High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out

Amanda Ripley | 2021
Posted in: Bridging Divides Member-Recommended Readings
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Amanda Ripley tells fascinating stories of people trapped in “high conflict” situations — including local politics, national politics, Chicago gangs, the San Francisco symphony orchestra, a Jewish synagogue in New York City, and the Colombia civil war — to illustrate key factors — including human psychology — that trap people in debilitating conflicts.

High conflict is different from the useful friction of healthy conflict. That’s good conflict, and it’s a force that pushes us to be better people. Good conflict is not the same thing as forgiveness. It has nothing to do with surrender. It can be stressful and heated, but our dignity remains intact. Good conflict does not collapse into caricature. We remain open to the reality that none of us has all the answers to everything all the time, and that we are all connected. We need healthy conflict in order to defend ourselves, to understand each other and to improve. These days, we need much more of it, not less. 

High conflict, by contrast, is what happens when conflict clarifies into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them.

In high conflict, the normal rules of engagement no longer apply. In this state, each encounter with the other side, whether literal or virtual, becomes more charged. The brain behaves differently. We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side.

[W]e can get so mesmerized by high conflict that we don’t realize we have somehow started fighting on the wrong side—against our own cause. We can end up sacrificing what we most treasure.

The author then goes on to explain how people can work themselves out of high conflict, for example, by investigating the understory (what is this conflict really about? – you need to listen carefully), by reducing the binary (try not to form unnecessary groups, and if groups are necessary create more than two and keep them fluid), marginalize the fire starters (people who delight in the conflict and encourage it), buy time and make space, complicate the narrative (be suspicious of simple stories, stay curious).