Conflict is unavoidable in life, be it between friends, family, or coworkers – or on a societal scale when it comes to politics or religion. Some disagreements can be healthy, but too often they descend into what journalist and author Amanda Ripley calls “high conflict,” a mode of thinking and feeling, which leads to anger, hate, and an “us versus them” mentality. We all suffer when this is the case, so Amanda embarked on a mission to identify the triggers that cause this level of division – and offer solutions to move beyond them. She shares her insights in the Christopher Award-winning book, “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcasts below).
“Like most Americans,” said Amanda, “I was exhausted by the endless conflicts we seemed to be in as a country, in politics, social media, on the news. So I was…looking around the world for examples of people getting out of conflict. And what I learned pretty quickly was that wasn’t quite the right question. It’s not about getting out of conflict, because we need conflict to get better, to push each other, to challenge each other to grow. It’s about getting out of a particular kind of conflict which we’re in, called high conflict.”
The different ways of approaching conflict became clear at the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University, where Professor Peter Coleman and his colleagues “have studied and recorded over 500 hard conversations between people who disagree profoundly on big controversial things like abortion and guns and the Middle East.”
These conversations always fell into one of two categories. When participants entered with a mindset of curiosity and a desire to grow in understanding, their opinions didn’t change in the end, but they left feeling more open, interested, and engaged, with a respect for the human connection that was made. Participants who simply hunkered down in their own opinions, without truly listening to the arguments of the other side, were left steeped in negative emotions, such as hostility and a dehumanizing attitude towards the other person.
In speaking with conflict expert Gary Friedman, Amanda learned that he doesn’t approach mediation sessions seeking a resolution or even a compromise. Rather, he asks, “Can we come out of this understanding ourselves, the other person or the problem a little better?”
Amanda now applies this rule to her work as a journalist as well, noting, “I think that’s what a great story does in a time of high conflict. It’s not going to make you change your mind necessarily. It’s not going to solve the problem…But if it can help lead to that spark of understanding, even as we disagree, then I think that’s the goal.”
As an example, Amanda revealed that she covered an abortion rights rally at the Supreme Court a couple of months ago with an organization called “Starts with Us,” which aims to promote greater understanding between people with differing viewpoints.
Amanda recalled, “We were just there to listen, to literally ask people open questions and listen. We had one crew go with my colleague Helen to the pro-abortion rights side. I went to the pro-life or anti-abortion side. We did this for four hours, and we had really interesting conversations…Once you open yourself up to listening to people – really listening to them and trying to understand them, even if you never agree – it makes it much harder to collapse into that righteous certainty that is so appealing right now – and that’s a more complicated place to live. It doesn’t mean there isn’t right and wrong…but it makes it harder to demonize people you disagree with. And that is humility, right? I think listening and humility are very connected because you can’t truly listen to someone unless you think there might be something that you don’t know about them or about the world. Once you open yourself up to that…it’s a totally different way of being in the world.”
This experience fits into what research shows is the only proven method to reduce prejudice: contact theory, which, Amanda explains, “is basically having meaningful connections across big divides under certain conditions…We have to be able to see each other as human, and then we realize how much we don’t know. We know the more political news Americans consume, for example, the more mistakes they make about the other side of the political aisle…That’s what high conflict does. It becomes conflict for conflict’s sake, and it takes over. It’s a very physically, spiritually, and emotionally draining way to live.”
While it may be a draining way to live, it also allows “conflict entrepreneurs” to thrive. These are individuals or organizations that boost their egos and/or pocketbooks by keeping others steeped in anger and hate. “Whether you’re a politician, a journalist, a pundit, or somebody who uses Facebook, there is a strong incentive and push to be a conflict entrepreneur,” observes Amanda. “We are living in an age of great uncertainty and anxiety, some of which is real, based on the pace of change…And some of that anxiety is embellished by conflict entrepreneurs…So it’s important to notice who seems to delight in every twist and turn the conflict takes and recruits deputy conflict entrepreneurs to their cause…Who’s having the most profitable or attention seeking moment in conflict, not just once, but again and again? Who seems to be fueled by hostility, contempt, disgust, those kinds of emotions?…If you can distance yourself from conflict entrepreneurs, do that if they’re in your news diet or your social media feed.”
One trait that conflict entrepreneurs employ constantly is humiliation, of tearing someone down in a public way. This perpetuates an endless cycle of high conflict because the person who feels humiliated will often pursue revenge. Amanda quotes Nelson Mandela as once saying, “There’s nobody more dangerous than one who’s been humiliated, even when you humiliate him rightly.”
Even good people fighting for the right cause can get caught up in this spiral. Amanda cites a book she read called “Well-Intentioned Dragons,” which addresses how to manage conflict entrepreneurs in church settings. She says, “One of my favorite pieces of advice in that book was: when dealing with a dragon, try not to become one…This is a sure sign of high conflict: when you or your side start literally mimicking the behavior of your opponents, harming the thing that you went into the fight to protect.”
While writing her book, Amanda serendipitously came across two groups that approached their differences in a healthy, respectful way. She was interviewing the rabbi of a liberal Jewish congregation that had engaged in good conflict over the issue of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Initially, their synagogue almost imploded over the issue and even made the front page of the New York Times, making it a public humiliation. As a result, they brought in a mediation group called “Resetting the Table” to rewire their culture.
Amanda explained, “There were a lot of difficult conversations and skills they had to build in each other, but they got much better at it…They would listen to each other, show the other person they heard them, ask questions, continue to disagree profoundly. They found out there was this other way to be in conflict where you didn’t surrender your beliefs…but you also didn’t pummel each other into the ground.”
After the 2016 election, this liberal Jewish synagogue chose to lean in to conflict again because they were so bewildered by the results. They agreed to a cultural exchange program in which they would travel to Michigan to stay with several conservative Christian corrections officers and have difficult conversations about the differences in their beliefs.
Both the liberals and conservatives felt deep fear ahead of time because they had preconceived notions about what the other group was like, ideas that they were violent, hateful people. Perhaps the best examples are Caleb, a gun enthusiast who opposed gay marriage – and Martha, a married lesbian who didn’t like guns.
One of the organizers set up rules ahead of time, which specified, “We’re going to stay curious, and we’re going to respect the things each other holds dear.” And while there was some deviation from those rules, someone was always able to get the group back on track.
Amanda went along for the trip and was amazed at the results. She says, “We went for ice cream and then to a prison museum, talked about their jobs, which were very foreign to the New Yorkers, like what it’s like to actually work in a prison every day. Then they talked about gay marriage, they talked about gun rights. They had hard conversations, and then they’d go out to dinner, they went to a shooting range. There was a mix of things because again, according to contact theory, we know that you need to have meaningful connections and that you can’t just spend all your time disagreeing. But it’s important to not avoid hard conversations either. By the end of those three days…there was almost a euphoria in the room. People felt like they could breathe, like, ‘Oh my gosh, there is another way to do this thing. We now understand each other more. We don’t agree on a lot of stuff, but at least we agree on what we disagree on. We can now get to that sort of second order agreement.’ And they liked each other. There was real affection. A couple of months later, the Michigan folks came to New York City, stayed in the apartments with the New Yorkers. Caleb stayed with Martha and her wife, and had incredible moments of human connection across big divides.”
“High Conflict” includes many success stories of people who have moved beyond the divisions that plague our relationships and society. And Amanda offers numerous suggestions on how we can do the same. “One of the big themes of the book,” she says, “is ‘resist the binary.’ Any time there’s a false binary – us versus them, labor versus management, Democrats versus Republicans – notice it and try to scramble up those groups, even if it’s only in your own head. Try to notice that not everybody fits neatly into those categories.”
In fact, the category that most Americans do fit into is called “the exhausted majority.” The organization “More in Common” researches political polarization and learned that Americans fall into six or seven groups when it comes to politics, not just the easily labeled right and left.
“The biggest group was the exhausted majority,” Amanda said. “[These are] people who are done with this conflict or they’ve burnt out on it. They want things to function in their school board, in their Congress. That’s most people. The problem is it only takes a minority to derail a community because the exhaustive majority goes silent. Two-thirds of Americans now say that they are actively suppressing their opinions on politics because they don’t want to get into conflict, which is counterintuitive because it feels like everybody’s yelling all the time. But that’s because a small number of people are doing the yelling, and it feels like it’s bigger than it is. It only takes a small number of people on Twitter, on the radio, on social media to gin up a lot of contempt and violence. We’ve seen that all over the world. So it is important that the exhausted majority not go silent.”
This is especially true when it comes to condemning political violence. Even if you don’t have a big social media following, Amanda believes it’s important that people condemn violence because research shows it makes a difference.
Also, realize that being a proponent of peace and understanding does not equal being wishy-washy or weak, even though some who are steeped in high conflict might perceive it that way. Amanda said, “The people who try to break out of high conflict, to try to interrupt the dance, who reach out or listen or do something counterintuitive, those people get vilified by their own group, and that’s why it’s so hard. That’s why it’s so lonely. Usually, people end up going back to the conflict, particularly because neither side wants them anymore.”
Another suggestion for moving out of high conflict is to “interrupt the system” by doing counterintuitive things, such as acts of kindness in unexpected situations. Amanda again cites mediator Gary Friedman, who got sucked into his own high conflicts when he ran for a local political office. He wound up alienating many people who used to support him, before he finally came to his senses.
“Once he realized that he’d lost two years of his peace of mind to this insane conflict in his local town,” says Amanda, “he started doing things to interrupt that spiral. He would go out of his way to ask his opponents how their sick mother was doing – and he would have to care about the answer. But he would also, if he could, vote with them on something that he actually believed in. He wouldn’t just vote against them every single time because he didn’t want them to get the win. He would also try to rehumanize himself: be more humble, be more vulnerable, admit what he didn’t know, admit that he was losing sleep over the conflict. This is totally counterintuitive. When you’re in conflict, you want to be invulnerable or appear that way. So I think any way that you’re able to interrupt that spiral is very powerful.”
In light of what she has learned about mediation, Amanda has founded a company called “Good Conflict,” which trains companies, school boards, newsrooms, and other groups on the ways to handle conflict in a productive manner.
She also hopes readers of “High Conflict” are able to apply the information she shares in the book to their own lives. Amanda concludes, “I hope they will feel some space opening up in their chest, some sense that none of this is new. Whatever you’re going through – whether it’s a difficult divorce or a neighborhood conflict or the political conflict we’re all struggling to make sense of – this is not new. It is part of the human condition. And we know a lot now about how to shift out of it. Even if we can’t change what our political leaders do…we have to start in our own heads, because what I’ve learned is I don’t want to live in high conflict in my own head. Even though I wish I could change everybody, I at least can work on that myself. Then, I will make fewer mistakes and I’ll be less likely to mimic the behaviors that I went into the conflict to [oppose]. So, I think there is a whole other way to do this, and we just need to have more examples and stories about what that looks like.”
(To listen to my full interview with Amanda Ripley, click on the podcast links):