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The Three Layers of Conflict In Community

by: Andy Patton

Everyone needs some form of community. It is also one of the greatest sources of regular stress and conflict many will experience in life.

During some seasons of life together, we can all "go along to get along." But there are other times when old wounds rise to the surface, when a stray remark or careless word sparks a banked fire, or when we learn difficult things about how hard it is to live together.

These times of conflict are both a challenge and an opportunity. They can be the doorway into greater intimacy and understanding for a community of any size—if handled well.

Similarity and Difference Are Both Important to a Community

Birds of a feather flock together and communities tend to form around similarities. When two people are like one another, there is a common language, an ease of both expression and of reception. As C. S. Lewis said, “Friendship ... is born at the moment when one man says to another "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”

St. Augustine put it this way:

“The greatest source of repair and restoration was the solace of friends… to make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together well-written books, to disagree without animosity, to teach each other something or to learn from one another, to long with impatience for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival. These and other things come through the heart of those who love and are loved…”

The recognition and enjoyment of similarities with those we love and live with is responsible for a good part of the joy available to us humans in this life.

But, despite its pleasure, enjoying our similarities with others is not the highest form of human community. To pursue that end, we must go far beyond similarity into rougher terrain. If similarity is the wine of life together, difference can be its bread and water.

The similarities we enjoy so much are often only the threshold of relationship. No matter how alike a group is, differences will eventually rise to the surface. Any community, if it is to thrive, must find a way to metabolize those differences, to process them and contain them. A community must be able to affirm and uphold the uniqueness of the people who make it up and also to ask one another to bend, to change, and to grow. Differences can become opportunities to deepen the mutual knowledge, respect, and support that communities thrive on.

I’ve found it helpful to see both similarities and differences in a community through the lens of the “Three Layers.”

The Three Layers

It has been said that there are three layers to community: civility, conflict, and accord. The layers come with an accompanying axiom: In order to get to the accord of the third layer, you have to pass through the discord of the second layer.

The First Layer

The first layer is about similarity, innocence, civility, infatuation, common grace.

It is the way you treat the man at the grocery store, your new neighbor, the cute girl in class, your future in-laws. It is holding the door open for someone, waving someone past you at an intersection, making eye contact and shaking hands. It is the grease on the wheels of a civil society. It is easy because it is superficial. It is a beginning.

The first layer is about uniformity because everyone looks the same at a distance. It is the threshold to relationships that could become deeper. All of us have to live in the first layer every day, but if we want true community none of us can live there exclusively.

In the course of life together, doors to the second layer will begin to open, inviting the community to face the differences and tensions among its members. If a community cannot enter those doors, things begin to go wrong.

The path of least (short-term) resistance in a community is always to sweep things under the rug, to stay on the first layer. The (long-term) problem is that you end up with an elephant-sized pile of undiscussable memories, thoughts, and feelings in the middle of the room—which is no way to live.

If differences and tensions are not dealt with, they metastasize. The pile of things under the rug shoots tendrils out and causes enmity as the community searches for indirect ways of discussing the undiscussable. It comes out in gossip and bitter memories nursed well beyond their term, locked away from the kind of reconciliation that might put them to rest. It comes out in ungainly community behaviors as everyone tries not to touch their thorniest issues. As the issues grow, the act of dancing around them must become increasingly acrobatic.

The journey into the second layer invites us into the very tension we would most like to avoid, which can be frightening. However, the hope of the second layer is that something lies beyond the conflict that can only be accessed through it.

The Second Layer

Then comes the second layer, the layer of difference. It is the place of unpleasant discoveries, of slowly appearing bruises, of resentments and things regretted, of honest words, of reckoning with how downright nasty the world can be. The second layer isn’t about generalities, but particularities as people reckon with the whole of one another’s personalities. It is about getting things straight. It is about revisiting the difficult issues again and again because you find, to your great surprise, that the thread must pass through the tangle many times before the knot is loosed.

When a community has been avoiding the second layer, it is evident to anyone with eyes to see. The things that got swept under the rug in the first layer begin to pile up until they trip everyone who comes into the room. If a community is unable to address, acknowledge, and hold its differences, it will lose its ability to offer hospitality to anyone else. At this point, one of two things happens: either new people are put off by the festering conflicts and steer clear or they are drafted one side or another and the problems in the community only grow deeper.

The second layer is the layer all relationships find their way to eventually if they are going to grow. It invites us to dispense with dissembling. It poses a choice to any relationship or community: lean in or step back? Change or fly apart? Deepen or scatter?

The Third Layer

The third layer is blessed community. It is rugged and weather-beaten and sweet as birdsong. It is innocent again, but has become rich with wisdom. It holds memory but has also learned the regular practice of forgiveness and release. It has learned again how to laugh. It has let go the poison of the second layer’s pains, but retains the gift of truths discovered there.

In the third layer, the hurts and anxieties that life in community draws to the surface can become doorways to healing and transformation.

The third layer is about acceptance of distinctiveness where one another’s uniqueness is celebrated, smiled at, forgiven. Here you discover again and again the same lesson: that it is through weakness, service, suffering, and graciousness that love is most nearly itself. And that love taken and given in the bonds of gift and debt can knit a community together.

However, that is not a lesson that can be learned second-hand; it is an answer that must be experienced. And it must be experienced again and again if the blessed community is to prove to be something more than just a passing brush with the deeper unity beyond conflict.

Braving the Second Layer Together

We all have tender places we protect and they can go very deep indeed. In the glorious mess of human relationships, we often unwittingly step into one another’s sensitivities and pains and can cause damage there. The truth is that if you live long enough with people (and care for them well enough), you will see that we all wear our wounds on our sleeves. They are there in our body language, in the way we deflect conversations away from certain topics, in the way we make jokes, in the way we fall silent.

These are all doorways into the second layer, the opportunities inside our differences. If a community—a marriage, a work team, a family, a church, or any group of people—is to continue to grow, it must take the journey into its differences.

You have to find a way to turn the dark jungle of animosity into a well-known and well-worn web of relational pathways through the trees. But the journey is fraught. Many find they can’t make it. They eventually turn around and go back to the first layer. They continue to live together, but decide that there are places they won’t go relationally, topics and wounds that must not be broached, a distance that must be kept. And they aren’t always wrong.

Others find they become people they do not want to be as they wander under the sunless trees of the second layer with their community. They become angry and bitter and biting. Things emerge they never thought were there and which they do not want to feel. They find words rise up from within that need to be spoken, but they can’t find a way to speak them without hurting themselves and everyone else. Damage is done and the community finds that its center cannot hold. Each person walks away nursing wounds, shame, and blame.

Still others cross and re-cross through the second layer until it is familiar terrain. It is these people who find that they are eventually able to surpass their own learned patterns of conflict. Most of the time those patterns happen automatically, instantaneously, and below the level of our awareness. When we register an interpersonal threat in our community, we simply avoid it, or get angry, or pretend like it isn’t there. Part of the work of metabolizing the differences we encounter in conflict is bringing those instinctive patterns to the surface, slowing them down, and intentionally trying to behave differently together. And that is what a successful passage through the second layer is all about.

The Catch

The catch to all of this is that you can only access the third layer by crossing through the second layer. There is no pass to the front of the line. The third layer can only be earned over and over again. The discovery of the third layer doesn’t last (though it does accrue). There is always another conflict, other differences. But seasoned travelers of the second layer learn not to fear them, but to welcome them for what they are, the only way to go deeper because the problems in a community are not the differences themselves. The problems are the things that keep you from dealing with the differences well.

The journey through the second layer isn’t safe and it isn’t pleasant, but it is real. So, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “Fare forward, traveler.”


Andy Patton is on staff with the Rabbit Room and is a former staff member of L'Abri Fellowship in England. He holds an M.A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He writes at The Darking Psalter (creative rewordings of the Psalms paired with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Pattern Bible (reflections on biblical images in the Bible).


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