“I love you.”

It didn’t matter if it had been a ten-second phone call or a one-hour conversation. It didn’t matter if the tone had been friendly or filled with tension. When the time came to hang up, my husband’s family always said those three little words.

This was new for me, and I noticed it right away after we married. Standing on the outside of the glass looking in, I marveled at watching this new family of mine wade through relationship. Their words carried permanence, security. Now that I’d been gathered into this family, the benefit carried over to me, too.

It sounds simplistic, but it’s anything but. Intentionally choosing to say those words, regardless of a conflict or disagreement, reaffirmed the relationship value:

  • “Don’t forget: We’re on the same team.”
  • “No matter what, we’re sticking together.”
  • “We’ll figure this out. In the meantime, I love you.”

There’s a big difference between childish disagreement and mature disagreement. When a child doesn’t like what another child is saying or doing, he throws a punch, calls a name, pouts in the corner or tattles to mom. The only thing he can see is his own perspective—he wants to be right and get his way. He may be justified in his frustration, but he is seen as childish.

As adults we often respond to disagreement in a similar way. We criticize, throw verbal punches, cop an attitude, and complain to friends or coworkers. The result is increasing tension and conflict, and eventually a breakdown in relationship. We look childish. Often we lose friends, family members, and business relationships because we didn’t navigate disagreement with maturity.

The key is knowing the difference between uniformity and unity.

Uniformity requires everyone to be like us. Approach, methods, responses, political party, etc. Everything must be uniform, or it feels unsafe. Differences are seen as a threat to the organization and an offense against the person.

Unity believes what unites is stronger than what divides. This golden thread might be marriage vows, a commitment to the organizational mission, or belief in the ultimate value of a project. Approach, methods, and responses may vary from person to person. But the unity of heart and purpose keeps the relationship intact.

While it is true some extreme circumstances warrant an end to relationship, it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable. But keeping differences from derailing relationship is easier in theory than in practice. Here are a few strategies to make sure you’re on the right track:

  1. Acknowledge that differences are expected in relationship. Differences are a normal part of living and working with people. If you don’t experience any tension, there’s a good chance you’re either a dictator (at home or the office) or you’re living and working alone.
  2. Avoid perceiving the other person as an enemy. Refuse to feel threatened. Even when differences seem insurmountable, see the person behind the issue. Try asking better questions in a sincere effort to understand. Err on the side of grace.
  3. Establish your own sense of personal security. Insecure people struggle to allow for differences. Like a house without a solid foundation, an insecure person can’t handle any push-back. It shakes her, puts her into defense mode. If that’s you, work on being sure of yourself, without needing the agreement of others to reinforce your stance.
  4. Embrace the benefits gained through the diversity of your team. My family would not be nearly as colorful without the dry wit of my husband and the raucous comedy of my youngest, not to mention all the others. The diversity of each member, although frustrating at times, adds color and texture to our family, making it a work of art like no other. The same could be said of your project team, board, or ministry staff.

Differences don’t have to be divisive. But how you handle them—and the tough conversations surrounding them—could be the deciding factor.

How do you handle differences?

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