Author: Amanda Ripley
Available: Kindle, Book, Audible
Author Website, Twitter
High Conflict: Why we get trapped and how we get out is available wherever books are sold. If you decide to purchase from Amazon I will earn a small commission, which I will use to support my book habit AND bring you more reviews like this one to help you decide what to read next. I do think you should read this book whether or not you buy it from Amazon or borrow it from a friend or the library. I read the Kindle version of this book, so I can’t vouch for the audio.
Why I read this book:
The last decade of my life can probably be best summarized as, “Amber is in conflict with everything she was raised to believe and to be.” Leaving the religion of my childhood and early adult life, while the rest of my family remained in that religion, as well as my husband and children, meant that conflict was the water I’ve been swimming in daily ever since. From the beverage I chose in the morning to the clothes I wore. Sundays and what events I attended are all a potential conflict with someone in my life at varying levels.
I was raised to avoid conflict, at least directly. “Contention is of the devil.” Apparently passive-aggression is of God? The conflict was there, it’s just that most people avoided approaching it directly. I wanted to discuss why my beliefs had changed, what I’d learned and why I felt like I was still the same. I’d left the religious beliefs I was raised to believe and live, but I didn’t have the skills to talk about this conflict effectively.
Instead of approaching the conflict as a conversation, I approached the conflict as an effort to convert the listener, as a preacher would, 1 trying to convince the people in my life to listen to me and be converted. 2 Surprisingly, it didn’t work. All that happened was that I came across as an angry asshole who just wanted to burn down the most important part of their life.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to rebuild the relationships I burned down because of anger, pain and misunderstanding. Then came Donald Trump, the degradation of civil discourse and, of course, 2020. The pandemic amplified any grievance anyone had with any person, institution or organization at that point. It didn’t help that almost all interactions were now “virtual” and communicating via text and social media just doesn’t have the same nuances available as in-person or face-to-face gatherings. As humans we were also in pain and collective grief as our lives changed drastically.
As a communication nerd at heart, my solution is to dive in and learn as much as I can about how to communicate through disagreement. Finding connections and maintaining relationships with people I love, even when we have differing perspectives, is something that is important to me. This book is one of several I’ve read while trying to improve these relationships. I highly recommend it to everyone. It’s an easy read, filled with relatable stories and situations, as well as some not so relatable situations. The science-backed conflict resolution tools are easy to understand and feel more simple to implement than is reality- but don’t let that stop you from trying! Really though, we can ALL do better and this book gives solid advice for that pursuit.
A summary of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out
The author, Amanda Ripley, covers conflicts in the book that vary from guerrilla fighters in Columbia to gang rivalries in Chicago. She interviews the attorney who pioneered mediation as an option for divorce, and then follows that same attorney when he couldn’t see his way out of his own personal conflict with his neighborhood association. Whether it’s uniting a Jewish Synagogue in New York City as they disagreed about Palestine and interfaith marriages, or that same Synagogue leaning into conflict as they did a home exchange with a group of conservative voters who were also employed at the local prison in their city in Michigan, this book is rich with examples of how to find our way out of high conflict situations in our lives.
Part One: Into Conflict
Ripley introduces High conflict in the introduction by telling the reader, “This is a book about the mysterious force that incites people to lose their minds in ideological disputes, political feuds, or gang vendettas. The force that causes us to lie awake at night, obsessed by a conflict with a coworker or a sibling or a politician we’ve never met.”
Ripley doesn’t subscribe to the notion that all conflict is bad, instead she separates healthy conflict as being a useful tool that causes healthy friction that helps us see other people’s perspectives, retain our dignity and allow others to retain theirs as well.
“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,” says Ripley. “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,” Ripley continues “is what happens when conflict clarifies into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them.”
Good conflict is productive. It may be heated and you will most likely not change your position, but you’ll understand the other person’s perspective and see them as a person rather than a caricature of a person. High conflict however, Ripley tells us, is like being stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits. The more you fight the more stuck you become. You aren’t making progress and are only inviting more high conflict into your life.
The Understory- What is the Crockpot Issue?
The first section of the book talks about how we get into those high conflict situations. She weaves together stories of couples in high conflict divorces, militant environmentalists and prehistoric carnivores to talk about getting into situations of conflict.
First comes understanding the “understory” of conflict situations, or as Ripley begins to use as shorthand, “the crockpot issue.” This references a divorce situation in which the couple was fighting over a crockpot they’d received as a wedding gift, but, ten years later as they were divorcing were fighting over as if it were the most important piece of property they had to divide… even though it had been sitting in the garage, in its original packaging because in their ten years of marriage they’d never used it.
The crockpot fight makes no sense on the surface. Crockpots aren’t that expensive. Either party could afford to replace the crockpot after the divorce. Finally the mediator asks the question to the wife, “why is this crockpot so important to you?” It turns out that it’s exactly like the one her parent’s had when she was growing up and they had a roast every sunday with potatoes and carrots and all the fixings. The crockpot was the family life she wanted to have and they never did in their marriage.
The husband? Well he wanted the crockpot because he didn’t want the divorce, didn’t get a say in it and she wanted the crockpot so he wanted it so she would feel what he was feeling about the divorce in general.
Finding the crockpot issue can help you understand the “why” of a conflict. Maybe your teenager wants more independence, or your boyfriend is scared of commitment because of his parent’s divorce. Perhaps your mom is worried for your eternal salvation or your business partner isn’t comfortable with the direction the business is headed. Understanding the “why” is key for understanding the conflict.
The Binary and Looping
One of the ways conflict escalates is by creating an “us” versus “them.” When you don’t see people in the “other” group as being as smart, kind, empathetic, educated as you and “your side” then you stop being curious and create a caricature of the person rather than a nuanced, complicated person who disagrees with you, perhaps for good reasons.
We stop learning and start assuming. The chapter is all about learning to listen better, with the goal of understanding the person and their position, rather than convincing them that you’re right and they’re wrong. She introduces a skill termed “looping” that is not just active listening, but is listening to understand, and letting the other person lead the conversation rather than listening to insert your own points. It’s a way to help others to feel heard and understood and is a way out of a high conflict situation where we’re trapped and can’t find a way out.
“The biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
What is Looping? The key is that looping is listening to understand, and then repeating what you think you understand to confirm your understanding. This gives the person you’re talking to space to be heard and to feel understood, because in confirming what you’ve heard it gives them space to explain what you’ve misunderstood.
- Listen with the goal of understanding: Listen until you have a good sense of what they are trying to say
- Communicate your understanding: Tell them in your own words, what you have heard them say (“reflecting”)
- Ask for confirmation: “Did I get it right?” “Am I understanding you correctly?”
- Receive their confirmation: If you got it right they will likely continue with more information, or correct you if you got it wrong. Either way, you’re likely to loop back to step one. Or ask for more information or a follow up that gives the person room to share more.
This short video explains in a bit more detail.
The key with looping isn’t to change anyone’s mind. The goal is to understand the person, their experience and to accept them for who and where they are.
The beautiful part of this chapter is how the “us” in “us versus them” is all of us at one point or another in our lives. We are primed for binary thinking and categorization. We can all improve.
Using the story of the Hatfields and the McCoy’s, Ripley explores why some conflicts burst into flames and others don’t. What causes the spark of disagreement to turn into a raging fire that consumes everything (and everyone) in its path? The four excellerants that commonly result in a raging fire are:
- Group identities: The power of a group is enough to fan the flames of conflict, or to extinguish it
- Conflict entrepreneurs: Beware people who benefit from creating or exacerbating conflict. Conflict entrepreneurs use “absolutist rhetoric, sweeping language that tends to make people more attached to the conflict and less flexible.” (Ripley pg. 136)
- Humiliation: “Humiliation is “the nuclear bomb of the emotions. It is the enforced lowering of a person or group, a process of subjugation that damages or srips away their pride, honor and dignity,” says Evelin Lindner, a psychologist and physician.
- Corruption: Places with a “history of government sponsored violence and the continuing tradition of corruption at the state and city level perpetuate spirals of violence.” (Ripley pg. 141)
As an aside, I read this portion out loud to my teenagers. They were completely fascinated by this story and that it was real. It does seem completely unbelievable, until you see how many other long-time feuds are similar.
Part Two: Out of Conflict
The second half of this book covers how to get out of high conflict situations once we inevitably get into them. The stories of conflict that Ripley began in the first section of the book are revisited as she tells us how the conflict was resolved.
- How do you get out of a gang?
- How do you de-escalate a national or international conflict involving hundreds or thousands of people?
- How does a world-renowned mediation expert extricate himself from the high conflict situation he created as the president of his neighborhood association?
The tools shared in this section to help individuals and groups out of high conflict are insightful and inspiring. Ripley returns to the people we met in the first part of the book and shares their stories. She discusses how they were able to leave the high conflict situations they were in, and in some cases, how they helped others do the same.
The tools varied widely, from public service announcements during football (soccer) matches in Central America to city-wide basketball tournaments in Chicago. For me, the most inspiring of the stories about getting out of high conflict situations was the story of Gary, the divorce mediator. I’m not a guerilla fighter in the jungles of Colombia. I don’t belong to a gang. I’m not part of a blood feud in the hills of Appalachia.
But, I live in the United States of America in 2021. A time when there are divisions and false binaries that are tearing apart neighborhoods, families and friendships. Republicans and Democrats. Christians and non-Christians. LGBTQ+ and anti-LGBTQ+. Conservative and Liberal. Homeschoolers and Public Schoolers. Environmentalists and big corporations. Vaccinated and anti-vaxxers.
The differences are plenty. At least when you look at how the arguments are frames and the teams are formed.
When I apply the tools and lessons in this book to the high conflict situations in my life I can see room for improvement in multiple high conflict situations in my life.
1.Start with self-reflection. “You can only change yourself” is a mantra I try to focus on when working through high conflict situations in my life. The tools that Gary used to pull himself out of the tarpit of conflict were all centered on himself and things he could control.
One of the key lessons from Gary is to turn inwardly first. Take the time to be aware of my own emotions and reflect on why they pop up when they do.
The questions he asked himself included:
- What’s behind that emotion?
- What is important to me?
- What would it be like if I got what I wanted in this situation?
- Do I know what I want in this situation?
When I’ve done this with some of the conflicts in my own life I’ve learned that while on the surface I want the other party to agree with me (so I “win”) what I really wanted was to be heard and understood, not agreed with. It was important to be heard and understood so I felt connected. That understanding and connection would only come slowly and through a constant and persistent effort on my part.
2. Break the binary. After discovering his own understory- or crockpot problem- he began by rehumanizing his neighbors in his mind. He worked to see people for who they were outside of which “side” of the argument they were on.
This slow process was a conscious effort to see past the conflict binary of “us versus them” and see his neighbors as people who are more than one thing. One of the ways Gary did this was by making a ritual of making light, positive connections outside of conflict. These interactions allow us to see people as more than what we disagree about and help us from getting into high conflict situations.
This is something I’ve regularly done on social media, one of the sources of regular conflict for many of us. If there is someone who I regularly disagree with, push back on the things they share or have conflicts with about politics, religion, or pineapple on pizza 3 then I’ll consciously make sure I comment positively on every picture they share of their kids, house projects or pets.
It’s conscious, but it’s not insincere. This is key. When you don’t mean it, people can tell. It helps them see me as more complex, but it also helps me see them as not just a “Republican, Covid-denyer, anti-vaxxer,” but also as a father who loves his kids, is building an impressive cabin in the mountains and who is actively involved in his neighborhood.
The Gottman’s, who have studied relationships and marriages extensively, say that five positive interactions to every one negative interaction is the “magic ratio.” These same interactions can be key to harmoniously living with teenagers, who disagree with you on everything, or for coworkers who rub you the wrong way.
In the book Ripley gives an example of astronauts living in a Mars simulation, locked away with five strangers for eight months. They made harmonious living a conscious effort by looking for ways to create the magic ratio.
“We always ate dinner together. Every night. We always exercised in groups. We tried not to single someone out.” They did ridiculous things on purpose. They held “fort nights” on a regular basis, sliding all their mattresses out into the shared space and creating a giant fort using ropes and sheets, like seven-year-olds at a slumber party. They organized theme dinners and surprise parties.
“We exploited any special days – birthdays, anniversaries. We’d bake a cake and put up decorations.” They considered “crew cohesion” part of their mission, and they did it every day, on purpose. That way, when conflict inevitably arose, it didn’t spiral.
3. Distance yourself from fire starters. Gary had a couple of people in his circle who continued to see the conflict and wanted to “win.” The neighbors who had advised him as he got into the situation he remained friends with, but he stopped relying on them for advice.
As I survey my own life, and the high conflict situations I’m part of, I see the fire starters as any organization or person who uses my emotions as a tool for creating conflict. People who rely on binary thinking, use inflammatory language or group people according to one trait or belief they hold.
This can include podcasts, media pundits, writers or individuals.
This doesn’t mean I can’t learn about the topics that interest me or hold opinions. It doesn’t mean I can’t be an activist and advocate for causes I believe in. It does mean that I stick to facts and nuanced information, which makes the people who oppose my position more human, and myself more willing to be curious and listen to their perspectives and understory.
What this means for me is I:
- Look for information presented with information without outrage
- Seek out opposing perspectives
- Have conversations with more questions than answers
- Take the time to listen and learn rather than “choosing sides”
- Don’t assume I know someone’s perspective because of their position on another topic
- Don’t assume the position of fire starter in other people’s lives either
- Don’t assume I know everything. 4
4. Consider what “winning” looks like. There is a time to fight for things you believe in. Remember, conflict can be productive when used to make things happen. Not all conflict is bad, only high conflict where we get stuck and progress doesn’t happen. Tension in life is important, but how can we hold the tension and use it for progress rather than for domination?
“Winning” in the moment also feels good. Our brains give us a healthy dose of dopamine when we “win” an argument or even just “score” a “point” against our adversary. But winning is a short term gain when you don’t understand the actual conflict you’re up against. If winning means the humiliation of your opponent then you haven’t won at all.
5. Embrace connections. Ripley draws a connection between the stories of conflict and the communities and families who helped draw their family members out of high conflict situations. Situations like guerilla warfare and gang violence. They did this by rehumanizing their family members by telling great stories.
How you talk about someone, to yourself and others, is part of how you can rehumanize them and build connections. We all have more in common than separates us. Drawing on those connections make it difficult for the conflict entrepreneurs to gain a foothold in our minds.
6. Lean into conflict. This is perhaps the most counter-intuitive point in this book for me. “Contention is of the devil” afterall. But leaning into conflict, going deeper than the surface-level argument, helps me understand individuals and their positions, even when I don’t agree. Often, I find that we agree on more than the firestarters on either side of the issue would have us believe.
When we stop talking and start 5 to make assumptions about where someone stands on an issue and why, then we’re just getting stuck in the tar pits of conflict and can’t move forward. Of course, there are situations where people should be avoided for your mental, physical and emotional health. Situations where abuse is present or the person you’re dealing with has a personality disorder.
The point of leaning into conflict isn’t about getting someone to agree with you, it’s to understand why you don’t agree. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.” Look for honest disagreement and practice hearing opposing opinions and disagreements and cultivate and attitude of curiosity when faced with conflict.
Key Learnings From High Conflict: Why we get trapped and how we get out by Amanda Ripley:
- Look for the crockpot issues- work harder to understand what’s really going on, vs. what I think the surface issues are.
- Listen to learn and understand, rather than to convert.
- Pay attention to the language being used. Ask, is this person a firestarter? Or are they looking to extinguish the flame of conflict?
- Distance myself from fire starters.
- Abolish binary thinking.
- Take time to breathe before engaging in conversations about disagreements.
- Make more positive deposits than negative.
- Complicate the narrative and make room for nuance.
- Cultivate curiosity. Ask more questions from more people who disagree with me. Try to understand where other people are coming from and why they’ve arrived at the position they have.
Where to learn more:
Even though this is a thorough overview of the book, the book is a great place to start. I highly recommend it. The stories and examples are rich and complex, as you’d expect given the author’s premise.
You can hear more directly from Amanda Ripley on her website, where you can sign up for her newsletter. Ripley also writes at Medium and is on Twitter.
You can also find excerpts of the book in several articles written by Amanda Ripley as well as a thorough interview with C-Span2:
- We Need More ‘Good Conflict’ in Our LIves. Here’s How It Works in Time
- How a Toxic Battle Over Wolves in Europe Became a Productive Conversation in Slate
- Is any conflict unsolvable? This author doesn’t think so. An interview with Christian Science Monitor
- C-span2 Book talk: High Conflict interview with the author on C-Span
Where to find the book:
Available: Kindle, Book, Audible (free download with Audible membership trial)