, any human response to conflict should speak the truth bravely, honestly, and with a spirit of love. This is what the confessors did before tyrants and torturers. This what the Lord commanded His disciples, saying “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”  Courageous, plain speaking without obfuscation and with a spirit of love, this is the ideal of the Gospel.

In our response to conflict of any kind, we are in need of the mind of Christ in order to respond in a way that is neither weakly passive nor arrogantly aggressive. Saint Isaac the Syrian puts this quite well when he writes, “A sign of compassion is forgiveness of every debt; a sign of an evil mind is offensive speech to one who has fallen. The man who administers chastisement with a view to healing, chastises with love; but he who seeks vengeance is devoid of love. God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but seeking to make whole His image. And he does not harbor wrath until a time when correction is no longer possible, for He does not seek vengeance for Himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, and it does not aim at retribution. A righteous man that is wise is like unto God, for he never chastises a man to requite and avenge his wickedness, but to correct him.” (I.48, p. 364)

This takes real effort and only those who are devoted to the spiritual struggle can hope to respond to conflict in the manner described by Saint Isaac. It certainly can be helpful to engage in one of the patristic methods described in the previous posts for dealing with anger before trying to speak, for the temptation to respond aggressively or passively is a very real one, especially for those who are not spiritually vigilant and fortified by prayer, fasting and almsgiving, all done for the sake of love.

In the Christian context, the person who chooses to respond assertively is not so concerned that his needs are met or his dignity is upheld, for his primary source of reference remains his faithfully Loving Father, not his wayward brothers and sisters. Rather, the chief concerns remain, “did I speak the truth?” and “Did I speak the truth in love, in such a way that my brother or my sister may see the path that leads to life?”  This Christian assertiveness is not about winning the argument and never about humiliating the other, but it is about letting your light (which is the light of Christ’s truth) shine before others in word and deed.

3783468930_e3f0b6e330_oLet me illustrate this point by referring to the Gospel account of the woman caught in adultery.  According to ancient tradition, when the Lord Christ stooped down to write on the ground he was revealing the secret sins of the woman’s accusers so that they might repent.  He could have chosen to shout out the sins of the Pharisees and scribes and humiliate them.  That was not his goal.  He spoke the truth in love in order to save the woman from stoning and give the Pharisees and scribes an opportunity to repent.  According to Saint Nikolai of Zhicha, “Christ did not want their sins to be made known to everyone. Had He desired this, He would have announced them before all the people, and would have accused them and had them stoned to death, in accordance with the law. But He, the innocent Lamb of God, did not contemplate revenge or death for those who had prepared for Him a thousand deaths, who desired His death more than everlasting life for themselves. The Lord wanted only to correct them, to make them think of themselves and their own sins. He wanted to remind them that while they carried the burden of their own transgressions, they shouldn’t be strict judges of the transgressions of others. This alone did the Lord desire. And when this was done, the dust was again smoothed over, and that which was written disappeared.” That is an assertive response par excellence!

  1. Father, bless,

    Is it possible, or even desirable, to assertively respond to wrongs and the person who wronged you, in the monastic life? If it is even done in the monastic life, is it only done in confession? One of the hardest things to deal with in the monastic life is, I can imagine, putting up with the constant short comings of brothers who refuse to obey the rules of the monastery, never show up to their assigned obediences, who continue to offend you, and often make remarks that are completely out of place and inappropriate for the monastic community. Is the monastery a place where monks can be assertive to their fellow monks if they have had some wrong committed against themselves? I know of communities in America where communication between the brotherhood is encouraged, but I had this idea that the only person monks communicate their issues/problems with is their father-confessor. Did monks at your monastery on Mt. Athos do this?

    I spent roughly nine months at a monastery and had a hard time while there because I thought the holy thing to do when some wrong was committed against me was to bite my tongue and let people act like jerks to me, like you mentioned in your post. That mindset would make things difficult for me when I would see monks who were not afraid to speak up, not in a mean way but assertively, when something not quite right was happening to them. Enlighten me! 🙂


  2. The Lord God bless you!

    Thank you for an excellent question. It is true that in a monastic context in which one is struggling to become humble, to cut off the will, and to serve one’s brethren, the more passive response seems to be an ideal. And it often is when the soul is at peace and full of love. On the other hand, it can also be a kind of indifference towards one’s brother that is certainly not a virtue. That is why discretion is so very important. Obviously, it is appropriate to express exactly how one feels and thinks in confession in a spirit of humility. In that context, one is assertive in the sense of opening one’s heart up wide and hiding nothing. In the context of confession, one can also ask one’s spiritual father if it is appropriate to let a brother know the effects of the brother’s actions, and many times a spiritual father will suggest letting the other person know for the other person’s sake and for the sake of the brethren living in unity.

    Many times, novices may attempt ascetic exploits that are beyond their level of perfection and a consistently passive response could be beyond the measure of some fledgling monastics. There is also a huge difference between a gracious and grace-filled may it be blessed and forgive me (Να ᾽ναι εὐλογημένο καί εὐλόγησον) that has the joy of following Christ contained in those words and a perfunctory, forced response in which the heart rebels against what the mouth is saying and there is something not quite honest and transparent present. In such cases, an assertive response followed by a let it be blessed might be better and in fact enable the heart to then agree with the mouth.

    On Athos, I saw passive responses frequently, aggressive responses occasionally, and assertive responses rarely. I also have seen multiple passive responses followed by an aggressive response, which indicated that the passive responses were not full of the grace of self-renunciation for the sake of Christ.

    I hope this clarifies matters a bit.

  3. “There is also a huge difference between a gracious and grace-filled may it be blessed and forgive me (Να ᾽ναι εὐλογημένο καί εὐλόγησον) that has the joy of following Christ contained in those words and a perfunctory, forced response in which the heart rebels against what the mouth is saying and there is something not quite honest and transparent present.” – Indeed!

    “In such cases, an assertive response followed by a let it be blessed might be better and in fact enable the heart to then agree with the mouth.” – Interesting; I never considered that. Although reflecting a bit more, I remember seeing some of the brothers do that.

    Thanks for the reply!

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