Who hasn’t experienced that ‘groundhog day’ moment during an argument? The moment where you reflect, a little deflated, on finding yourself in the same position again. You feel like you’ve been perfectly reasonable, they seem like they’re behaving like a mental case, and you just can’t figure out why it’s so hard to get a simple point across.

Chances are the other person is feeling exactly the same as you. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to understand why this kind of cycle seems to repeat itself, and to be able to take some action to prevent it from happening in the future?

It is possible, but it might surprise you to know that resolving this type of conflict doesn’t entirely relate to learning new strategies for communication. It’s more related to developing self-awareness.

I hear you thinking ‘how long will that take, and how much would it cost to get there?’

It’s true – there is a cost to getting an answer this way. But it’s not financial, it’s more of an emotional cost. It’s the cost involved in facing up to yourself.

Once you’re prepared to make that brave step, you will likely find you will be able to deal with conflict much more effectively.

Unravelling the confusion that perpetuates conflict

Unconscious emotional blocks

When we argue we all do a thing called projecting. This is where we are carrying some deeply held resentment that may be based around a guilt feeling.

A good example of this is road rage.

Watch people arguing pointlessly with the imaginary personality of the driver in front, calling them all the names under the sun.

These names have little or no connection to who that person really is, they’re more a reflection of the driver’s underlying state of mind.

When two people get involved in projecting at each other at the same time, then you have a complex psychological block to understanding, because the ensuing argument has more to do with the discharge of historically blocked anger and confusion than it does to the matter at hand.

In this situation, either party may experience:

  • acting hostile, rather than being assertive
  • feeling as if they have to force their point of view, or having the other’s forced upon them
  • the feeling of not being heard
  • causing unintended upset in others
  • difficulty in resolving any thought clearly
  • guilt

Projection… what is it?

The process of projection is largely unconsciously driven. The simplest way to visualise it is to see it as the mind’s defence mechanism against realising unpleasant truths about itself.

Similar to the way we spit out food that we sense as disgusting, the mind spits out the ‘disgusting’ ideas that we might perceive as difficult to absorb.

These unpleasant or disgusting thoughts are then put upon or projected onto those around us through our words and actions.

How does this affect us and the people around us?

The effect on you

The process of projecting ( or ‘taking things out on others’) is a double edged sword. While the mind seeks relief from the burden of guilt through projecting it on to others, another part of the mind (a bit like the conscience) may register that the whole thing is destructive and deeply unfair.

The consequence of this can be complex, but essentially it can leave you feeling unentitled to the view you are expressing, or even unfairly judged for holding your own views. These perceptions are largely illusory and can lead you to either become more hostile and defensive or even depressed.

The effect on people around you

Others can respond to projection in the same way as you. Either feeling depressed or hostile, as well as deeply frustrated and unfairly judged.

The effect on two people who are both simultaneously projecting

In this situation, there is a sense of defeat and endless repetition in the air. Both parties feel trapped in an unresolvable knot. This is because the communication is partly empty or only relating to psychological defense. This part isn’t reasoned, rational or reasonable. It lacks empathy, and therefore acts as a block to negotiation and compromise.

How can we recognise and resolve issues related to projection?

A little enlightenment.

I guess when you read that heading it might seem like a bit of a head spin – another of those ‘how long will take to achieve enlightenment?’ questions. Frankly, if it all depended on becoming buddha-like, that would put me off too.

Thankfully, it’s not that difficult to achieve a little enlightenment. It’s just another word for self understanding. This enlightenment or self understanding really is the key to breaking deadlocked conflict.

Look at it this way. Imagine for a moment that half of your motivation for getting angry with your partner was simply to relieve you of guilt feelings that you had tucked away in a hidden part of your innermost psyche. You would effectively be getting angry just to relieve yourself of the problem of feeling bad about yourself or being scared about feeling vulnerable.

If you were able to identify this, you may be able to remove some of the unnecessary anger in order to better focus on and resolve the real issues at hand.

Now imagine yourself as having forgotten this simple truth, instead being caught up in the act of ‘taking things out on’ others. The guilt from this attitude might still exist below the surface, and would leave you feeling unentitled to your own voice.

Then what would happen?

You might either become more aggressive to cover the internal guilt, or become compliant and lose your legitimate right to voice your own views.

The simple act of understanding and recognising how this mechanism works within your own character can enable you to withdraw the behaviours that produce this kind of confusion. Awareness may help to remove some of the negative feelings like anger and guilt that can block resolution in conflict.

How can I work towards this self awareness?

If I were you I’d be asking ‘yes, but how do I unravel this stuff in myself?’ The truth is relatively simple and based around one central idea. It’s a bit counter-intuitive though.

  1. Learn to relax and listen to the dialogue in your head with a bit of detachment. It’s a bit like listening to a ‘you’ radio station in your head
  2. Get used to noticing the points where you no longer want to know what you are thinking. These points of inner dialogue are the basis of projection
  3. Ask yourself – what is this really about? You may be surprised at the answers you produce just from calming down and listening to yourself.
  4. Practice this to the point where you can ‘hear your thoughts ‘ during an argument.

Starting to practice this will enable you to begin to see what is reasonable and what isn’t in your own approach, and will register with the other person as genuine and reasoned, making you more approachable and fair.

Having this self awareness can help you feel clear, empowered, and easier to listen to.


Understand that achieving real ground in any verbal conflict isn’t related to forcing a point of view, no matter how wronged you may feel. Remember that some of that feeling may be something you are producing unintentionally by ‘taking things out’ on someone, rather than listening in a thoughtful way.

Examine your own motivations honestly, realising that ultimately it’s easier to stop and look at yourself and your own behaviours than it is to be depressed or anxious, and that endlessly relying on self justification will just make any situation worse.