By Soni Soneson Werner, Associate Professor Emerita of Psychology at Bryn College of the New Church and trainer in Conflict Resolution Skills
Conflict can be good. It all depends on how we handle the people with whom we disagree. Both psychologists and theologians offer concepts that can shape our behavior, so that we can communicate in a mutually respectful manner. Let’s first consider some examples of people in conflict who are not admirable role models. I think I am not alone in disliking the social behavior of the Anglican clergyman named Rev. Collins, who was a character in Pride and Prejudice. In this nineteenth-century British novel, Rev. Collins repeatedly ingratiates himself with the pompous Lady Catherine de Bourgh. No matter what she states, he bows and agrees in order to win her favor. Readers are left without any clue of what he really values, as his desire to continue keeping Lady Catherine as his benefactress takes precedence over any desire for mutual respect or understanding. She is verbally aggressive, and he is hopelessly passive. They resolve conflicts, but they do so at a price: she always wins.
Then, there is the example of the Baptist clergyman, Rev. Nathan Price, who is a character in The Poisonwood Bible. In this twentieth-century American novel, Rev. Price is an evangelist who becomes a missionary worker in Africa, bringing his family along with him. He is intensely devoted to converting to Christianity natives in the Congo, and he refuses to admit any doubts or weaknesses in his manner of handling conflicts. Rev. Price is certain that he can do no wrong because God is on his side. He assumes that he should never negotiate with the natives. While he and the natives resolve conflicts, they, too, do so at a price: the reverend always wins.
Even though these two literary characters are both illustrations of members of the clergy handling conflicts, they differ in their behavioral styles. According to an analysis made by some organizational psychologists, Rev. Collins illustrates the pattern of SUB-PAR, or passive behavior, while Rev. Price is an example of some aspects of the pattern that I call DESTRUCTIVE, or aggressive behavior.
As a psychologist, I recommend that my clients learn nine specific skills that are designed to show mutual respect to all parties involved. “There are five basic confronting skills and four advanced confronting skills included which could be used individually or sequentially to resolve interpersonal conflicts and prevent future aggression.” Each of the skills is described at four levels of behavioral style. For example, one of these nine conflict resolution skills is called Remaining firm, fair, and friendly when resolving conflicts, and the spectrum of skills associated with the different levels of behavior looks like this:
- Protects the basic corporate values but is open to creative methods
- Respectfully explores value of improving levels of performance
- Uses “partner-to-partner” tone; assertively pushes for progress
- Keeps sense of balance while re-iterating key issues & impact
- Clarifies standards of behavior & addresses need for change
- Uses “adult-to-adult” tone; stays professional with use of words
- Gives in to the slightest pressure; is gutless & wimpy
- Is passive; fails to represent those affected-but-not-present
- Uses “child-to-adult” tone; becomes overly deferential to power
- Goes ballistic all at once; blows up at the slightest provocation
- Treats other person like the enemy; is overly hostile & suspicious
- Uses “parent-to-child” tone; is over-controlling & disrespectful
Originally, these skills were designed just for professionals in the corporate environment, but they have been adapted recently for a broader audience. The principles work in human relations, generally. For example, these skills can be used when other efforts to coach someone have failed, when people’s behavior falls short of what has been promised, when a chronic problem has continued for too long, or when someone’s behavior is contrary to the values of a group. Ideally, people can learn to use each skill assertively at the EXCELLENT or GOOD levels, and avoid using them at the SUB-PAR (passive) and DESTRUCTIVE (aggressive) levels.
How Do Angels Do It?
In addition to learning how to handle conflicts from the perspective of organizational psychologists, we can also derive inspiring concepts from the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. According to the Swedenborgian philosophy scholar Dan Goodenough:
Angels turned the conversation away from a self-pitying concern for one’s own problems, to the true ideas which could remove the problem. They respect freedom and listen well . . . Angels delight in teaching, discussion, debating, even confrontation, because these are the arenas in which they can accommodate the truth they love to human states. . . . The angels meet negative attitudes . . . by calm, patient instruction in the truth. . . . Sometimes the angels question, sometimes the learners question, but one purpose always seems to be to arouse and maintain interest.
Angels also pause in the middle of conflicts to allow everyone the chance to quietly reflect on what has been heard and then incorporate the ideas into their individual minds.
Swedenborg described what he saw during his mystical experiences of the spiritual world. He saw vivid images that represented spiritual struggles (Heaven and Hell §105). When he saw scenes involving fires, these corresponded to people who were willfully cruel, revengeful, and aggressively hateful to others. In hell, “each has the wish for supremacy and wants to take from the other the things he [or she] has by hidden or open devices” (Secrets of Heaven §6832:9). Fire and flame signify evil desires arising from the love of self and the love of the world, respectively (Apocalypse Explained §504). Swedenborg saw how fire from the will breaks forth into a person’s understanding and kindles a flame there, which is called anger. Then the person becomes heated and commits evil actions against others. When Swedenborg saw smoke, this corresponded to false ideas, often near the flames of anger and evil desires (Secrets of Heaven §§1861, 7575, 9143, 9144). The worst kind of fire was the love of self, involving dominion over others for selfish reasons, such as to gain wealth or higher positions in a community (Secrets of Heaven §10038; Heaven and Hell §571).
Swedenborg described another image:
When any small division of opinion occurs among those spirits they see a thin bright flash like a streak of lightning, or else they see a belt of sparkling stars. These are signs indicating division; but the division among them is quickly healed. Sparkling stars which wander are not a good sign, whereas stars sparkling but motionless are a good sign. (Secrets of Heaven §8112)
Both the psychological perspective and the theological perspective offer compelling reasons why people should learn how to resolve their conflicts, and certain organizational psychologists give specific suggestions on how to do it in mutually respectful ways. Although vivid fictional characters (e.g., Rev. Collins and Rev. Price) may be fun to read about, they may not always engage in the most effective styles of conflict management. So we should aspire to be more like the angels or to adopt the kind of exchange of opinions that is represented by the motionless stars.
Werner’s eBook entitled Conscience: Forensic Psychology is available for download at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/590834. To see all nine conflict resolution skills, read Chapter 1.B. For a summary of a Swedenborgian perspective on preventing, intervening, and rehabilitating people who have been in serious conflicts, read Chapters 1.C., 2.C., and 3.C.
 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (London: T. Egerton, 1813).
 Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (NYC: Harper, 1998).
 Dan Goodenough, “Angelic Methods of Instruction – A Survey of Memorabilia,” New Church Life (1977): 80, 81, 85, 86.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: T. Egerton, 1813.
Goodenough, Dan. “Angelic Methods of Instruction – A Survey of Memorabilia,”New Church Life (1977), 68–86.
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: Harper, 1998.
Swedenborg, Emanuel. Apocalypse Explained. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1997.
_____. Arcana Coelestia. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1997.
_____. Conjugial Love. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.
_____. Divine Providence. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
_____. Heaven and Hell. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
_____. Secrets of Heaven. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
_____. True Christianity. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
Werner, S.S. Conscience: Forensic Psychology. 2015.