Feature Stories

What skills do you need to confront conflict? The journey one mom began after a spilled Slurpee fiasco

Illustrations by Giulia Neri

My complete avoidance of conflict was becoming a problem. I was grateful to realize the Savior showed a better way.

Editor’s note: The article first appeared in the July/August issue of LDS Living magazine.

On a very ordinary spring day, I ambitiously lugged my three young children to the local Target in Denver to pick up some groceries. My youngest child, 15-month-old Lucie, was fussy and trying to wriggle out of her shopping cart seat, so I bought her a crimson-red Slurpee. It was perhaps not the smartest choice of distraction on my part, but I was desperate for anything to keep her occupied. My plan worked brilliantly to preserve our family’s peace until we made it to the checkout line—which was when things devolved into every young mother’s nightmare.

While we waited to make our purchase, Lucie finished her Slurpee and then succeeded in removing the plastic top, which she flung onto the floor behind me. A few specks of red liquid spattered onto the very white pants of a middle-aged woman standing behind us. I apologized profusely and assumed the woman would be placated by my words, but I was dead wrong.

Rather than allowing me to finish paying the cashier and leave the building with my children crawling all over me and the cart, the slightly red-spattered woman walked around the cashier and blocked me from leaving the premises. With hands on hips, she bellowed, “You ruined my new $30 pants, and you must pay for them.”

I was frozen but managed to utter, “Can they be cleaned? I’m sure any stains can be removed.”

Rather than accepting my suggestion, the woman stiffened and commanded me to pay her the full price of the pants immediately. No one behind me said a word; the cashier was silent and trembling. I felt like I was being held up at a bank robbery while surrounded by a curious audience. Yes, a few specks of red were visible on her pants, but did I have to pay her the $30? Feeling helpless, ashamed, and ultimately encumbered by my three needy children, I scrambled through my wallet and gave $30 in cash to my aggressor.

She took my bills and walked back over to her place in line. While I was now free to leave, I felt utterly violated, stripped of money and dignity.

Illustration by Giulia Neri

Shaken, I drove home and spent the next several hours reviewing the painful experience. I was troubled, not knowing how I should’ve handled the situation. The woman had coerced me into fulfilling her interpretation of justice for Lucie’s infraction, but I became more unsure about my decision to acquiesce to her demands. Was avoidance really the best policy in that situation? Could I, in my efforts to be a disciple of Christ, have reacted differently and still have been striving for peace?

From the Ground Up

Like my experience in Target suggests, creating peace can be complex and even painfully aggravating when we theoretically understand the Savior’s principles of peace but lack the knowledge of how to apply them in our own lives. For years, I longed for the ability to put Christ’s instruction “to have peace one with another” into practice in my life (Mark 9:50). I often avoided confrontation in the name of peace, but my overreliance on avoidance didn’t necessarily lead to increased connection and harmony. In fact, sometimes my avoidance led to greater conflict and misunderstandings in my key relationships because I wasn’t clear about my true needs and feelings. Could I change how I approached conflict in my life and better maintain my integrity and sense of self?

These and other life experiences and questions propelled me to formally study something called alternative dispute resolution. When my fifth and final child turned 3, I began a master’s program

in professional communication at the University of Denver focused on that subject. Through classes on topics such as persuasion, mediation, and negotiation, I gained the practical peacemaking skills that I had longed to develop. My instructors designed practical assignments that had me negotiate compensation for bad customer service, persuade my local homeowners’ association representative to accept an alternative roofing choice, and even motivate my 3-year-old to eat her vegetables.

I learned that conflict is a real or perceived difference that matters to one or more people. Rather than fear conflict, I needed to accept it as a constant in this life because we each have different life experiences and perspectives. Yet conflict differs from contention, which involves hostility and a desire to weaponize the differences between us.

The Savior spoke clearly throughout His earthly ministry that the spirit of contention and disputation are not of Him (see 3 Nephi 11:29–30; 3 Nephi 18:34). Paralleling what my academic studies suggested, I noticed that Christ employed a variety of responses to conflict depending upon the situation. From accommodating His mother to perform His first miracle to censuring the Pharisees and Sadducees for hypocrisy and, ultimately, remaining silent when questioned by the high priest Caiaphas upon false arrest, Jesus demonstrated a wide repertoire of peacemaking skills for us to follow.

True Principles in Action

As I came to understand the wide range of approaches that can be used for conflict resolution—including avoiding, accommodating, compromising, competing, and collaborating—I was able to more consciously apply them in my personal life.

This knowledge, combined with the principles of the gospel, powerfully changed the dynamics of my relationships with my children, spouse, friends, and community members. Rather than just running from conflict, I envisioned and persisted in active pathways for meeting the conflicts I faced in my personal, professional, and ecclesiastical responsibilities. Though these alternative approaches felt foreign at first, through practice, I began to see better outcomes. Rather than rigidly holding to the idea that peacemaking always meant avoiding confrontation, I realized that each conflict approach was necessary and helpful in building strong interpersonal relationships.

For example, in an especially challenging church calling, I relied heavily on my new skills to communicate with a difficult leader I had been assigned to work with. When she challenged or belittled my comments in meetings, I learned to calmly give responses such as, “That hurts my feelings. I would like to be respected for the thoughts I feel inspired to share. Will you please listen to me?” As I learned to kindly communicate my needs with others, I saw changes not only in my self-confidence but also in how others responded to my honestly presented needs. Yes, sharing my needs made me feel vulnerable, but, ultimately, my new approach changed critical dynamics and strengthened the unity I felt with others as I served in my calling.

How to Begin

Trying new things takes courage and a willingness to fail sometimes, but, as Paul writes, “God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). As we branch out from our well-worn ways of responding to conflict, we open ourselves up to new possibilities. We will not be perfect when experimenting, but even small changes can lead to big improvements, especially in our most important relationships.

To begin making conflict resolution changes, I suggest the following steps:

Illustration by Giulia Neri

1. Triage your conflicts. Not all conflicts in your life merit the same time and attention. You might even write down a list of the conflicts that are really troubling you and pick the most important one to start addressing.

2. When possible, take the time to reflect before responding to frustrating situations. This may be minutes or even days. Invest in figuring out what your core needs are before responding in anger or another strong negative emotion. Most importantly, do not try to solve a complex problem on the fly.

3. Brainstorm on your own or with a trusted counselor or friend about how to meet the needs you have identified. Focus on ways to fulfill personal needs rather than quickly negotiating solutions. Pray for God’s inspiration in how to work with the other person or group in meeting your essential needs. After identifying your core needs in a conflict, choose one primary need that really demands addressing, and put other needs or wants on the back burner for now. For example, a basic human need is love and affection. If you aren’t feeling loved by a spouse or other important family member, a proposed solution would be to approach them and say, “I’ve been feeling pretty low lately and am needing some support. Would you share something you love about me each day?”

The Peacemaker’s Art

In April 2022 general conference, President Russell M. Nelson echoed the Savior’s New Testament urgings to seek the Lord’s ways of peace (see John 14:27). Specifically, the prophet said: “My call today, dear brothers and sisters, is to end conflicts that are raging in your heart, your home, and your life. Bury any and all inclinations to hurt others—whether those inclinations be a temper, a sharp tongue, or a resentment for someone who has hurt you.”

With his call to address the conflicts raging in our own hearts, the prophet also reminded us of the need to be examples of peacemaking to all the world: “We are followers of the Prince of Peace. Now more than ever, we need the peace only He can bring. How can we expect peace to exist in the world when we are not individually seeking peace and harmony? Brothers and sisters, I know what I’m suggesting is not easy. But followers of Jesus Christ should set the example for all the world to follow. I plead with you to do all you can to end personal conflicts that are currently raging in your hearts and in your lives.”

As we reflect on President Nelson’s words and seek to end conflicts in our lives, I hope we approach peacemaking with a spiritual plan to improve. Our peacemaking skills are like muscles that grow stronger with more use and are magnified as we rely on the promptings of the Holy Ghost.

If I could go back in time with the knowledge I have now, I would handle the Slurpee-splatter situation with these three steps:

1. Immediately Addressed Safety Needs

Although I wasn’t alone in a dark alley or the like, I still felt threatened in the situation. I would’ve reached out for social support: In a calm but firm voice, I would’ve addressed the cashier and said, “I don’t feel safe. I need support from you and management. Please call your manager immediately.”

2. Attempted to Communicate Empathetically about the Conflict

While waiting for store backup, I would’ve more empathetically acknowledged the Slurpee-spattered woman’s distress and said: “I see that you are frustrated about the spots on your pants. I’m happy to talk with you about it when we have some help.”

3. Held My Ground While Waiting for De-escalation of Emotions

If she continued her aggression, I would have withheld further engagement until receiving assistance. This way we could both settle down from our feelings of fight or flight, which takes about 20 minutes for most people.

No matter the situation, each of us has the capacity to effectively apply peacemaking principles in tangible, real, and powerful ways in our own lives. We can begin with small shifts and ask God to guide us in our efforts. “For with God, nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37)—even creating peace.

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▶ You may also like: How to seek peace in an age of conflict

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