How We Can Avoid the Trap of High Conflict and Open the Door to Understanding

By Cathy Gassenheimer
Executive Vice President
Alabama Best Practices Center

Lately, I’ve found myself biting my tongue – a lot! Whether it’s someone’s position on the vaccine (I’m fully vaccinated), wearing a mask (I wear them inside), politics (none of your business; typing this while smiling) or another hot-button issue, it seems like our communities, state, and country are more divided than ever.

That’s one reason I immediately picked up and started reading High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, by Amanda Ripley. Ripley is an investigative journalist who writes for The Atlantic and other national publications. She’s also the author of several books including The Smartest Kids in the World. She is a great storyteller and a compelling writer.

Like many of us, Ripley noticed the growing strife emerging around her and wanted to better understand why people – and sometimes even whole communities – find themselves involved in conflicts that become quite ugly. Her curiosity and study produced this book.

There’s Good Conflict and There’s High Conflict

Ripley describes high conflict as the “mysterious force that incites people to lose their minds in ideological disputes, political feuds, or gang vendettas…it causes us to lie awake at night, obsessed by a conflict with a coworker or a sibling or a politician we’ve never met” (p. 3).

Not all conflict is bad, she says. Healthy conflict can help us better understand our colleagues, friends or family. Productive conflict can still be frustrating, but it also evokes curiosity, spurring us to ask questions and seek to understand one another. Good conflict doesn’t often change minds, but it can open up people’s understanding (p. 244).

Dive into Ripley’s Illustrative Stories

When you read the book, you’ll learn how divorce proceedings can be transformed from high conflict to productive mediation. You’ll hear the story of a “conflict expert” who finds himself immersed in turmoil when he is elected to a community board.

You’ll meet a gang member who lives with anger and despair. You’ll learn more about the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Colombia. In every case, Ripley describes how those involved eventually found a means to turn away from high conflict.

The story that most intrigued me involved convincing conservative corrections officers in Michigan to spend time with liberal members of a Jewish synagogue in New York to build common ground. Both groups agreed to visit each other and stay in each other’s homes for three days. As they ate together and visited places in both communities, a bond was created. While both groups continued to hold different views, they began to see each other as valued human beings.

Ripley describes the sentiment of one of the liberal New Yorkers. “She changed the way she categorized conservatives in her mind. There were many kinds of conservatives, just like progressives. It got harder to caricature her political opponents, and she could tell that the changes in attitude were mutual. They were able to see us as fuller, complicated people who weren’t dismissing them and whom they didn’t need to dismiss. And we felt the same way (p. 271).

Big Ideas about High Conflict

Ripley identifies nine big ideas for her readers’ consideration. I chose five to highlight here:

  1. The Conflict Trap: Ripley uses the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles as a metaphor for getting stuck or mired in conflict. “Right now, many of our institutions, from social media platforms to our courthouses to politics, are designed a lot like the Tar Pits. They draw us in and keep us there as long as possible, for profit or for power.” To escape the “tar pit,” we must understand how high conflict works and learn how to avoid it or get out of it.
  2. Humiliation, the Nuclear Bomb of Emotion: Humiliation can be the “most powerful, under-appreciated force” in most high conflicts. “Feelings of rejection and humiliation activate the same parts of the brain as physical pain. This is why researchers call it ‘social.’ And social pain can cause people to become aggressive in response, which [then] fuels more high conflict.”
  3. Beware [of] the Binary: Whenever you find yourself immersed in an “us against them” mode, look for another way. It might be trying to recategorize the other side by looking for commonalities and beginning to engage them in something on which you both agree.
  4. Investigate the Understory: Oftentimes the original cause of high conflict has been forgotten. Look for the root cause. In the case of the Hatfields and McCoys, it was a pig stolen several generations in the past. That one incident fueled high conflict for years, resulting in deaths and injuries on both sides. The feud finally was (mostly) resolved in 1891 when both families recognized the futility of continuing such a devastating dispute over stolen livestock.
  5. The Power of Looping: Looping is another term for active listening, pausing and paraphrasing to show the listener that you’ve heard them. A key part to looping is asking if your paraphrase was right. Sounds easy? It’s not. Very few of us are active listeners, instead opting for either autobiographical listening or planning what we’re going to say next.

Be Aware of the Tar Pit

Amanda Ripley

Staying alert to the possibility of high conflict can help you avoid it. Before stepping into the metaphorical tar pit, remember the following tips:

  • Don’t humiliate someone with whom you disagree
  • Avoid binary thinking
  • Distance yourself from people who thrive on seeding conflict
  • Complicate the narrative by surfacing false simplicity and becoming curious

Curiosity Helps

The next time you find yourself biting your tongue, try a new tact. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant suggests that instead of trying to persuade someone that you are right, and they are wrong, try acting more like a scientist. Ask questions and be truly curious about what you’ve heard.

What’s the backstory? What is behind the person’s thinking? Being truly curious and using active listening can help defuse a situation. You don’t have to agree, but try to seek to understand. It might just help you keep your cool and save your battered tongue for another day.

Here’s a good podcast chat between
Amanda Ripley and author Susan Cain

(starts at minute 9)