A trap is only a trap if you don’t know about it. If you know about it, it’s a challenge.
– China Miéville
What makes some conflicts manageable, while others entrap those involved for days, weeks, or even decades? Amanda Ripley, a New York Times bestselling author and an investigative journalist who writes for the Atlantic and the Washington Post, led an audience at ASAE’s 2021 Annual Meeting through the differences between good conflict and high conflict, and how to use tools like ninja listening to work through conflict more efficiently.
Good vs. high conflict
Conflict is inevitable as we go through life. Good conflict happens when two differing opinions about how to handle a situation arise. Both parties are able to work through a good conflict, come to an acceptable resolution, and move forward with life. When people can speak their mind even if they disagree, and argue without dehumanizing each other, they’re not blinded by hatred or mistrust. Good conflict becomes actionable because those in conflict recognize that they simply have different views.
But when conflict escalates beyond a certain point, it takes on a life of its own. Differences of opinion stop mattering and the conflict becomes central to everything. Ripley calls this high conflict, or conflict for conflicts’ sake. It starts small but becomes all-consuming, and almost everyone ends up worse off. High conflict typically manifests as an us-versus-them conflict.
Lately, much of our society’s conflicts have political tones. Lots of things have contributed to our current political conflict: demographic shifts, social media, poverty, and racial prejudice. According to Pew Research, 54% of Americans see other Americans as the biggest threat to the well-being of their country. 45% of Americans have stopped talking to someone about politics because of something they’ve said. And 62% of us say we have political views we’re afraid to share.
We sink into high conflict because of a mix of inner motivations and external forces, Ripley explained. She gave the example of Gary Friedman, a legal mediator credited with originating the study of conflict resolution, to show that anyone can fall into high conflict. After proving himself to be a knowledgeable mediation expert, Gary’s neighbors in northern California invited him to run for office in 2015. He won his community services district board race, but the experience wasn’t what he envisioned it to be. People’s natural resistance to change and American’s long-entrenched wariness of politicians made his attempts at doing things differently miserable.
In another example, Ripley told the story of Curtis Toler, a man who joined a gang in Chicago as a boy. He wanted to belong and he wanted protection. But then his role model was murdered outside of his high school. Curtis became consumed with getting revenge on the rival gang that he thought was responsible. It was a long road for him to leave the gang world and channel his needs for belonging and protection into a job mentoring at-risk youth in his hometown. Conflict is complex, and sometimes lengthy to escape.
How to shift from high conflict to good conflict
It’s possible to shift out of high conflict and into good conflict, and become more effective (and less miserable!) at resolving the root of the conflict. Here’s what people interested in mediating conflict, their own or others, should try to find out as they seek to defuse high conflict into good:
1. How the high conflict happened
Three forces distort minor, resolvable conflicts into bigger ones:
- Conflict entrepreneurs. These are people who exploit conflict for their own ends (money, power), and fan the flames of conflict to keep it going. Watch out for conflict entrepreneurs. Try not to be one yourself. If you can’t distance yourself from conflict entrepreneurs, try to redirect their efforts. This doesn’t always work because you can’t always control others’ actions, but it’s worth trying.
- Humiliation. Ripley calls humiliation the nuclear bomb of emotions. Humiliation is forced and public degradation, and/or an unjustifiable loss of dignity, pride, or status. When Americans experience humiliation, we often cope with it by trying to make others feel the same way.
- False binaries. This is the dangerous reduction of realities or choices into just two. When we divide issues or people into two groups, we will eventually end up behaving badly. The human brain doesn’t do well coexisting with just two choices; it will eventually think one is inherently bad. The Hatfields and McCoys’ legendary decades-long feud over a pig and other perceived slights was a binary conflict that pressed deeper loyalties into service while ignoring the many roles we all simultaneously have: mother, father, sibling, grandparent, employee, citizen.
If you can avoid sorting people into groups, especially just two, avoid doing so. If you can’t avoid it, blur the lines between those groups. Invite people to move around the groups. Help people to know one another under the right conditions. Help them see that they still have similarities.
On the other hand, high conflict is predictable, rigid, simple, contemptuous, violent. It’s harder to dig out from high conflict.
2. The saturation point of high conflict
High conflict sometimes reaches a saturation point. This is when the conflict becomes so consuming that loss is inevitable, imminent or both. At a saturation point, both sides will re-prioritize and reach a resolution, or at least a détente. Look for these saturation points. Help others see them, and help them talk through ways to get out of them.
3. The root cause of the conflict
Get underneath what is causing high conflict. Many times, the apparent problem is not what is really causing a party to act out. There could be hidden motivations, hurt feelings, or long-ago hurts that even the acting party might not fully understand. To move toward productive anger, and ultimately a resolution, try to sit with the other party and ask these questions:
- How is this conflict affecting your life?
- What information are you using to form your opinions?
- What if you woke up tomorrow morning and this problem was solved? How would you know? How would you feel?
- What is the root cause of this conflict? Sometimes asking blunt questions like this causes the other party to pause and reflect for the first time, and realize for themselves why they are fighting.
Become a ninja listener to defuse high conflict
The concurrent path toward more constructive conflict is to react differently to conflicts. A major part of reacting differently is learning to become a better listener, or what Ripley calls ninja listening. Ninja listening consists of these four steps:
- Listen for what the other person has said that seems most important to them.
- Distill it into the most elegant words you can muster.
- Play it back to them.
- Check if you got it right – “Is that right?” Ask with genuine curiosity.
You might not get productive answers right away. You might need to practice asking these questions in a non-threatening way. But active, “ninja” listening goes a long way toward de-escalating high conflict while working toward resolution.
After her presentation, Ripley took on a few questions from the audience:
The loudest voices make us believe we’re more polarized than we actually are. Are we polarized? Or is it just noise?
It does feel like we are more polarized. But telling people the truth about how polarized we actually are helps de-escalate things. Pointing out that it’s actually a minority of people loudly shouting extreme views while also pointing out that neighbors often have more in common with one another than not can prompt us all to know each other on more than a superficial level.
How does one recognize the transition from good conflict into high conflict?
Specific, red-flag elements that indicate you’re headed for dysfunctional conflict: Are people withdrawing from the conflict, so that it’s heading toward a more black-and-white facsimile of itself? Is it gaining momentum of its own? Do you feel good when something bad happens to the other side? If so, you’re headed for high conflict. We need to be smart about how we fight, and devolving into high conflict won’t resolve anything.
How can you help resolve conflict if you’re not in a leadership position?
“There may be less you can control, but it will still feel overwhelming. First, recognize that every conflict has an inner and outer conflict. We talk about the outer conflict more, but the internal conflict drives more of the overall conflict. Internal conflict controls motivations. You may be dealing with others whose internal conflicts are driving the conflict with you. Focus on keeping your inner conflict healthy. Take advantage of opportunities to defuse the outer conflict.”
When navigating the new COVID-19 environment, how do we navigate having some people at home and some in the office?
“Social distancing and working remotely all the time isn’t normal. No one actually wants it. Humans can recover from trauma, but we need a break at some point if we’re going to recover. We’re not able to get the magic ratio of positive to negative encounters (3:1 or even 5:1) with other humans that we require to think of others as generally good. It’s harder to get positive interactions with others you may disagree with if you’re not with them in person. As soon as it’s safely possible, it will be important to return to in-person offices and events to build up a buffer of positive experiences. So that when conflict eventually happens, we’ll have a bank of positivity to work against it.”
How do you avoid humiliating someone when the other side is operating on obvious misinformation?
Good question, and there’s no really good answer to this. Until we can have a common set of facts, it’s going to be difficult to not have new high-conflict situations constantly cropping up. In the meantime, work toward understanding their inner conflicts as manifested by their outer actions.
Amanda Ripley is a New York Times bestselling author and an investigative journalist who writes for the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is the author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way and The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes, and Why. Drawing on stories of people in all kinds of conflict, as well as research into human behavior, Amanda has developed specific rules of engagement for high conflict—including smarter questions to ask any opponent, better ways to share information that people don’t want to hear, and conversational tactics to excavate deeper, more interesting truths. This work is surprising and ultimately hopeful, and it has transformed how Amanda operates as a journalist. Reach Amanda at email@example.com.