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.

Posted on August 3, 2022

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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  • An observation about the need for conflict (or friction). When a person drives a car the wheels spin unless there is friction between the tire and the ground.

    One challenge I find with conflict is the fact I can only control my portion of the conflict. I may be trying to keep the conflict and interaction productive, but if the other in the exchange makes the conflict a “life or death” stand, in most cases, nothing I do will change their mind. Or, maybe better, make the conflict less toxic for them.

    Ironically, the most toxic conflict often stems from the most benign things. In my 12 years experience in my church, people have fewer issues and conflict with theology and faith statements. Their toxic conflict comes from things like “removing the American Flag from the Sanctuary” or “changing the color of the paint on the door of the Parish House”.

    What methods do you find helpful to identify the toxicity of the exchange in the moment? I have found it more difficult to get into the mind of the other person before the situation becomes untenable. After all my years, I have developed a way to know when I’m falling out of useful conflict.

    And this leads back to a thought I had recently, the greatest gift a Pastor can give is to take a breath and invite others to do the same. In the pause, the emotion often gets defused.

  • Terry Turbin says on

    Excellant take on the reality of such conflicts. God allows conflict for sure,and the way we respond is the mark of maturity. Thankful for your love of the church to help leadership do a better job. Blessings sent