Over the past 15 years, I have served as a spiritual care coordinator, a pastor and a seminary professor. In all of these settings, I have discovered again and again that the most challenging moments in ministry are not tasks like sermon writing, visitation, funerals, creating new courses or developing curricula. What creates anxiety, frustration, disappointment and downright perplexity in ministry are the entrenched interpersonal impasses and conflicts among church members (and church members who are also family members), staff, committees and denominational factions.
Consequently, I have spent the past 10 years intensively learning a practice called nonviolent or compassionate communication. Developed by clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, nonviolent communication has led to an international peacemaking organization (the Center for Nonviolent Communication) with people throughout the world practicing conflict transformation in homes, workplaces, prisons, community centers, preschools and graduate schools. Though not embedded in any particular religious framework, nonviolent communication can be integrated faithfully into Christian practice so that communities of faith can be transformed through conflict by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The church in North America today faces many challenges and crises. Denominations split over contested theology and practice. Communities of faith live from skirmish to skirmish without ever changing the underlying dynamics. Others falter under dwindling financial resources and loss of cultural capital. Clergy misconduct leaves congregational scars for generations. Polarizing discourse seems ubiquitous, and sisters and brothers in Christ treat one another as enemies. High levels of stress weigh clergy down and lead to high attrition rates. The list goes on and on.
On the eve of His arrest, Jesus prayed to God for his disciples, “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22–23 NRSV). In so doing, He pointed toward the koinonia that constitutes the being of God, the church and the world.
Often translated “fellowship” in English, the Greek word koinonia means that we are united to God and to one another through Christ in the greatest possible bond of intimacy. We indwell God and God indwells us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Because we are united to Christ, we also are united to each other. We belong to God and each other, not merely to ourselves.
In the church, we are called to practice, with intentionality, our koinonia with God and each other. We are called to live in peace with each other, support one another, confess our sin to one another, practice hospitality toward one another, and bear each other’s burdens. We also are called to witness to God’s love for the world with a contagious joy.
Vitriol and schism scandalize this witness to God’s love. How can the church be an ambassador of reconciliation when communities of faith are torn asunder by mutual recrimination, judgment and cut-offs? How can we worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24) and vilify those made in God’s image, those whom God loves?
How we deal with conflict in the church usually contradicts our koinonia with God and each other as well. But it doesn’t have to. Conflict can provide an opportunity to live in koinonia with greater faithfulness and integrity. It can be the catalyst for the church’s transformation in the Spirit. But in order for that to happen, we need a new posture toward conflict itself, a posture molded by nonviolent communication.
Nonviolent communication trains us to approach conflict as both a gift and a possibility. Whether conflict resides in a single person, between persons or within groups, it breaks open space for new life to emerge. Honestly facing and working through conflict (rather than avoiding it or pacifying it) can lead to more genuine Christian community and, therefore, to greater creativity and integrity in witnessing to God’s love. It can energize us, inspire us and deepen our commitments to each other.
This approach teaches us that conflict isn’t just something external to us. It is an internal reality. When a group or organization is in conflict, so are its leaders, participants and members. Precisely because we indwell each other in countless unseen ways, we absorb the emotional milieu of the contexts in which we live and work. For this reason, conflict is transformed from the inside out.
Nonviolent communication also eschews compromise. The problem with compromise is that it tends to bypass koinonia and goes straight to seeking strategies to relieve our pain and discomfort. It can be superficial. It frequently comes from a deficit mentality—the belief that there aren’t enough resources to meet all of our needs. It can lead to resentment as one group or person gives up something that matters.
This communication transforms conflict by fostering humanizing encounter through three core skill sets: honesty, empathy and self-empathy. When we lean into conflict by using nonviolent communication honesty, empathy and self-empathy, we create the conditions whereby the Spirit may unite us in love.
Truth in Love
Honesty emerges from a dogged commitment to contribute to mutual understanding, care and connection in our relationships. It begins with observations rather than evaluations. An observation is a concrete statement or thought that reflects what we are hearing, seeing or remembering in reference to a specific context, event or interaction. Evaluations can be positive or negative. They take the form of interpretations, labels and diagnoses of others. When we communicate our evaluations of others, especially negative evaluations, it evokes defensiveness and leads to disconnection. When we make observations about what is upsetting us, however, we foster mutual understanding and encourage open conversation.
Honesty involves more than simply making observations. It involves speaking up about what matters most to us in a given situation. In this honesty, we communicate our cherished values and pressing needs in the midst of conflict. Needs here are defined as universal qualities that contribute to the flourishing of human life — for example, purpose, meaning, community, integrity, peace, autonomy, choice, freedom, love, physical well-being, etc. To put it another way, needs give life. We hold these needs in common even if we experience them differently. Because of this, needs provide a point of connection — a place for human encounter — in the midst of difference, disagreement or dissension.
Nonviolent communication’s honesty also includes requests rather than demands. We translate demands into genuine requests with the intent of contributing to all our needs. Unlike demands, requests respect others’ choice and autonomy. We trust that if others say “no” to our request, it is likely because they are saying “yes” to other needs of theirs at that time. We hear the “yes” within their “no.” For if we act out of guilt, fear or coercion, we build up resentment. Over time, that erodes community.
Honesty enables us to speak the truth in love. Speaking the truth in love contributes to interdependence, collaboration and care in the church. It serves the church’s unity in diversity. By speaking the truth in love, we encourage and empower each other to live out our common and our unique callings in life. Each of us has a common calling to serve others, live in solidarity with those who are suffering, and witness to God’s grace in word and deed. Each of us has been given gifts of the Spirit — mercy, service, administration, teaching and so forth — in order to carry out this calling in our congregations, neighborhoods, families and workplaces. Differences of all sorts arise. Honesty helps us to communicate about those differences in ways that contribute to the church’s capacity to fulfill its mission in the world.
Hear Others Fully
Empathy is the companion to honesty in nonviolent communication. Empathy is a disciplined skill in which we hear others in all of their particularity. In empathy, we set aside our own feelings, needs, opinions and experiences in order to hear others fully. We are present, attentive and receptive. This is neither easy nor natural. Most of us have been socialized to sympathize rather than empathize. In sympathy, we filter others through our own experiences. We may assume that we know what they feel or need. We may try to console them, give advice, minimize or deny their lived reality. This kind of communication disconnects us from each other and even our own selves. In contrast, empathy connects us to one another, because it conveys care.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “Life Together,” “The first service that one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them.”
As a finely honed skill, empathy involves hearing and acknowledging the spoken or unspoken needs within another person’s speech and action. In empathy, we listen for life-serving needs (again understood as qualities that contribute to the flourishing of life). Sometimes we make empathetic guesses to discern others’ needs. Are they longing for respect, purpose, integrity, choice or hope? It doesn’t matter so much if our guesses are accurate or not. What matters is our attentive, receptive and nonjudgmental presence.
Valuing Our Needs
The skill of self-empathy bolsters our capacity to speak honestly and to listen empathetically. Self-empathy is indispensable to leading in the midst of conflict. In conflicted situations and relationships, criticism or angry words are often spoken with ease. Most of us react in two ways: we lash out or we lash in.
We lash out when we attack back. We hear others as accusing, judging, shaming or blaming us. We might think we are justified in responding in kind. We might become intent upon proving ourselves right and the other wrong. Or we might see the other as deserving punishment for whatever we judge as wrong with their behavior or attitude. This lashing out escalates conflict and cultivates self-righteousness.
We lash in when we agree with and internalize other harsh words. Now we criticize, blame or shame ourselves for whatever it is that we have done: “I should have known better.” “I’m no good.” “I’ll never learn.” Ruminating self-judgments foster isolation, exhaustion and even depression.
Lashing in and lashing out aren’t our only options. Instead, we can empathize with the other person, translating their criticism or ad hominem attack into needs. We might wonder what would lead them to speak this way. What needs are unmet? What really matters to them? We consider them with compassion and curiosity.
The other option is self-empathy. In self-empathy, we identify and value our own needs with the same kind of care that we seek to offer to others. We translate our self-judgments into needs. If we are labeling ourselves as inadequate, we might be needing competence. If we are berating ourselves for communicating in a certain way, we might be needing consideration of others. Whatever the particulars, we place attention on our own thought processes, particularly our self-judgments, so that we can move out of self-blame into centeredness in our identity as children of God.
When undertaken as a Christian spiritual practice, self-empathy can lead to prayer. For God alone is ultimately the source of our needs. When our best efforts to transform conflict fall short, we find peace in God through Jesus Christ. When we fail to listen with empathy or speak with honesty, we find forgiveness and acceptance in Christ. When we lament our unfulfilled desires, the Spirit of God sustains us by reminding us of God’s promises.
Taken together, empathy and self-empathy may help us pray more like the psalmists. Too often in the church, our prayers are superficial. We often do not experience authentic fellowship because we do not break through to authentic confession, intercession, lament or heartfelt thanksgiving in the presence of one another. Along with conflict, our very neediness before God and one another remains hidden. However, when we dare to pray to God and with one another with honesty and vulnerability, when we dare to name the pain of unresolved conflict, we fellowship with God and each other. We break through to koinonia, and we are upheld in koinonia even when we cannot see it in our midst.
THERESA F. LATINI, Ph.D., is the associate dean of diversity and cultural competency and professor of practical theology and pastoral care at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. She is a graduate of Roberts Wesleyan College, an ordained minister, the author of “The Church and the Crisis of Community” and a co-author of “Transforming Church Conflict.”1