I Want to Settle a Dispute

What Do I Do?

Blaine Robison, M.A.



Most disputes can be settled in private, if parties will take the time and approach issues in a constructive manner. Going directly to the other party before involving others will conserve the best opportunity for strengthening the relationship, preserving reputations, and resolving the issues.  The following five-point peace plan for private negotiation is based on principles found in the Bible.



The most important aspect of negotiation is to determine to please God, as the Scripture says, "When a man's ways are pleasing to the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him" (Prov 16:7 NASB).  Examining my desires, motives and attitudes with God's approval in mind before proceeding with negotiation will enable me to do what is right and will enable the other party to be more favorably disposed toward me.

There is a second kind of pleasing that is also important.  "Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good" (Rom 15:2; cf. Phil 2:4).  The heart of the Royal Law of loving neighbors is to treat the interests of others as being just as valid and important as my own.  This same principle of mutual pleasing applies also to marital relationships. See 1 Corinthians 7:33-34.  While one's own interests may be important, it is unreasonable to expect the other person to grant my interests if I don't care about His.

Conversely, pleasing must not be faked merely as a ploy to gain selfish ends. Just as the appearance of evil is to be avoided, so is the appearance of "good" in order to get good in return (Ps 28:3; Luke 6:33). The Lord wants His disciples to genuinely care about the needs of others, regardless of whether personal benefit may result.


 Constructive communication is also essential, as Paul advised in Ephesians 4:29, "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification."  Edify means to build up, just as you might build a house.  Common sense should tell you that you wouldn't use materials in construction that would actually result in harm to a house. In the same manner, the words you choose in negotiation are important in building an agreement.

 One can also edify by not saying anything.  That is, by listening. By being "quick to hear, slow to speak" (James 1:19) I communicate the value I give to the other person. By attentive listening I can also draw out the feelings and unspoken desires of the other person that may be essential in pleasing him and me (Prov 20:5).

 A vital component of edification is speaking the truth (Eph 4:25).  Since truth is objective, it's important to distinguish what I believe to be true and what can be proven by direct observation or documentation. If I avoid stating my assumptions as if they were facts, I leave the door open for the other party to reveal truth that I don't actually know.

 Edifying values the other person. The person with whom you're negotiating is not a thing. The Scripture says, "with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves" (Phil 2:3). Some people should receive this regard because of holding an office or position of authority (1 Pet 2:17). Even when the other party is not an office-holder, giving honor will promote successful negotiation.

 Giving esteem recognizes the good in the adversary's position or actions.  Generally, the other party is not totally wrong.  Acknowledging the "rightness" of the other party on any point will demonstrate that I use balanced judgment.  If I can't recognize the obvious good of the other side, why should I expect him to admit my rightness?


One of the simplest but often neglected components of negotiation is asking for what you want, as described in James 4:2, "You do not have because you do not ask."  This statement of fact by James is not a reference to prayer, but to how contentious people approach a dispute. Nobody can read my mind and it's unfair to the other party to expect him to know what I want without telling him.

Even worse than not asking is asking (or demanding) "with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures" (James 4:3).  While it's natural to assume that my desires are always right, I need to consider how to convince the other party that what I want is not selfish (Phil 2:3).  Many times my needs are not at stake, but rather things that make life comfortable.

There is a direct correlation between asking and the principle of pleasing. Notice the connection in our relationship with God: "we have confidence before God and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight" (1 John 3:21-22).  The other party can probably tell whether I am asking just to please myself or I sincerely care about trying to please him, too.


After all the discussion, it's time to "cut a deal." If there seems to be agreement, regardless of how minor, I need to state specifically my understanding and clarify my perceptions. Before finalizing an agreement, three important questions need to be considered.  First, "What am I willing to do?" If either party is not acting in complete freedom, resentment could linger after the deal is done. Don't hesitate to ask, "what are you willing to do?"

Next, consider "what am I able to do?"  Is the agreement within the power of the parties to fulfill? This standard is illustrated in Deuteronomy 30:11: "For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach.  It's a valid consideration whether blood can be obtained from the proverbial turnip.  A deal that isn't do-able may create compliance and enforcement problems.

Then, consider "what should I do?" Since you're seeking equitable treatment, it's only right that you "do justice" for the other person (Micah 6:8).  Doing justice is doing God's will.  In other words, if Jesus reviewed the contract, would He say it was fair?  The opinion of fellow believers is also important. If the deal were posted on your church bulletin board, would your friends say it was fair?

Agreements involving money or property or performing specific acts in accordance with a schedule should be reduced to writing, witnessed and signed (cf. Neh 9:38). Written agreements should be specific, clear and balanced.  Vague language can open the door to confusion and conflict over interpretation.


When you make an agreement, don't delay in fulfilling any responsibility you have.  Numbers 30:2 reminds us, "If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth."  Proverbs 3:27-28 also cautions, "Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, 'Go, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it, when you have it with you.'"

Recognize, too, that God is watching your behavior. Since contracts are made in God's presence, a broken promise is not only an offense to the other party, but also to God.  The Bible says, "When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay" (Eccl 5:4-5).

If you are going to make an agreement, don't criticize it later to others or claim that it was a mistake (Eccl 5:6-7).  Trivializing a contract in which you freely entered makes you appear immature and foolish. If you think you made a mistake, then go back to the other party to discuss your concerns.

Plan Ahead

Effective negotiation should be planned. Consider this advice, "Do not go out hastily to argue your case; otherwise, what will you do in the end, when your neighbor humiliates you? (Prov 25:8)

Time: One should not delay negotiation, but haste puts unnecessary pressure on the bargaining process. Time does not heal complaints. In addition, courtesy requires asking for an appointment to allow for preparation and readiness to discuss the issues.

Turf: Since most people feel more secure in their own place, being willing to meet on the other person's turf can help the process.

Copyright 2004 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.