Never take sides in other people’s conflicts.
I first learned to not take sides because of, believe it or not, conflicts on video game websites. (I learned a lot from MMO’s, now that I think about it.) Anyway, the good thing about those conflicts is that I could go back and reread the forum posts. That made it harder for me to fool myself about the actual consequences of my actions. I thank God all the time that these conflicts blew up online where we used pseudonyms, because I said and did some pretty stupid stuff.
Here are the eight things I realized about taking sides in other people’s conflicts when I went back and reread my old posts:
1. We all make decisions with our emotions.
2. Everyone acts differently under conditions of conflict.
3. I don’t know what really happened.
4. I suffer from cognitive bias.
5. Taking sides widens and extends the conflict.
6. Just because one person is bad, doesn’t mean their opponent is good.
7. Taking sides encourages others to take sides.
8. I am actually trying to control two people’s relationship to each other.
Let me explain each of these points a little bit more.
1. We all make decisions with our emotions, emotions are more contagious than any virus, and everyone’s brains make up stories to justify their emotional responses.
2. Everyone acts differently under conditions of conflict. Everyone acts differently towards people depending on where they are in the “family tree.”
3. You don’t know what really happened. In fact, because memory is unreliable, the people in the conflict may not know what really happened.
4. Because of cognitive bias, if you take sides you will accept information that agrees with your stance, while ignoring or minimizing information that contradicts it. You will support your team during times when, if you were an observer, you would have a very different opinion. Even if you aren’t being manipulated (and you probably are), you will essentially manipulate yourself.
5. When you take sides, you have only widened and extended the conflict. This is true even if you try to be a “third rational side” or, worse, a “peace-maker”. If you are trying to be a peacemaker you are probably acting superior to the other people in the conflict, which will just cause resentment.
6. In truly serious conflicts, you often are dealing with two people who have become abusive. When you take sides, you will be stuck with an abusive person as an “ally”.
7. When you take sides, you encourage others to take sides, since the only form of leadership is by example. This leads to a conflict that cannot be resolved. On top of that, serious conflict often breaks up families. When that happens, you don’t know which new alliances will form. You will probably be best off, and everyone else will be better off, if you stay in touch with as many people as possible. This won’t happen if you take sides.
8. You are trying to control two people’s relationship with each other, and they will react to you based on the role you are playing in the “family tree”. Whatever their reaction is, it will be based on their own family history and probably even their childhood trauma. And that’s not what you want to get enmeshed in.
When I started to become a pastor, the first church I preached at was one where there was a long-standing conflict between two factions that had started a decade or so earlier. The conflict had essentially destroyed the former pastor.
When I realized how bad the conflict was, I soon saw all the subtle ways that people were trying to get me to take sides. But at the same time, everyone wanted to put on the best face possible, because they didn’t want me to leave. So no one directly told me about the conflict until I started asking.
Well, having learned from my experiences on video game forums (seriously), I approached this new conflict very differently. I did not take sides. I stayed in touch with each and every person. I refused to come to any conclusions about who was right and who was wrong. (The conflict had been going on for over a decade. No one was right.)
The church, of course, eventually split in two. But it didn’t stop there. The faction that left? They eventually split up again too. As for me, I remained friends with every single member of what used to be a single church. For some of them I continued to be their pastor. For others I was simply a friend.
These are very different results from what I “accomplished” by taking sides in conflicts back when I was young and participating in video game forums. In those cases, I eventually lost every single person as a friend. In one case I even participated in completely destroying the online community we had built together. There was nothing good, nothing, about taking sides.
The only lesson I learned was to not take sides, which I strongly believe I could have learned just by reading an internet post.