10 min read
04 Dec

Yet every word in conflict is also an expression of hope, because it is an attempt to bridge the gap that separates adversaries; an act of courage, because it is a plea for understanding; and an effort to re-connect, because it is a deliberate effort to move toward our opponents and away from the hostile assumptions that feed impasse.

Kenneth Cloke 


Although family conflicts form a small part of my consultancy work, this time of the year is nevertheless a good opportunity to pause and consider our available options for those year-end functions and family get-togethers where tempers may be frayed more than usual, relationships may show strain and where some of us are a little more irritable than usual. The accumulated stress and anxieties of an entire year often now culminate in family or friend conflicts that harm those that do not deserve it, and those that we value most. We all know the difficulties caused by that one family member that starts family discussions on topics that should have been left for another time, for the escalation of aggression or argumentativeness around the lunch table, the snarky and hurtful comments and the resultant dread of attending some of these functions. It is then maybe a good idea to pause and prepare ourselves for the next few weeks, using some of the best modern conflict practices, slightly simplified and adapted for our interactions with friends and family during this time. 

We can highlight ten of these most practical strategies to help us with these precious relationships and restore some of the joys of the holiday season. They are summarized notes, and the specifics of your personal circumstances may need further attention and strategizing. You may need to practice a bit with some of them, and you will most probably only see real improvement with a bit of experience. There is no need to memorize the list, pick two or three strategies that you think may be of real-world use to you, and apply them. 

1. The Gift of Balance  

Let’s grant ourselves the gift of perspective and balance before we even go into these functions and family gatherings. You do not need to always be right, you do not need to fix the world. Let other people have (and express) their opinions, let them be wrong. It is an important part of love and friendship to let people be themselves. Their wrong-headed opinions need not affect your life, and allowing someone to express those opinions does not mean that you agree with it, or that you condone it. This year has again brought us a range of deeply divisive and polarizing topics to argue about, from horrific global wars to political and socio-economic developments that should deeply concern all of us. We have elections pending, the cost of living has skyrocketed, and most of these pressures would have caused fault-lines in our relationships to eventually add secondary conflicts to our relationships. South Africans in general are not skilled in interpersonal conflicts, and these very real concerns have elevated anxiety and even mental health issues to extremely high levels in many people’s lives. Pick your battles wisely, stay out of arguments where they are harmless, or when engagement can wait for later. 

2. Spot The Cycles  

Also best applied before you enter the Battlezones of the Braai, see if you can spot certain patterns in these friendship or family conflicts. Notice how Uncle John always starts arguing about money when he’s had a few, and Aunt Thandiwe starts insulting people when her children are mentioned. See if you can spot such patterns in the last few holiday get-togethers. You can derive benefit from this exercise without understanding why they happen, or without judging them in any way. Simply noticing them already puts you in a better position to either steer them when they happen, or to prevent them or to avoid them. Conflict spirals are complex patterns of behaviour that often need expert assessment and management, but for our purposes here you noticing them can in itself be of value. 

3. Know Your Triggers 

It follows from the work you have done in the previous strategy that you should also do some work on your own conflict triggers. Do you at times find yourself halfway into an argument before you can stop yourself and take a breath to understand how you got there? We all have our red button topics, issues that upset us, remind us of past sad or negative experiences, topics that we feel unusually defensive about or do not want to hear about. These conflict triggers draw us into unpleasant and harmful arguments, and modern scientific and practical case studies have shown us how this is often accompanied by an actual chemical alteration of our biological systems, leaving us extremely vulnerable to saying or doing something unwise. Again, this process can be very informal and private, and you do not need to judge yourself or over-analyse any part of that process. The value lies, as you will see, in merely being aware of these emotional triggers in yourself. Once you know that, for example, any questions about your educational level, your work history or your marriage to your ex raises your emotional responses in a negative way you are well on your way to dealing with them more successfully, or where necessary, in being more cautious when they are raised. 

4. Causes Not Symptoms  

We spend an awful amount of time, personally and professionally, dealing with the symptoms of cyclical conflicts, instead of finding out what the cause of these repetitive behaviour patterns are and dealing with that once and for all. Holiday seasons are particularly instructive if we know where to look. Accusations of jealousy, various alleged relationship failures and old, unresolved conflicts are dragged out into the sunlight again, to spoil everyone’s day, whereafter we put them away again, until the next time. Try to teach yourself the habit of looking behind the symptoms at probable causes of these conflicts. You can gain some benefit from this practice even at a very simple level, and once you see the cause clearly the symptoms are easier to manage, and new solutions may become available. In this way we look past hurtful accusations and repetitive recriminations, and we become able to deal with the actual engine of the problem. Even if you do not have the time or patience to help others with these causes, your improved understanding often brings about increased tolerance and understanding. If you think that someone is always rude and obnoxious it is one thing, if you understand that they behave that way because of their deep-seated anxiety of rejection then that is another. Again, the mere knowledge brings about an increased level of conflict competence, and conflict confidence. 

5. No Compromises 

This one may take some getting used to. Our society generally regards public arguments as negative behaviour, and we are directly and indirectly conditioned to compromise. It is most people’s preferred conflict option. We even have clichéd sayings to reflect this: I will meet you in the middle, it takes some to get some, cut the pie / apple in the middle. Sometimes compromise is necessary, of course, but as a general conflict strategy, especially in our personal relationships, it is a potentially harmful, lazy but well-intentioned attempt to keep that precious peace around the dinner table. Compromise is the giving away of something that we would have preferred to keep. It is agreeing with things that upset us, with behaviour that we find unacceptable, and over time it causes deep resentment, distrust and cyclical conflicts that grow in complexity and intractability until it becomes something that an entire family suffers from, without anyone being too clear on where this has started. As South Africans we again take part in this short-sighted approach to conflicts with very good and laudable motives: we are so tired of other conflicts that we want to keep the peace at home, we want to say the right thing in the right way, we do not want to cause offence. In the process our unresolved conflicts, our off-limits discussions remain hidden away, compromised into submission. 

I have written extensively on this topic elsewhere, and it is a complex topic that requires a certain level of skill to properly pursue and resolve in a family or friendship environment, but we can all start teaching ourselves to open up, and to allow our loved one to open up and talk about family and friendship concerns in a mature and respectful manner. Compromise serves the immediate purpose of a sense of calm and peace, but loving each other enough to allow those different views to be properly expressed and explored in a dignified manner is one of the most beautiful gifts we can give each other. We do not need to fix or convince or resolve, but we can understand better, we can show tolerance, friendship and love not because we agree, but share love and friendship despite our disagreements. 

Get rid of compromise as a conflict strategy. That is the unexamined thing that makes you resent some of these meetings, that is the driver of intolerance and resentment throughout the year. Start focusing on creative and constructive problem solving, which may take more work and patience, but brings about wonderful changes to these close relationships. Some of these tough discussions need not be had at the holiday function, but these are often also the very best time to have them, where respectfully expressed dissent can be the most striking, and the most valuable. 

6. Good Fences 

With the integrity and honesty that an increased openness in our interpersonal conflicts bring, we also start seeing the value and necessity of effective boundaries. A series of compromise strategies are often made worse by poor boundaries and limits. Let people know where they stand with you, what you accept and what you do not. This need not be a lecture or a TED Talk, but a simple process of them finding out over time where those lines run with you. Once in place, keep them in place consistently. You set them where you are comfortable, and this need never be a democratic debate. These are your rules and people will learn to respect them or face certain consequences, such as your withdrawal from further engagement, a lack of support from you or any other context appropriate result for such breach. You cannot be effective in managing your personal conflicts if you do not have clear, consistently managed boundaries. In the holiday season, if you were less clear in marking or enforcing those boundaries in the past, you may need some time in establishing them, but keep doing just that, it will eventually settle.  

7. Air Purifiers 

If arguments are going to be inevitable during this time, make sure that you allow people to fully express themselves before you start responding. In interpersonal conflicts we often lose sight of the very human need to simply vent, to be heard, to be acknowledged as playing some part in the bigger picture of that family or friendship. The value of a proper and comprehensive airing of issues forming part of a conflict is known as the differentiation phase in conflict studies, and is often skipped or curtailed in our irritation with the person, topic or our rush to resolution. Studies show that people are often quite aware of the limitations or even errors of their arguments, but that these arguments are more about being heard than the actual merits of the arguments, and that by shutting down such arguments too early we create secondary, and very complex, conflicts and causes for future resentment. Where possible, give people sufficient time and space to air the details of their complaints and concerns before you start responding. Teach yourself to calmly listen to people’s rants and arguments. Skilfully done, that differentiation phase can often defuse an argument from further escalation. 

8. Identity Wars (or Feelings Don't Care About Your Facts)

Identity or value conflicts are the most complex modern conflict levers we can study and implement, and a large number of interlinked disciplines, from conflict studies to psychology, social sciences, neuro-biology and others are contributing to our understanding and management of this important conflict field (see some of the suggested reading references below). Briefly put, for our purposes here, our identities consist of important components that make up our perceptions and experiences of ourselves, of who we are. We are at the same time, for example, a mother, a friend, a doctor, a runner, a Springbok supporter and a liberal. Some of these components are changeable and of lesser importance, but other parts of that identity we cannot change, and any effort to change those views amount to an experience similar to an attack on our very being. If it turns out that we were wrong in our deeply held personal,  political or religious views, in what is good and what is evil, in what is acceptable or not, then our lives change in important ways. 

This is experienced as an existential threat by many of us. Most of us hate big changes, and will resist that. With this identity comes belonging, if there is an “us” then there must be a “them”. Our identities now provide us with belonging, with protection, with benefits, with meaning. In the process, as large numbers of modern research and case studies show, we become very subjective in our selection and acceptance of what we regard as facts and lies, and we tend to lean towards confirming evidence, even if that evidence is of a poor quality. It is easier to accept a poor argument than to change large parts of our established life. With this then we see an additional conflict dynamic with in-group behaviour rewarding conformity and punishing deviant behaviour or opinions. We get to toe the line, sometimes blissfully unaware that we are doing so. 

Evidence that may very well be objective and accurate now gets rejected because of those reasons, and as these studies show, such arguments and evidence actually serve to confirm us in our previously held “wrong” beliefs. Practically, this means that your argument and YouTube video evidence that you share at the year-end function will cause heated tempers and result in people feeling more justified, more established in their opposition to such arguments….. even if you are correct. This is a clear evidence of the futility of using only fact-based arguments if you have to convince someone in these identity conflicts, as the Covid, vaccination, Trump or global warming wars show us so clearly. Evidence and facts are obviously important, but they have to be applied in a very specific, very skilful manner if they are to be of any effect (see the nine-step process discussed in the suggested reading material below). So during the holiday season, if you have to have these hot-button identity arguments, teach yourself the skill to be effective with them, otherwise you are simply making matters worse. 

9. Mirror, mirror on the wall  

Despite your best efforts at avoiding these holiday conflicts, they may of course nevertheless happen to you. Many of the points we have discussed earlier deal with the contents of your arguments, with the mechanisms of those arguments. Try to teach yourself something about the physical realities of dealing with those arguments as well. This is best learned through experiments and mindfully monitoring your own behaviour during such conflicts. A few examples would include a practice called “labelling”, where you stay with the argument and mentally, as it proceeds, label your own emotions as we move along. You tell yourself something like “This is making me uncomfortable” or “I am really getting irritated with this nonsense”. You simply label accurately, you do not judge or interfere. This allows you to not lose access to those emotions, which normally causes us to lose control and say or do things we regret later on. 

You can also see to it that these arguments are controlled via you purposefully slowing things down (say “Ok, I want to understand you better, let me make us a cup of coffee” or get people to sit down or go outside / inside, changing their environment etc.). Mirror the way that you want the other party to act, by for example slowing down your body movements (those waving hands and pointing fingers…), speak slower and in a lower voice, do not interrupt, let the other party feel heard whatever you think of their argument. Remember, in all of these examples, the physical and even chemical nature of some of these arguments, and work with those physical tools. These are neurobiological solutions available to us, and they work on a very real, very physical level. 

10. Dealing with Anger  

Many of these holiday battles have a clear component of visible anger to them. A year of anxiety, frustration, neglect, resentment (often mixed with a glass or two of alcohol) bubble up and spill over in arguments that need at least a working knowledge of conflicts where anger plays a role. First of all, readers should be wary of the possibility of physical violence where anger is involved. Anger in its more extreme forms removes or reduces the ability to rationally consider and act upon acceptable options for many people, and you should wherever possible avoid such situations, or de-escalate them as quickly as possible. Where they do not include physical violence, angry conflicts provide us with a few valuable conflict tools, if we know what to look for. Anger is often a valuable escalation tool to properly ventilate a conflict. Those conflict avoidance and compromise strategies we spoke of earlier cause their own pent-up resentment, and conflicts become complex and repressed. Sometimes, counter-intuitively, anger can lead to a healthy and productive escalation. 

Some things need to be said, and if we do not have the skill to express them timeously and constructively then screaming them in the kitchen may be a next-best option. Where possible, allow people to ventilate their emotions without reacting immediately and personally. Easier said than done, but try to teach yourself to not react to the words being used (or the tone), but to the underlying cause or message that the person is trying to convey. Remember also that generally speaking, while we still get angry with each other there is hope, anger is often a cry or demand for improvement, for change. Accusations and insults are often far less personal than they may sound (remember the conflict causes and symptoms discussion of earlier). 

Anger, when skilfully managed, can be just the sunlight and fresh air that a conflict may have needed, and provide the involved parties with places from which to continue working on later. This does not mean that you need to accept abusive or rude behaviour, but experience and an openness to these tools will show you the dividing lines, and the power of anger when properly used. 


As we have briefly discussed earlier, you have to be clear on your own motives here as well, preferably before the arguments start. If you want to get stuck into a family fight and derive some benefit from that then go ahead, but just be clear on why things are the way they are. That is not conflict management, and you have become a part of the problem. Being effective in conflict management has nothing to do with placating people, accepting rude behaviour or trying to keep the peace. Conflict avoidance causes its own, often bigger problems down the line. Interpersonal conflict management can, at one level, be an entirely selfish exercise in being effective, a strategic tool that you use in order to reach your own goals, the goals of peace and a pleasant holiday, or an absence of destructive drama and relationship damage. The choice is yours, and as we have seen from this summarized assessment, there is a lot that you can do to reach those goals. Unless we leave society and go live in a cave somewhere (a scenario with its own challenges), we will have conflict around us, even in this special time of year. 

We cannot change much about the existence and even pervasiveness of conflict, but we do remain in control of one crucial aspect of these conflicts: how we react to them. I wish you a safe, restful and peaceful holiday season, and where peace fails, may your new conflict skills help you through. 

Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading 

1. Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022), especially Chapters 4 (on identity and value conflicts) and 14 (on various selected conflict strategies and techniques). 

2. My article on the correct way to approach and persuade in identity conflicts, including the nine-step process DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS - part 2/3 - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za) 

3. For families that work together:  CONFLICT AND THE FAMILY BUSINESS - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za) 

4. For marriage conflicts : MARITAL BLUES Modern strategies for conflict in marriage - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za) 

  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.

(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information

(c) Andre Vlok 

December 2023

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