8 min read
01 Nov

In today’s polarized and uncivil society, we can no longer treat peace as a noun, it is a verb.

Douglas E. Noll 

The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit 


South Africans, like several other countries across the globe, face important elections during 2024. The elections themselves are of course preceded by months of electioneering, political rhetoric and increasingly intense arguments and debates in public spaces and social media. 

Many South Africans feel battered and bruised by an increasingly dysfunctional political and social system, with a tendency to experience these events as occurrences being done to them, without having much influence or say in the events that shape our daily lives and futures. This in turn leads to a gradual feeling of alienation from the political and economic systems, despondency and despair, and a sense of futility in participating in democratic processes or relevant activism. 

In line with conflict studies globally, these pervasive sentiments can lead to either a complete disconnectedness from the democratic political processes, or an increased tendency to consider and accept more radical and extreme “solutions” that may be offered by others of a similar view, or by opportunists seeking to profit from these developments. Democratic participation seems to be an inarguable remedy for such sentiments and concerns. Voting in South Africa, for the majority of its citizens, was bought at an incredibly high price, and should always form the cornerstone of our political conflict strategies. But this important contribution only happens once every few years, and the popular vote often seems swayed by considerations that may not always be in their own best interests. 

What else is there then that the everyday citizen can do in order to take back our personal agency in these all-important political conflicts in order to make a meaningful difference in our everyday lives, not just on voting day? This article suggests ten examples that we can integrate into our personal and professional daily lives, and which will benefit ourselves and those around us on a sustained and grassroots level. 

Ten everyday political conflict strategies 

One or more or all of the following strategies should renew our sense of meaningful participation in the political landscape, and return our sense of agency in these conflicts. 

1. Making peace with conflict 

The din of our political conflicts, played out against the further and amplified noise of global conflicts, can become seemingly unbearable at times. Graphic violence lights up our screens in an unending parade of images and narratives that we need to process, make sense of and somehow reject or assimilate into our daily experience. It seems truly difficult to be completely isolated from such events, whether on a global or national or local scale. Economic hardships, political dysfunction and service delivery failures all add to this sense of conflicts outside of our control, of a world that has become too much to understand or manage. All of this is of course exacerbated and made even more personal through the ubiquitous nature of the hours we spend on various social media platforms. A good point of departure is to remind ourselves that conflict is an energy that can transform conflicts, that there could be a positive result flowing from the most protracted and seemingly endless conflict, and that all we need to do is to keep working on that conflict in whatever way we can. Focusing on the positive potential of conflict, especially our personal conflicts, can be a very effective safeguard against feelings of despair and hopelessness. We need better conflicts, not less conflict.

2. Accept that some work needs to be done 

Once we see the potential that conflict has to lead to positive outcomes we should follow through and accept the personal responsibility of increasing our own personal and professional conflict competency. While this may sound like more time and more work in a life that may already be stretched to breaking point, even a superficial level of conflict work will convince you how the confidence and better management capabilities that result from improved conflict capabilities is (a) well worth the small investment in that process, and (b) the better you become at conflict the more time you have on your hands. Every individual can of course decide for herself how much time and effort is to be invested in such conflict competency work, and such a personalized program can consist of self-training through access to the many excellent books and videos available for the beginner to medium level conflict student, or a personalized conflict coach can prove to be an excellent investment for those who want to reach a higher level of achievement in this important life skill. This should be seen as a lifetime commitment for best results. Just as you would read a book dealing with your hobby or interest, or spend time at the gym or gardening or running, so should you spend some time on becoming better at your personal and/or professional conflicts. Here it also helps to understand that the golden thread that runs through most of our everyday engagements, from commercial negotiations to productivity, from workplace problems to family difficulties, is the theme of human conflicts. Once we are adept at understanding and then managing these conflicts, we will be better at understanding and achieving in the fields of our negotiations, our personal boundary setting, our workplace conflicts and our family arguments. 

3. Understand your own conflict style 

One of the crucially important early conflict assignments we should set ourselves should be an in-depth and honest assessment of our own conflict styles. This is simply how we conduct ourselves in our conflicts. No-one really has a conflict style that they use in all instances, and this depends to an extent on who we are in conflict with (the manager at work will need a different conflict approach to say your teenager). We do however tend to have a preferred basic structure that we follow in our conflicts, mostly based on earlier experiences and what we may have found that works for us. So we would see conflict styles like the conflict avoider, the aggressor, the pacifier, the sulker and so on. This is far more than an academic distinction. Our conflict styles, when unexamined, often locks us into harmful cycles of repetitive conflicts, unproductive arguments and harmful conflict outcomes. Understanding what (and why) we choose as our conflict habits, what other alternatives there are and how to apply them in real life is an important early addition to our new and improved conflict skillset. 

4. Conflict spring-cleaning 

With all of the new strategies and techniques that you may be learning, there will also be an important process of unlearning a few harmful and outdated conflict skills. Conflict management as a theoretical and practical discipline has come very far in the last decade, now spanning a variety of extremely complex and advanced interlinked fields related to our conflicts, which include psychology, neuro-science, social sciences and an impressive list of other contributors. We understand the real, measurable and manageable ways in which our opinions are formed, shaped and changed, what creates and triggers our conflict causes and drivers, and in the process we learn how we can shape and guide our own conflicts, and how we can regain a large measure of control over these processes that so often seem taken away from us. We learn, as examples, how unnecessary and harmful most compromise meet-you-in-the-middle conflict strategies are, how counter-productive fact-based so-called objective arguments can be in certain circumstances, how important a proper differentiation of views are in some conflicts, we learn the value and methods of escalating a conflict and so on. These examples are all conflict strategies that, until recently, were all warned against, or actively promoted as best practices. Hold yourself to a higher degree of skill and performance than most of the conflict nonsense you see on social media – it really does not help you at all going around calling everyone a “narcissist” or a “gaslighter”. 

5. Manage your conflict triggers 

With an improved understanding of these causes and drivers of our professional and personal conflicts will also come an increased ability to manage the creation of our own conflict emotions, the levels of stress that we are exposed to before, during and after such conflicts, and we will again lose that feeling of hopelessness and of conflict being something that is done to us, as opposed to ourselves being capable agents in our own conflicts. Managed skilfully this includes an acceptance of our own responsibilities and roles in those conflicts, and an increased competency in real-world engagements such as social media participation, the types of discussions and arguments we enter into, our goals and expectations of such activities and so on. We become better able to help ourselves and others with the conflicts that we are involved in, or are allowed into by others, we are less scarred, less exhausted by what we experience in the world. 

6. Become comfortable with identity conflicts 

Although recent work done and insights gained in the area of our identity conflicts constitute an incredibly complex and multi-disciplinary field, it is of such crucial importance that I am setting it apart as a conflict skill worthy of its own, separate place on our list. Briefly put, we each have our own identities and values, whatever they are. We can be, as an example, at the same time, father, friend, Manchester supporter, Muslim, shift leader and neighbour. These identities make us who we are, they shape us, and most of us define our lives, our values and our conduct by that network of interlinked personas and identities. These identities become us, at an existential level. We struggle to think of ourselves outside those boundaries, if we think of it at all. Recent case studies and practice show us very clearly how these identities shape and guide our lives and our conflicts. It is rather disconcerting to see how emotional we are in many respects, how our much vaunted rationality is often simply the ex post facto rationalization of earlier (and unseen) emotional preferences and leanings. Our identities become the frameworks of our lives, and with that comes a long list of benefits and expectations. These identities dictate, in various degrees, how we can conduct ourselves, what we find as acceptable behaviour, what we say and do in specific circumstances and so on. Importantly, it creates an us and a them, an in-group and an out-group. The benefits of belonging to our in-group are often so important to the survival and prosperity of our identities that any seemingly rational attempt at persuading us to think outside of the parameters of that framework simply breaks down, and as case studies show, actually and counter-intuitively serves to entrench people further in their pre-assumed identity positions. We see this on a daily basis, in our politics, on social media, and even in our workplaces and homes. Our participation in identity conflicts (and an uncomfortable number of modern conflicts are exactly that) requires new and very different tools and approaches if we want to, or need to, resolve these conflicts. I have written extensively on that specialized arena, and I am happy to provide a detailed reading list and practical work on request. 

7. Look at what they are telling you 

As much as that phrase may sound rather distorted, I have in mind a brief and superficial knowledge of current best practices in the field of non-verbal communication (aka “body language”). This small but specialized field can, when presented incorrectly (or dishonestly), or used too extensively, deteriorate into pseudo-science and misleading information sources. Done correctly and with a full understanding of its strengths and limitations, our conflicts can only benefit from a practical working knowledge of our conflict opponents’ emotions, fears and wishes. Being able to accurately gauge and apply probable knowledge gained during our conflicts can help us to understand others, and also to engage more effectively with them, including our efforts at persuasion. Responsibly used in a limited manner, this can be an effective (and fun) addition to your conflict skills. 

8. Understand neutrality 

One of the common (and rather unhelpful) modern misconceptions about conflict management is that we need to be neutral in those conflicts. While there is something to be said for this neutrality in the arenas of the conflict mediator or negotiator, we really hardly ever need to be neutral in our own conflicts. Recognize, value and express your own needs and emotions, use them as fuel to be effective and to arrive at positive and healthy conflict outcomes. You need not be a polite and calm participant in all of these personal conflicts (although that may help, of course). Our conflicts are important to us, most of the time. Have a cold look at your own motivations and conflict goals, and give a proper, healthy space therein for your own emotions and goals. 

9. Insist on higher ground 

To slightly paraphrase that well-known superhero, with great conflict power comes great responsibility. Once we become comfortable with our personal and professional conflict skill levels, we can start to see how each of us play a direct role in these conflicts. How our demands, our fears, our selfishness and our best selves all contribute to much of what we may regard as unpleasant and negative conflict outcomes. With that knowledge comes the opportunity to help others in participating better in their own conflicts. This is best done subtly and indirectly on a personal level, but there is one arena where we can maybe play a more direct role in influencing conflict outcomes, and that is in our political lives. With a more advanced understanding of conflict we can consider the role we play in polarizing communities, in the harm we do with our online behaviour, and we can directly or indirectly seek to persuade our elected politicians to conduct themselves in more conflict positive ways, ensuring better and more conflict solutions than some of the cyclical failures we see in, as an example, our coalition politics. Once we know more about conflict, and have adjusted our strategies and techniques accordingly, we can start influencing conflicts around us that may be of importance to ourselves, our families or our communities. 

10. Walk your talk 

Like the inspiring example of the ox-herder in the ten Zen paintings dealing with our personal development, we should do the work of improving our conflict skills, and then take that out into the marketplace. You need not turn into a conflict expert or taking on conflicts everywhere you go, but you can, by the manner and method of your own conflicts, personal or professional, set an example for those who engage with you, in politics, at your place of work, your community or your home. Good conflict skills lead to good conflict outcomes, and this will in itself, without any preaching, help others to be (or try to be) better at their own conflicts, whether that involves you or not. People notice how you conduct yourself in conflicts, and in this way, without it costing you anything in time or money, can serve to turn you into a personal, workplace or community inspiration, even if it is only for one or two individuals. Once you have reached a higher level of conflict skill, give some thought to this quiet, unobtrusive way of giving back. As you will know by then, being better at conflict is a wonderful gift to give someone. 


The study and practice of conflict is a wonderfully complex interconnected field. I do this for a living, and I learn something new every day. Conflict runs through most of our human endeavours, and it is difficult to imagine a world without the creative spark of our human conflicts. That creative potential is of course stunted and destroyed more often than not by the unskilful management and application of the levers and buttons of conflict properly understood. As we can see around us, and maybe know from personal experience, unresolved or baldy managed conflict can destroy lives. I find it noticeable, and reassuring, that even a small improvement in an individual or team’s conflict skill level immediately leads to an increased conflict confidence and the outcomes experienced from those conflicts. We can be better at conflict, with real benefits to ourselves and those around us. In that process we need not give up on our ideals and goals, our values or our identities. We need not be a doormat or a saint. We can be effective in our conflicts, and change the world, one conflict at a time. 

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, 14 and 17. 

2. Various articles on our blog at www.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

Andre Vlok 

(c) November 2023

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