Invisible Rules and Conflict

Invisible rules can lead to conflict.

Are you unconsciously expecting other people to automatically follow your invisible rules? If so, you may be setting yourself up for unnecessary conflicts.

Several years ago, I read a book about forgiveness by Fred Luskin. He has a section in the book about “unenforceable rules”, which I found extremely helpful for dealing with resentments and conflict. Recently, I read an article by Tammy Lenski about a similar phenomena, which she calls “ghost rules”.

What are ghost or unenforceable rules? These are unspoken rules we learned in our families or early workplaces that we have never examined, but which we believe are unquestionably right not only for ourselves but for others as well.

These represent our fervent opinion about the way people should behave, and the way the universe should operate. A corollary to the rule is that we feel free to judge and criticize others if they don’t follow them.

Almost all of us have rules like this, but the problem is that our invisible rule set and that of other people, are not necessarily the same!

Why do these invisible rules create conflict?

Most conflicts occur when we misunderstand each other or make (negative) assumptions about the motivation, integrity, or ability of others. If we are operating from a different set of unspoken commandments, these communication clashes are more likely.

So how do you escape from the trap of invisible rules?

  • Start bringing your own rules to conscious awareness.
  • Once you understand your rules, accept that yours are not universal.
  • Assume that other people’s rules may be different from yours.
  • Don’t assume bad intentions because they didn’t follow yours.
  • Asking yourself curious, open questions can help.
    • Why am I getting irritated and “judgy” right now?
    • Did this other person or the situation break one of my unconscious rules?
    • What is the rule operating here? Does my rule make sense in this context?
    • Are they operating by the same rule? If not, what might their invisible rule be? Y

And most important of all, how can you gently explore these rules together, or leave them behind and have better, more loving communication?

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Lorraine Segal
Lorraine Segal
After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to start her own business, Conflict Remedy, happily teaching, coaching, blogging, and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She's been writing a well-received blog about conflict, communication, and forgiveness for 10 years, which you can find at and is a contributing author to the anthology, Stand Up, Speak Out Against Workplace Bullying. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and hiking in beautiful Northern California, where she lives with her wife. Her latest project, a memoir called: Angels and Earthworms, an unexpected journey to love, joy, and miracles, is about her transformation from miserable self-doubt to self-acceptance, true love, spiritual awareness, and right livelihood. Her cartoon muse, Bookie, insisted that she write this book about her life. Visit for memoir tidbits and updates or to contact Lorraine.


  1. Thank you, Lorraine.
    Gee, the 50’s and 60’s. Yes indeed.
    I so wanted to be a college professor at one point, and I’m so very glad I failed to get there :)
    What we journey toward is important, and what we journey away from equally so, right? It’s hard for us to leave things behind, on a very basic level. Yet until we can let go, we can’t refill.
    Would love a chance to talk. I do lots of work around the theme of conflict and expectations myself, so I’ll bet we could have a useful gabfest.You can reach me at [email protected], or I will keep bugging you!
    Be well.

  2. Lorraine, I grew up thinking that I was supposed to have all the answers and know everything, thanks to a mother who had me tested when I was … wait for it … 9 months old. 🙄

    i was deemed “very smart,” so she had a fantasy about my abilities from that time forward. (Heaven only knows what “abilities” I possessed at that age …)

    It took me a lot of years to realize that my ideas / opinions / thoughts were mine alone and not necessarily universal or always right.

    Love your article!