The Catalyst Review: Strategies for Working Through High Conflict

Essay by Anne Wicks, the Ann Kimball Johnson Director of Education and Opportunity

Author Amanda Ripley offers solid ideas for working through intense conflicts in her recent book. The recommendations are not your standard boilerplate but could build skills that benefit grumpy old-timers and young activists alike.

It is not hard, these days, to find intense conflict. Disagreements can quickly devolve from robust discussion to angry rhetoric. Many are left with furious assumptions about the unredeemable awfulness of those standing on the other side of a big, thorny issue. 

I experienced it recently, ironically while reading High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Amanda Ripley’s excellent 2021 book on why we get trapped in high conflict and how to get out. The conflict caught me off guard, and it was painful and confusing.

A longtime friend shared her passionate response to a recent event in a group text of old friends. I don’t fully align with her views — I see nuance in the issue, and she is clear there is none — leaving us a narrow slice of middle ground. She took issue with a study I shared and lobbed a personal attack in response. I was devastated by her words, frustrated at being misunderstood, and angered by her approach. I know she was fed up and furious with me.

I was devastated by her words, frustrated at being misunderstood, and angered by her approach. I know she was fed up and furious with me.

In the aftermath, I had two thoughts. First, texting about a tough issue is always a bad idea, and I know better. A wise friend once told me “You don’t have to attend every fight to which you are invited.”  Second, I had no idea what to do next or if that relationship is reparable.

Ripley’s book explores what creates high conflict, which she defines in the introduction “…the mysterious force that incites people to lose their minds in ideological disputes, political feuds, or gang vendettas…”.  By telling the stories of several people like Mark, an environmental activist who changes his mind about genetic engineering, and Gary, a conflict expert who enters local politics, and Curtis, a former gang leader, Ripley brings to life very real and recognizable conflicts.

Each of these people, and the others included in the book, manage to escape their high conflict. But it is not just the passing of time that fades the scars and mutes the dissension. 

Instead, Ripley offers five solid strategies to mitigate high conflict:

First, investigate the understory. What is the conflict really about? Conflict can have deep roots; resolution requires helping all involved feel understood.

Second, reduce the binary. Oversimplifying to us vs. them fuels conflict unfairly. Seeing the world in black and white is the easy way out. The heart of the matter is often in the messy middle.

Seeing the world in black and white is the easy way out. The heart of the matter is often in the messy middle.

Third, marginalize the fire-starters. There are always those who delight in and/or profit from conflict.  Avoid them. Today, we are particularly plagued by the shouting talking heads whose livelihoods depend on conflict and blame. Humiliation — perceived or real — can consume us and seem to demand a response. Seeing the fire-starters clearly matters.

Fourth, buy time and make space. We must deliberately practice listening for understanding rather than mostly listening for an opening to again make your point. Ripley references looping, the practice of repeating back what you think you heard to check for understanding. It is not a new technique, but it is a powerful tool for those that master it.

And fifth, complicate the narrative. We all like simple justifications for our positions — but the truth is always more complex. Cultivating our curiosity keeps us honest in conflict.

Ripley’s book is full of both choice wisdom and practical knowledge (the appendixes and glossary are not to be missed). It should be adapted for high school and college classrooms — and trainings for leaders serving on local school boards to the U.S. Congress. It’s a great gift for any grumpy old-timer or a young activist. 

The world is not going to get calmer or less complex. We should help young people explicitly build the skills to navigate conflict instead of offering more bubble-wrap strategies to avoid it. Ripley’s book is a good start to that end.

The world is not going to get calmer or less complex. We should help young people explicitly build the skills to navigate conflict instead of offering more bubble-wrap strategies to avoid it. 

She ends the book with the story of a group of liberal New York City Jews who visit a group of conservative Christian prison guards in Michigan — who then host those guards on a trip to NYC. They are all profoundly impacted by what they learn from each other. They don’t agree on everything, but they learn to see and respect each other. As one participant reflects at the end of the trips, “I wish I could appear everywhere in my life the way I felt called to appear those two times. Present, open, able to be surprised.”

I am not sure if my own conflict may resolve. It’s not entirely up to me. But this book reinforced an old lesson — that sanctimony and righteousness are disrespect masquerading as virtues. Listening and curiosity — with the hope for but without the expectation of — agreement is what creates respect between people. It is important for all of us to know the difference.

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