Six Questions to Discern Toxic Conflict Vs. Healthy Conflict

Few people desire to live in a perpetual state of conflict. A constant battle is exhausting. Continual tension can lead to major spiritual, emotional, and physical problems. But avoiding conflict is just as unhealthy.

Unfortunately, the label of toxicity is applied too often. For example, criticism is not necessarily toxic, even when it is misguided. The critic becomes toxic only with elevated intensity and repeated frequency. A cantankerous spirit is annoying but not often toxic. Complaining is not synonymous with toxicity. If so, my young children would be the most toxic thing in my life. They are not.

Conflict can be healthy. The greatest art is produced at a point of tension. Innovation occurs when the heat of conflict rises. Accountability is difficult apart from some level of conflict.

Churches tend to have a culture of conflict avoidance or conflict pursuit. Some find a good balance, but many struggle. The personality of the pastor will drive the direction of the church. Firebrand pastors will create high levels of unnecessary conflict. Passive shepherds will hide problems to avoid necessary conflict.

How can you know the difference between conflict that is healthy or toxic? First, consider the source of toxicity. Though toxicity takes many forms, it ultimately derives from one of two places: foolishness or maliciousness. The foolish person does not intend harm but causes it through unwise choices. The malicious person intends to harm and uses it as leverage.

Ask yourself these six questions before making a conclusion about the toxicity of conflict.

1. What is the motivation? Start with your own motives. Do you desire good or harm? If spite is a driver, then you are likely acting in a toxic way. Also, do not assume the motives of others. If you don’t know, then ask them. When we feel conflict, the temptation is to assume the worst. Rarely are these assumptions accurate.

2. What is the goal? One of the best ways to generate constructive conflict is to make your goals clear, concise, and unemotional. I’ve witnessed some intense church business meetings in which the people shouted across the room, and nobody had a clue what each party wanted. I’m not so sure they knew either.

3. Are you talking to people or about them? Gossip is a tell-tale sign of toxicity. Rather than talking about someone to others, go to the person and talk to them.

4. Is friction respectful or combative? Many years ago, I was too forceful with my team in a specific situation. I was in my 20s and leading more experienced and older staff. One of them nicknamed me “Sparky” at a particularly tense moment. Everyone laughed. The moniker became one of endearment. My wife even uses the term to this day. I still despise it. At the time, it was the staff’s way of diffusing the tension while still showing me respect.

5. Are you leading with questions or exclamations? Stop talking over people and ask more questions. Understanding comes through listening, not yelling.

6. Are you able to hang out afterward? One of the best tests of healthy conflict is the ability to hang out after a tense conversation. Toxicity sets in when people cannot be around each other. Healthy conflict helps people see differences without them disregarding each other. 

Conflict is necessary for healthy relationships, especially in the church. Toxic conflict is manipulative, self-absorbed, foolish, and malicious, but healthy conflict seeks to understand and has a clear goal.