5 min read
28 Sep

Examining our conflict prisons and jailers 

Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates us to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.



We search for ways to escape or resolve our conflicts, we sometimes feel trapped in cyclical, even generational conflicts that seem to determine our emotional, physical and financial wellbeing. These events are often experienced as external events over which we have little or no control, driven by forces and people that affect our lives in adverse ways, shaping and steering our lives. Often, this is true to an extent, but as we will see in this article, we are often the architects of our conflict prisons, our own jailers. This does not mean that we are blaming ourselves, just that a cold look at some of these conflicts provide us with the benefit of placing responsibility where it belongs. 


As uncomfortable as the idea may seem, we are often trapped in conflicts because of our own thought patterns, habits and fears. As with many psychological states, the mere noticing of the conflict pattern is often enough to break the spell we have cast over ourselves, and we can be freed from our self-imposed conflict prisons. Let’s look at a few of these reasons. 

1. Our lack of self-awareness

 At times we lose the benefits of an objective viewpoint, the ability to see our conflicts from the outside, as a stranger would be able to view it. We start on a mental script on who is wrong, who is right, who is unfair and how this has to play out. Our minds form mental rails that we tend to glide on without the benefit of a fresh look at these conflicts. We run on auto-pilot without noticing it, and we end up doing the same thing, reacting the same way to the same conflict trigger. Often, a small but important change in perspective is all it takes to set us on the road to resolution. 

2. Conflict can define us, and give our lives meaning

 Modern conflicts, especially in the days of social media and subtle political campaigns, present us with easily defined, dumbed down and pre-packaged “enemies”. We are what they are not. “They” are evil, we are not, they are wrong, we are right. This narrowly defined categories of people and opponents, policed by public scrutiny and frameworks, make it difficult for some of us to form independent and ongoing assessments of who we are in conflict with, what those conflicts are costing us, and even whether they are necessary at all. We become trapped in an endless cycle of insults, opinions, results and hopes, all because we bought into the easy definitions. These conflicts can make us feel righteous, and we become warriors in our own causes. This is a powerful emotional drug that is easily manipulated by social media and other divisive players. Research shows that destructive conflict reduces our capacity to feel and exhibit compassion and empathy, and these “missions” make us feel haughty, justified, superior. 

3. Conflict is a powerful communication tool

 Society has general expectations (scripts) on how conflicts can and should be played out, and this often gives us acceptable and easy stages on which to vent our emotions and frustrations. It becomes addictive to “let off steam” or to “speak my mind”, regardless of how this affects others. Social media now allows us to do this to even greater lengths (and depths) with the perceived benefits of online anonymity. Our conflicts become engines for providing us with our emotional highs and lows, an energy even, and we become trapped in cyclical patterns running on these emotional events. 

4. Conflict creates boundaries

 Our conflicts can create boundaries beyond which we find solace and comfort. A generational conflict with family or that troublesome neighbour can, for example, create a sense of justification and provide us with an acceptable excuse not to do the hard work of actually dealing with the cause and resolution of the conflict itself. We create, or help create, these fences and then even complain about them, but at some level we want and need those walls to stay up. Some boundaries also serve to protect our rights, our insecurities, our weaknesses. If a person is generally rude, for example, he may be seen as unapproachable, a boundary behind which other fears or insecurities may be safeguarded. 

5. Conflict justifies our suffering and sacrifices

 A chosen conflict can provide us with an explanation, a justification for suffering or sacrifices. As the conflict expert Kenneth Cloke so wonderfully expresses it, it “ennobles our misery”. Our conflicts can create causes that become bigger than us, that tend to give us purpose, that create identities that are very difficult to notice or part with. Activists and people who are badly hurt in relationships are often prone to this conflict trap, where a temporary conflict becomes a self-sustaining, a necessary cause for further conflict. This pattern of justification can enable escalation of conflict, and often tends to justify our own bad behaviour in these conflicts. 

6. Conflict can create attention and forms of interaction

 Some conflicts, especially certain cyclical types, are unfortunately examples of attention seeking, where the perceived victim is fussed over, where care and concern is expressed, and where various forms of intimacy can be formed. These patterns are often found in family settings, but are increasingly found in the business world. This form of attention seeking is ultimately destructive of trust and meaningful relationships, but it is nevertheless seen as a quick and easy fix for loneliness, neglect, feelings of inadequacy or concern over issues that are important to that party. 

7. Conflict gets results

 In South Africa we have ample examples of this reason. The loud, rude person often gets what they want, physical and verbal threats get immediate results and big corporations obliterate opposition and dissent with litigation. A superficial and selective assessment of this rule of the jungle seems to bear out that conflict, especially the violent or loud type, is an effective model for our conflicts. Our socio-economic and political history, set in a patriarchal society, tends to support such conclusions for some people, and this creates patterns of thought and behaviour that they find hard to notice and even harder to break. Shout or beat the problem into shape, right? These quick-fix approaches to conflict then becomes go-to favourites in the conflicts of these participants. This poorly understood “solution” however sets us up for increased conflicts, escalations from people who learn to see us as aggressive bullies, it creates rigidity in conflict behaviour in others when they come up against us, and it is harmful to our own mental health, as research and case studies show. 

8. Conflict can provide momentum and disguises our conflict shortcomings

 Our conflicts, especially those that are important to us, may require a high level of conflict resolution skills, skills that we may for various reasons not be able to access or exhibit at a given time. This may quite inadvertently lead to a sense of discomfort that we experience, and in order to avoid this impasse, this sense of a lack of resolution, we may resort to conflict behaviour in the narrow sense, such as arguments, threats, insults and so on. This masks the fact that we may not have the skills to constructively deal with the problem, through more effective conflict tools such as open discussion, mediation and so on. 


Conflict will always be with us, and properly understood and skilfully approached it is a wonderful, creative energy in our professional and personal lives. Some conflict should be something we value and encourage if we can deal with it effectively. Some conflicts, especially the destructive, energy-sapping, relationship destroying type of conflicts, should be avoided where possible. It helps to understand that we have the power to avoid some of these conflicts by keeping an eye on this list. It is liberating to find that sometimes you are pushing against an open door.  


  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request. A special word of admiration and gratitude goes to Kenneth Cloke for his conflict work, and his ideas that sparked this article.


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

Andre Vlok 

September 2022

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