Conflict, Compatibility and Community

Feb 17, 2010

“True community has little to do with mutual compatibility.” ~ Henri Nouwen

A friend posted this Nouwen quote on Twitter Monday, the timing of his nugget impeccable. For the past several days I’ve been an internet lurker to a heated disagreement between people who claim to share the same faith. I’m not making a jab at faith or religion here; I’ve seen people mismanage conflict in all sorts of circles. It certainly isn’t limited to faith associations.

The disagreement isn’t over anything life or death; I believe it’s simply a series of knee-jerk reactions to differences in perspective and experience. It makes me think of three witnesses to the same car accident all with different accounts of what “really happened.” Is one more right than the other, or is it merely a difference in vantage point?

I hate conflict. In my immediate family I’m akin to a bulldog with her teeth wrapped around a bone, unable to let go until the conflict is resolved. I can’t stand any lingering tension. Outside my family, I’m more of a turtle, preferring to avoid conflict, even if it means avoiding the people involved. I don’t recommend either the bulldog or turtle approach; both can make things much, much worse.

This quote by Nouwen cost me a couple hours (ok, days) of pondering: Have I been trying to build community by constantly preserving the status quo? In so doing, am I limiting the potential for personal and communal growth, growth that can only come from the occasional and temporary tensions arising in normal relationships? I believe that our conflicts, if handled with honor and respect, can actually create cohesion in a community. Without occasional tension, there isn’t much glue to keep us all sticking together or impetus to keep us growing.

What relationship exists between conflict, compatibility and the growth of community? What are you doing to allow for healthy debate in your relationships?


  1. Jim Vining

    Very well said! Thanks.
    My reaction to conflict is similar to yours, and I am learning similar lesson about the value, and possibility, of healthy conflict. My head gets it, but my heart is a little slower to buy in!
    In addition to seeing the value of healthy conflict in relationships and community, I am beginning to ask myself the question "Why am I afraid of conflict?" It is a basic, yet sensitive, question that I need to answer for a healthier me.
    Thanks again Michele for sharing with us. It is good to know you.
    Grace and Peace

    • Michele Cushatt

      The "Why am I afraid of conflict" question is such a good one to ask. Working on a little of that myself, and trying to get to a place where I'm "comfortable" with occasional tension (like the sand in the oyster that eventually produces a pearl analogy).

  2. Kay

    I avoid conflict. I hate it. But Jesus said Blessed are the peacemakers. Someone pointed out that a peacemaker and a peace keeper are not the same thing.
    I like to keep the peace. But that often involves burying things that should be dealt with. Sometimes conflict handled correctly is necessary in order to make real peace.
    I don't like that. But it makes sense.

    • Michele Cushatt

      Yes! I learned about the difference between peacekeepers and peacemakers in a Beth Moore study. Maybe we're talking about the same thing? It made a huge impact on me, though I don't know if I'm any better at peacemaking. It's just so easy to resort to peacekeeping, especially when I'm afraid someone will get upset or be hurt if I speak up.

  3. Dr. Karen Sherman

    These are all really good points!

    As a relationship expert (, I would like to add that couples need to know that conflicts are bound to happen. But here's the good news: there are skills they can learn so that they can handle them better. When they do, their partnerships fare much better. I offer a free teleseminar, "The 7 Tools to Manage Conflict Communication in Your Relationship." To hear it, go to:


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