Encountering Conflict Overview and Themes

Encountering Conflict is one of four contexts that students may study within the “creating and presenting” section of the VCAA English Study Design. There are four texts for Encountering Conflict, of which schools choose two:

The context of Encountering Conflict is broad and can be approached in a number of ways. This article covers some of the “big ideas” that students will need to understand to respond effectively to prompts.

What does it mean to encounter conflict?

When thinking about “encountering conflict” it is important to discuss ideas in relation to the two parts: “encountering” and “conflict”. Firstly, conflict needs to be discussed and thought about as both a tangible and abstract concept – what is a conflict? What does it mean to have a conflict? What defines a conflict and what happens during and after a conflict?

You need to discuss an individual or group’s contribution to conflict. Consider how humans initiate conflict and why; how we act when confronted with conflict; what conflict can tell us about a situation; and how we deal with the aftermath of a conflict. Can we live in a world without conflict? Are there always two sides to a conflict? Which generally succeeds: conflict or peace?

Understanding conflict as it relates to people and what it says about “human nature” can allow us to discuss how we encounter conflict.

Types of conflict

Generally when we think about conflict, examples of physical conflict like fights or wars spring to mind. It is important to push away this initial reaction and think deeply about all of the different types of conflict that occur.

These different types of conflict can relate and influence each other. For example, an internal conflict can lead to an individual taking their feelings out on another – leading to an interpersonal conflict (and perhaps a physical or verbal conflict). Conversely, a societal conflict such as a war or political unease can lead to tension between individuals or conflicting ideas in one person’s mind.

Below are just some examples of different types of conflict.

Internal conflict

Conflicts don’t necessarily occur between two or more people, they can happen within a person. Internal conflict generally involves conflicting interests or thoughts within an individual. A person can believe in two conflicting thoughts at the same time, for example “I love my wife” and “I’m angry at my wife for crashing my brand new Ford”. These thoughts are different in how they would influence an individual to act, so what should this angry husband do? He could either respond by telling his wife that it’s okay because he loves her (risking suggesting that the condition of his new car is acceptable), or express his anger and risk the deterioration of their marriage.

Both responses have advantages and disadvantages, but there is no obvious right answer. Lacking an absolute answer or concrete knowledge of the situation can often lead individuals to have internal disputes over how or how not to act. This leads to a conflict of purpose and of conscience: “what will I do?” and “what is the right thing to do?” Despite the similarity of these statements they may have contradictory answers.

As in the above example, internal conflicts may arise between a dispute of intellect and emotion or two different emotions. The husband wants to express his anger, but feels compassion for his wife. So which of the head or the heart wins out? Will external circumstances affect the outcome of this conflict, or will it depend on the personality of the individual? Or both?

Emotions such as regret are a form of internal conflict: that sensation of kicking oneself over a decision that was made previously. Imagine you are torn between attending a friend’s birthday and studying for your SAC tomorrow. This external crisis can lead you to feelings of guilt or regret with either choice. In this way, external events can transform into an internal struggle.

Interpersonal conflict

Just as internal conflict can develop from an individual’s conflicting interests, conflict between two individuals can grow from them maintaining their conflicting interests. If two parties want different outcomes from a situation where only one can occur there will either be a winner and a loser (where one party achieves what they wanted) or two losers (where the conflict has led to both parties losing something- perhaps through a compromise).

This type of conflict can manifest itself in any number of ways. People may fight verbally or physically if their interpersonal conflict begins to heat up. The relationship between the people obviously has a huge influence on not only the conflict, but its resolution and consequences.

Societal conflict

Societal conflicts involve large groups of people motivated by shared interests or beliefs. These types of conflicts could include:

  • Cultural conflict
  • Political/international conflict (e.g. war)
  • Generational conflict
  • Religious conflict
  • Class conflict

Throughout history these types of conflict have created significant change; such as anti-war movements and civil rights movements. In Australia right now there are significant social conflicts over issues like LGBTIQ rights (such as same-sex marriage) and treatment of asylum seekers.

It is important to reflect that societal conflict (just like any other type of conflict) is not necessarily bad. Sometimes societal conflicts can point out the unmet needs of minorities or the unjust oppression of individuals. Changes in the status quo to reflect emerging beliefs and values start with an individual or group challenging social norms. In this way societal conflicts have given rise to improvements such as universal suffrage and equal recognition of and rights for minorities.

How we interact with conflict

It’s important to understand the different ‘stages’ of conflict. This means examining what causes conflicts, how people respond to them and how they are resolved, if at all.


Any number of things can spark a conflict: whether it be a breakdown in communication, a power struggle or fundamentally differing beliefs. Different emotions can also spark conflicts, such as fear, or intellectual conditions such as ignorance.

Because of the breadth of ways that conflict can be sparked, it seems inevitable that individuals will encounter some form of conflict within their life, try as they might to avoid it.


Individuals respond to conflict in all different ways. This is not only influenced by the type and nature of the conflict, but by the individual as well. Factors such as age, maturity, gender, past experiences, upbringing and education level will all influence how a person chooses to respond to conflict.

On top of that, avoiding one type of conflict can sometimes lead to a different type in another area of life. For example, if one’s only goal was to avoid conflict in their direct relationships this could involve compromising a lot of one’s own beliefs, which may lead to an internal conflict. On the other hand, if one always follows what they want to do and what they believe is right, they may end up doing the wrong thing in the eyes of another person, leading to an interpersonal conflict. The avoidance of conflict may instead simply be the transferring of one battle to a different arena.

The one thing that can be said for sure is that the way individuals respond to conflict is personal, largely unpredictable and often unexpected.


On a personal, interpersonal and societal level, conflict can lead to drastic changes. These changes can be broken up into two categories: positive changes and negative changes.

Positive changes

Going through a conflict can give a party experience in the matter, allowing them to recognize and sort through similar situations quicker and easier in the future. Further, when two people fight a battle together, their relationship may be strengthened through a greater understanding of the other person.

Encountering conflict can also equip individuals with wisdom and maturity through enabling personal growth. If we see conflict as being a natural part of life, it must be considered that experiencing these clashes is a necessary part of growing up and finding our identities. Experiencing these difficult times may equip us with the resilience or persistent optimism to get through life.

As discussed in relation to social conflicts, these experiences can often have positive outcomes for large groups of people. Women, the LGBTIQ community and racial and religious minorities have all benefited from large scale societal conflicts in the past.

Negative changes

The negative consequences of conflict are the more obvious ones: destruction of cities after war, dissolution of relationships after fights, mental instability after internal struggles and so forth. The aftermath of conflict can be wide ranging and influential on the ability of groups and individuals to progress in its wake.


Do not take for granted that all conflicts get resolved. Many are left without clear resolution: they are swept under the rug or continue to haunt those involved for years to come. Whether or not this happens often suggests something about the conflict and the individuals involved.

When conflicts are resolved, this resolution can take place through a number of different means. Sometimes communication and compassion allow for individuals to resolve their differences. Other times, individuals must be willing to make compromises, such as relinquishing control over a disputed resource. Alternatively, the conflict can end when the thing being fought over disappears or the power structure in play is completely altered by the conflict. Progressive voices often suggest that the greatest tool for fighting conflict is education and awareness because there things allow for ignorance to be dispelled.

Roles in conflict

As conflict seems to be an unavoidable part of life, it’s important to understand the different roles that individuals play, defined by their relationship to the conflict. There are any number of roles than an individual can take on, but three major types include aggressor, victim and bystander. It is important to recognise that these roles are complex and by no means static. A person may be motivated to become an aggressor after spending time as a victim, just as an aggressor may be made victim by a change in the power structure.


The aggressor is the individual or group who initiates the conflict or prolongs it through their actions.

Although the provoker is usually thought of as the party whose actions or failure to act brings about the conflict, there are also those who allow the aggressors to act. The initiators of conflict may instead be individuals who create a society or atmosphere in which groups cannot coexist. Consider a society built upon a corrupt government that allows too much power and not enough accountability to the military. One day there is a protests and the military uses physical violence to undermine the civilians. Although the military may be thought of as the aggressors (as they initiated the physical violence with the protesters), what role does the corrupt government play in this scenario? Perhaps they may be thought of as enablers, who initiate the conflict by giving power to those who may become aggressive.


Victims of conflict are those who are negatively affected by the actions of the aggressor. Generally these individuals or groups lose something due to the conflict, be it a possession, power, dignity, freedom, reputation, relationships, their sense of identity or even their lives.

However, the line between aggressor and victim can often be a hazy one. Despite the stereotype represented in a lot of Disney films, there are often not “purely good” and “purely bad” individuals. Often there are wrongs committed on each side and the individual or group that comes to be seen as the victims are simply the weaker of the two parties.

So much of this is based on perception: if Germany had won WWII, we probably wouldn’t have the same conceptualisation of perpetrators and victims that we do today.


A bystander is someone who “stands by” the conflict and observes it as it occurs, while not taking any active part in the clash. This may be due to their initial lack of involvement in the issue, or their active self-removal from the conflict. In either case, the theoretical idea of a bystander is often different to the practical version. Whereas, hypothetically, complete detachment from certain events or people may lead to complete removal from the situation, basic human emotions such as compassion and empathy can lead individuals to forgo their “bystander” role. On the other hand, negative characteristics such as greed and pride can often lead an individual to take part in a conflict in order to benefit themselves.