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Breaking the Spell of High Conflict

Conflict, whether political or personal, can escalate and become toxic — as we keep seeing in the news, on social media, and in our own lives. Our brains start sorting the world into good and evil, exaggerating the differences between ourselves and others.

In this episode, a replay of a session from the 2022 virtual California Conference for Women, investigative journalist Amanda Ripley reveals how people can become bewitched by this kind of “high conflict,” and offers tips for resisting it.

Come away with some fresh ideas for how to communicate across differences and navigate conflict in ways that are useful — instead of draining and divisive.


Amanda RipleyAMANDA RIPLEY is a New York Times best-selling author and an investigative journalist who writes about human behavior and change for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and other outlets. 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, and she is the host of the Slate podcast How To! High Conflict (2021) describes what happens when regular conflict distills into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the type with an “us” and a “them.” In this state, the brain behaves differently, and the normal rules do not apply. Ripley’s recent Atlantic stories include a piece about the movement to fix TV news and another about the least politically prejudiced town in America. She’s also been investigating what journalists can do to revive curiosity in a time of outrage, in cooperation with the Solutions Journalism Network. Earlier in her career, Ripley spent a decade writing about human behavior for Time Magazine in New York, Washington, and Paris. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Politico, The Guardian and The Times of London. Her stories helped Time win two National Magazine Awards. @amandaripley


Celeste Headlee

Celeste HeadleeCeleste Headlee is a communication and human nature expert, and an award-winning journalist. She is a professional speaker, and also the author of Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—and How to Do It, Do Nothing, Heard Mentality, and We Need to Talk. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has been the executive producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio, and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as cohost of the national morning news show The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Headlee’s TEDx talk sharing ten ways to have a better conversation has over twenty million total views to date. @CelesteHeadlee


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Episode Transcript

We’re going to talk about conflict, but we’re going to start small with a story that I think all of us could probably relate to on some level, even though it happened a century ago. It’s about two sisters who were best friends until one day they were enemies. Anna and Maria immigrated to the United States during the Great Depression from Italy at a time when 4 million other Italians had come here to the U.S., and there was a backlash against Italian immigrants. The government was cracking down on their arrival. It was getting harder and harder to come. They were considered untrustworthy, dirty, sometimes dangerous and shortly after during World War II, 600,000 Italians had to register and get fingerprinted and turn in their radios at the local post office as enemy aliens. So into this climate come, Anna and Maria in their 20s, neither of them speak much English and they had to stick together and they did.

They ended up moving to a small town in New Jersey called Princeton, where Anna got a job working in an Italian restaurant and Maria was cleaning houses and ironing the shirts of Princeton University students. They worked very hard. They raised their children on the same block. They went to the same church down the street. They celebrated things together. They grieved together. They prayed together for four decades. And then one day Anna went back to Italy to visit. And while she was there, someone gave her a hunk of good Italian cheese to give to her sister, Maria. Remember, this was back when it was really hard to get good Italian cheese in New Jersey, or really anywhere outside of Italy. So Anna returns to New Jersey, but the cheese is nowhere to be found. To this day no one in the family really knows what happened to this cheese.

Probably it got eaten, probably by Anna, but whatever the case, Maria was furious. There was a huge blowout between the sisters and they didn’t speak again for 30 years, 30 years over seemingly a piece of cheese. This created a schism in the extended family, all of whom were baffled and saddened by this split over a piece of cheese, but both Anna and Maria were very strong-willed and neither would back down. As one of the granddaughters told me where one wouldn’t forget the other wouldn’t forgive. They were saying the same things about each other, which is really common in all kinds of conflict, but they wouldn’t speak to each other. I think we all have stories like this of siblings or coworkers or neighbors who get estranged and stop speaking for years, even decades.

The question is, why do some conflicts ignite like this and others do not? Why do some conflicts leave us sleepless and spinning in our own heads with rage or contempt? What causes that? About six years ago, I got very obsessed with conflict because as a journalist for 20 years, I felt like my profession was no longer functioning the way it was supposed to. The places I wrote for were not believed by roughly half the country and lining up the facts and making them look pretty just wasn’t as persuasive as it once had been. It was clear that trust mattered more than facts and fear mattered more than anything.

So we’re going to get back to the cheese sisters because that’s not the end of the story, but before we do, I want to talk a little bit about what I’ve learned since then. It was very helpful to me and I hope it’ll be helpful to you. So I stopped doing traditional journalism for a while and started following people who know conflict intimately, but differently than journalists, people like peace negotiators, people like gang violence interrupters in Chicago, even former guerilla fighters in Columbia and even astronauts who believe it or not know a lot about conflict because there is conflict on every mission.

And it is something of great concern to NASA. So in doing all of this, I learned that there was a lot about conflict that I really had not understood despite covering it for many, many years. For example, conflict is not the problem. Conflict is how we get better as individuals, as communities, as families. That is how we stand up for ourselves, how we get pushed, how we get challenged. There is such a thing I like to call it “good conflict” in homage to what the late Congressman John Lewis used to call, “Good trouble.” Good conflict is very different from high conflict. So there is such a thing as high conflict, which is the kind of conflict that escalates to a point where it creates its own reality. It becomes basically a self-perpetuating automated system, and it’s all consuming. And it’s been studied all over the world, although less so in the U.S. until recently. It’s sometimes called intractable conflict.

But in any case, we know that our brains behave differently in this kind of conflict in particular. And we make a lot of mistakes. So in every high conflict I’ve ever seen or studied all around the world, everyone ends up worse off to different degrees, especially kids, whether it’s a high conflict divorce, or high conflict politics or gang violence or civil war. It’s always the same. Everyone suffers to different degrees. So the kind of conflict really matters because the things you do in high conflict have to be really different from the things you would do in good conflict. And here’s the most important lesson I can leave you with. If you remember nothing else from this conversation in high conflict, any intuitive thing you do will probably make things worse, any intuitive thing you do will backfire. So you have to do unintuitive things and do them really carefully.

We’ll talk more about what that looks like, but just to make it clear that there is a difference here between good conflict and high conflict I want to do a quick side by side of some of the differences. So good conflict can have anger it can… Anger is actually a really healthy emotion. Anger suggests you want the other person or the other side to be better than they are. Contempt on the other hand is a sign of high conflict. And in all the research on emotion in conflict, contempt is much more destructive and much harder to work with. Good conflict is characterized by moments of surprise whereas high conflict is very predictable like when you scroll through the headlines on your phone and you don’t really need to read the story, because you know what it’s going to say, because it’s the same story over and over again. And only the details change.

Good conflict is characterized by fluidity by movement. You can actually see it in the data whereas high conflict is rigid. Good conflict has complexity still whereas conflict has false simplicity. Good conflict is characterized by moments of curiosity. Curiosity can still flicker to life in good conflict whereas in high conflict there is no curiosity. Curiosity is dead. In good conflict there can be a lot of passion. There can be radical ideas for change, but there’s less righteousness and arrogance. And the most important reason to care about any of this of course, is that in good conflict, violence is unlikely and in high conflict violence is likely. So now that we know the difference, okay, what now? What do we do about this? So then I started following people and communities that had shifted out of high conflict, into good conflict to see how they did it and what the rest of us could learn.

In my book. I talk about a lot of different people all over the world who have done this. But today I want to tell you about just one of them because he is a fellow Californian and his name is Gary Friedman and he’s taught me more than really anyone else about conflict. Gary is one of the world’s foremost experts in conflict. He started out as a lawyer in Connecticut, in a traditional firm and he realized pretty quickly that the adversarial us versus them system of traditional law often left everyone a little more miserable than when they’d started. So he wanted to do the law differently. And one day a couple came to him and asked for a divorce and they wanted him to help both of them in the same room together which was considered really radical and possibly illegal. But Gary did it anyway and it was an eye-opening experience for all of them.

He was briefly investigated by the California State Bar Association, but they found out that they concluded it was okay what he was doing. And he ended up helping to pioneer the field of legal mediation around the world. He ended up figuring out that you could help people come to much more meaningful, longer lasting agreements when they were talking to each other, even as they continued to profoundly disagree. And that’s what mediation is. He never had trouble getting clients. It turned out lots and lots of people would come to him even against the advice of their lawyers because people wanted something very different than what they were getting. Just like today people want something very different, I think, than what they’re getting from traditional politics or traditional journalism.

So Gary has helped thousands of people through all kinds of really difficult conflicts, not just nasty divorces, also labor walkouts. At one point, the San Francisco Symphony orchestra went on strike, canceling 43 concerts. It was just a mess. And Gary and his colleagues came in and helped them listen to each other and understand each other and come up with an agreement that lasted much longer than any that had come before. Gary teaches negotiation at Harvard and Stanford. He’s trained thousands of people on mediation and listening. So it made a certain kind of sense a few years ago when some of his neighbors in Muir Beach in Marin County, California came to him and asked him to run for office in their local town. Even there in this tiny town of Muir Beach, politics had gotten kind of ugly just like around the country. People were calling each other names. The tone was really hostile and they thought who better to fix this than Gary, the conflict guru.

And so he decided to do it. He decided that he could do, maybe what he had done in the law for politics. So he ran for office promising to do a different kind of politics, promising to bring people together in the same room to listen to each other. He won by a landslide and as he puts it, it took him about an eighth of a second before he was sucked into high conflict in his own town. He’s not proud of this, but he lost two years of his life to this political conflict with his own neighbors, two years of his peace of mind. Lots of things happened, but suffice to say he found himself feeling defensive, blaming others, feeling attacked and wanting to counterattack. He found he could not walk his dog already through his neighborhood without feeling the hostility emanating from other neighbors.

He found that it was very hard to resist high conflict in politics because American politics right now are designed to create high conflict. So the reason I tell this story is because it represents to me the vulnerability of all of us to high conflict. None of us are immune. Even people who know a lot about conflict, even people who are incredibly privileged and live in a beautiful place by the sea. So what happened was Gary ended up realizing what had happened, that he had lost his way and this happened, and this is usually the way this happens in most high conflicts if there is ever a change, it happened through a shock. What might be called a saturation point. What happened in this case is that the next election came around. And while Gary wasn’t up for reelection, his allies were, and all of them got ousted and all of his opponents got elected.

So now he had no power on the board anymore. And while he was still in office, he thought seriously about resigning. And he had to realize in this moment he had a moment to reflect, to realize that he had become a person he didn’t recognize anymore, that his wife and children didn’t recognize and he had lost himself in high conflict. So in that shock, in that saturation point, he had just enough time and space to realize that he could do something differently. He couldn’t change everybody else. And everybody else made lots of mistakes here too, but he could change his own internal mindset about the conflict, which can change everything else. So how did he do that? Well, the first thing he had to do was identify how this had happened to him. How had he gotten sucked into high conflict, despite everything he knew?

So there are three predictable triggers for high conflict, all around the world. And all three of them were present in their own tiny way in this conflict for Gary. So the first one I want to tell you about is the presence of categories. It turns out from decades of research, anytime humans are sorted into groups, especially groups where one group thinks it’s superior to another, it brings out our worst instincts in conflict. And a lot of this there’s an evolutionary basis for, but it no longer functions in the modern world where we are very interdependent and saturated with information about each other. So in this case, Gary was not… there were not political parties. So what were the categories? Well, Gary invented them in his head as humans do. In his mind he decided that the people he was running against in his town were the old guard.

And he of course, was the new guard, never mind that he was in his 70s. He felt like the change agents, he and his allies were the upstarts. And they started referring to each other that way as the new guard and the old guard. This is something to watch out for. Anytime you or your colleagues or your family members start talking about us and them. That’s something to notice. And try to mix up groups so you don’t get into this situation, to notice the true complexities that exist. In fact, any country that has just two political parties and a winner take all system like the United States has more political polarization because you cannot really splice 75 million people into one category or another, but the brain thinks you can. The brain thinks you can know the hearts of 75 million people you’ve never met. So it’s very important whenever possible to have more than two groups and to make them fluid.

The other thing that was present in Gary’s case was conflict entrepreneurs. So in every high conflict I’ve ever seen, there are people or pundits or companies that inflame conflict for their own ends. These are people who are sometimes doing this subconsciously often for profit, but usually for attention or a sense of belonging or purpose. And it’s really important to notice who these people are in your own circle or on your newsfeed who seems to delight in the conflict in every twist and turn it takes. In Gary’s case, there were different people who served this role, but one of them was a neighbor who was advising him on all things political because she was a seasoned political operative in national politics. And so she was applying the same terminology and the same mindset that she used in national politics to the small town. And it was something that is contagious.

And soon Gary started thinking the same way and talking about killing the opponents, about war, using the sort of grandiose language, comparing himself to Obama and his opponents to Trump. These kinds of things are things that conflict entrepreneurs do. They embellish and exaggerate and keep tending the fire of the conflict for their own purposes. The third thing that was present in Gary’s conflict and in every high conflict and probably the most underappreciated force driving dysfunctional conflict all over the world was humiliation. Humiliation, the sense that you were up high and you’ve been forcibly brought low is as Evelin Lindner puts it, “The nuclear bomb of the emotions.” It is almost certain to make conflict more toxic and less useful. In Gary’s case, at some point feeling attacked, he wrote a public letter about his opponents in the neighborhood and published it on the town website.

He eviscerated them in his own mind, point by point, laying out all the facts about what they had done wrong, thinking that this would fix the conflict. But again, any intuitive thing you do in high conflict doesn’t work. So of course this letter actually led to a huge backlash. He was accused of being mean spirited and that it was wrong. And somebody tried to oust him from the board and there was all kinds of drama, but looking back on it, it wasn’t wrong to defend himself, but it was wrong to do it out of hurt and anger by attacking other people in a public way. Any good high school teacher will tell you, “You don’t want to confront a teenager in front of the whole class. You want to remove the audience,” because humiliation, supercharges conflict, which is why I no longer get into conflicts on Twitter. I always take it off Twitter and I can learn a lot more that way because we’ve removed the sense of needing to save face and perform for an audience.

So in Gary’s case, once he realized these things, it was a lot easier to get out of high conflict, although still not easy. So what did he do? Well, the first thing he did was he started doing a lot of active listening, which he calls looping. I’ve now trained hundreds of reporters and other people on this. Gary trained me. It is the single most powerful difference maker in conflict. It is something I now do every single day. I do it in every interview and there’s different ways to do this, but I highly encourage you if you get the chance to do training for active listening, please do it. It is the skeleton key to conflict. There are four steps in this form of looping, which basically means you listen to what the other person’s saying, then you distill what they are saying into the most elegant language you can muster. Then you play it back to them and check if you got it right. That’s important.

And what you find is that people will then add on to what they said or correct something that you misunderstood. Whatever the case, they can see that you’re trying to understand them, even as you disagree. And it makes all the difference because half of what people want in conflict is to be heard and understood. Even if they never get their way, it is the only way in all the research to get people to open up to information they don’t want to hear. After people feel heard, they say more nuanced, revealing and honest things. So nothing else can happen in conflict until people feel heard. It’s kind of like a game of chicken. So Gary knew how to do this really well. And he started doing it much more with his neighbors.

The other thing he did was to investigate the under story, the thing the conflicts really about. In his town they’d had this big war over raising the water rates, but it’s not about the water rates just like it’s not about the cheese. Curtis Toler who’s one of the people featured in my book who’s a former gang leader in Chicago. He me about a gang feud that’s gone on for years. And it all started with a missing watch that had gone missing during a basketball game years before. People have died over this conflict, still, no one knows what happened to the watch. And most people involved today don’t even know about the watch. So every conflict has the thing it seems to be about and the under story, the thing it’s really about. In this case and many cases, it was about humiliation, about a fear of not belonging in one’s town.

And that’s often the case that underneath a conflict, it’s about a fear of not belonging or feeling humiliated. There are different ways to investigate the under story. In the book I include a bunch of questions that you can use. Here are three that I really like that might be useful to you in your own company or neighborhood or family when you’re in any kind of conflict, even a smaller one. Just to get people off their usual talk tracks and try to ask them to think outside of the tunnel vision of the conflict. So what would it be like if you woke up tomorrow and this problem was solved, you got what you wanted? Walk me through that day. Or if we were to get in a time machine and travel back five years, what would you say about this conflict? For example, what did you think about vaccines five years ago, about the flu shot? Did you used to get that or about the chicken pox vaccine for your kids?

This is a way to get outside of the trap of the conflict and start to see things again and connect again. And also, this is one from Jay Rosen who writes about the media. He likes this one, “Where do you feel torn?” Because most of us, if we’re being honest, have some ambivalence about even our most strongly held beliefs. And that’s the really interesting part of conflict if you can get to it. The other thing Gary did was to really work hard, to avoid humiliating his opponents. At one point, he realized that some of his opponents on the board were violating the rules and his immediate first instinct was to hold a public meeting and call them out. But again, we know that’s just going to make things worse. So he found a way to hold them accountable without humiliating them publicly.

This is again, one of the most underappreciated ways to stay out of toxic conflict. There’s a great quote from Nelson Mandela, where he says, “There is nobody more dangerous than one who’s been humiliated, even when you humiliate him rightly.” And the last thing that Gary did was to work every day systematically to rehumanize himself and everyone else. So when you are in a position of authority of any kind in great conflict, as many people are right now, all around the world, and you have to make decisions that somebody is going to hate no matter what you do, the instinct is to build a wall, to never let them see you sweat. And again, that instinct backfires in this level of conflict. What you want to do is actually show some amount of vulnerability, reveal that you’re not sure what the right answer is. This is what you’re going to do. And here’s why, but it’s a really hard decision and you’re losing sleep at night.

The more you humanize yourself, if you’re being honest and authentic, the harder it is for other people to dehumanize you, you want to avoid becoming a target of convenience when there’s a lot of conflict in the air. And one way to do that is to reveal yourself as a human and also to connect with other people. So Gary went out of his way to connect genuinely with his neighbors about things they both cared about outside of the conflict, like their dogs or their children or their garden.

The last thing I wanted to is loop back to the story of the cheese sisters. So 30 years went by and the two women didn’t speak Anna and Maria until one day, Maria picked up the phone and called Anna and they talked for hours and they never stopped talking until they both passed away years later. What happened to cause her to pick up the phone after all those years? Well, it turned out that right around that time, Anna’s husband had passed away. And so here again was a shock, an opening, an opportunity, a saturation point where the cost of the conflict seemed suddenly like too much to bear. So Maria picked up the phone and called her sister. And by the way, she never got over the cheese. And the two women continued to disagree about many, many things, but they were in good conflict because they were able to hold that tension and still be in communication and not be making each other miserable through their estrangement.

So I very much appreciate being part of this conference and I look forward to our conversations, but the point I want to leave you with most of all is that there is a different way to be in conflict. We all have to get much smarter about how we fight for our own sanity and also for the sake of our kids. Thank you.

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