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How to Escape the Trap of High Conflict and Disagree More Productively

In "High Conflict", journalist Amanda Ripley explores how we get stuck in high conflict situations — and the tactics that will save us.

Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

Conflict is a necessary, if unpleasant, part of life. But despite the stress and discomfort involved in disagreements, healthy conflict is worthwhile: It allows us to understand someone else’s viewpoint and learn about what they hold dear. And in the end, regardless of the outcome, at least people feel heard.

That kind of healthy conflict is different than what investigative journalist Amanda Ripley terms high conflict, which she defines as “what happens when conflict clarifies into a good versus evil kind of feud, with an us and a them.” High conflict hijacks the brain and makes us certain of our own righteousness; when stuck in it, it is as though an invisible hand is on our back, pushing us to take stances far beyond our normal. In all likelihood, everyone who gets drawn into high conflict suffers. At the very least, their main point is muddied.

In High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Ripley examines the titular issue and how easy it is to become ensnared. Her book follows a cast of characters — including a Chicago gang leader, a guerrilla fighter in Colombia, and a legendary mediator-turned-politician — each of whom entranced by (and eventually freed from) high conflict. Ripley dives into the science of high conflict, offering ways to identify it and providing tactics to help readers re-think how they engage in conflict in the first place. It’s a smart, kind-hearted guide for our hyper-polarized times.

Fatherly spoke to Ripley about the trap of high conflict, how to escape, and some tactics to help us all handle big and small disagreements better. 

First of all, what does healthy conflict look like?

Good conflict can be stressful and heated, uncomfortable, unpleasant — all those things. But there’s a sense that it’s going somewhere, and you don’t know for sure. There’s also some element of curiosity in good conflict. This is evident in the fact that more questions get asked, there’s more curiosity, people leave the conversation more satisfied, people are more likely to feel heard. Even as they disagree, there are still flashes of surprise or maybe even humor. All are mixed in there.

High conflict, by contrast, you write, “is what happens when conflict clarifies into a good versus evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them.” This is very defining.

Yes. During high conflict there’s a sense of being stuck, a sense that you’re not going anywhere or that no questions get asked. You think you know what the other person’s going to say before they say it. And the interaction doesn’t follow the normal rules of engagement.

Typically, high conflict can start about anything. It’s less about the subject of the dispute and more about the style. It’s the kind of thing where it gradually takes on a life of its own and starts to operate on autopilot and has its own momentum. Our brains behave differently in high conflicts. All our normal biases and emotions become much more heightened, and we become certain of our own righteousness. We start to make mistakes about each other, and it starts to feel like the only solution is total victory.

You also write that high conflict is a trap. “It escalates past a certain point, drawing us in, appealing to all kinds of normal, understandable needs and desires.” It sort of takes on a false front. 

Yeah, well something I didn’t realize until the book was mostly done was that every high conflict I looked at whether it was a politician in California or former gang leader in Chicago or a divorcing couple, everyone involved ended up suffering. Usually what would happen is that the people involved start unintentionally mimicking the behavior of their adversaries to different degrees and get more and more worked up.

And you don’t realize you’re stuck until it’s too late.

Totally. It’s almost like being under a spell. You don’t know you’re in it until you’re stuck. I use the La Brea Tar Pits as a metaphor in the book. In those tar pits there are thousands of skeletons sharing the same soil. How does that happen? One animal got caught in them, then another saw an easy meal, then another, and then another. It doesn’t take much before you’re drawn into high conflict and become stuck. And then more people join you and become stuck as well.

The main goal of this book is to help people identify the signs that you that you might be at risk of high conflict and how to avoid creating and succumbing to it. I know for me that’s been helpful. I’ve now grown much more suspicious of my own righteousness. I can go on a good rant. I’m pretty good at it. I’m pretty persuasive. But I try to slow down and hold that righteousness up to the light and make sure that I’m really seeing the whole picture. That doesn’t mean you don’t fight for anything, but it means that you fight more effectively.

And that’s the most haunting thing about it. People in high conflict end up failing much more often than people in healthy conflict. Research shows that nonviolent resistance movements are twice as likely to succeed as violent. Why? Because if you can control, contain, and channel conflict, we’re going to be much more effective and much less miserable.

You said that the brain behaves differently during high conflict. How so?

There are a lot of biases that we all used to navigate life. Most of the time they work well, like motivated reasoning. The problem is that once conflict escalates to a certain point of dysfunction, which I call high conflict, those biases take over and it becomes very difficult to interrupt them.

As an example, let’s look at politics. Right now, Democrats in the United States on average believe that Republicans are twice as extreme as they actually are. Republicans in the United States believe that Democrats or twice as extreme as they actually are. And there are lots and lots of examples of this. So, the most politically engaged constantly make the most mistakes about the other side. An interesting fact is that high school dropouts are much more accurate in describing their political adversaries and what they actually believe than people with PhDs.

During high conflict, there’s almost this loss of peripheral vision. You see some things really clearly but you lose vision and you miss really important details and opportunities.

So, how does someone recognize that they might be in a high-conflict situation?

I think the most valuable survival skill in our modern world is being able to tell the difference between good healthy conflict and high conflict. Some questions to ask, which are in the form of a quiz in the book, are, “Do you lose sleep thinking about this conflict?” “Do you feel good when something bad happens to the other person or side?” “If the other side were to do something you actually agreed with, some small act, would it feel very uncomfortable to acknowledge this out loud?” In all, there are eleven questions. It’s not a precise science, but if you answer yes to five or more, you’re at risk.

Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

You lay out several tactics to help people walk back from high conflict. Could you offer some insight into one?  

There are about half a dozen tips. But I think an important tactic is to “investigate the understory.” Every conflict has the thing we’re fighting about and then there’s the thing it’s actually about. This is most present in relationship conflict. Marriage therapists Drs. John and Julie Gottman at some point tried to create a list for all the things that arguments about money are actually about. I think they got to a hundred things and then stopped because they realized the list would go on forever.

I think anyone who has fought about money with their partner would agree.

Right! There are always deeper issues. There was a great story by Matthew Fray titled “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes By The Sink” that went viral a few years ago. In it, he realizes that their argument over the dishes was about way more than tidiness. The pile of dirty dishes represented much deeper things to his wife.

In the book I talk about a divorcing couple who went to war over a Crock-Pot. But once the mediator was able to help the couple investigate the understory, they were in a better place. As it turned out, the wife wanted the Crock-Pot because it was off their wedding registry and it was something that her parents had. And she had this sort of idyllic scene in her mind of the home she’d wanted to create and had not created. But that’s why she wanted the Crock-Pot. That was news to the husband, who felt saddened by the divorce and only wanted the Crock-Pot because she wanted it so badly. Understanding that took them out of high conflict mode. Once you can figure out what the Crock-Pot fight is about, it’s easier to let go of the things that don’t matter.

Conflict in any forum is tricky. But it’s a lot harder for someone to disengage from high conflict mode with someone who has views that they 100 percent do not align with.

It is definitely not easy. The first thing to acknowledge is that it’s really, really hard to show grace and especially if you feel threatened, which, yes people do in high conflict. When people are in high conflict, at least some percentage of the time they are physically and emotionally stressed. I don’t want to underplay the challenge of it. It’s hard. It’s painful, and, like anything hard, you don’t want to do it without preparation. You don’t want to just barrel into it. But I there are tactics though for making it possible.

Like what?

One that I think about the most in my own life is the 5:1 magic ratio. It states that for a happy partnership, you need to have five positive reactions for every one negative reaction because we tend to focus more on negative reactions and so therefore, we need to prioritize the positive for happier relationships. Researchers note that this works even with strangers. And interestingly, when strangers disagree profoundly on controversial issues like politics, the ratio can be 3:1 so it’s a little easier to manage.

So, if your neighbor is a Trump supporter and you are not, you want to try to have the three positive encounters for every negative one. You want to build up money in the bank so that you can withdraw from it as needed. Asking about their sick mother. Picking up their mail when they’re gone. Those things are really, really important in a way that can be measured in the research more than I had realized. Asking questions is perhaps the most under-appreciated conflict first aid strategy there is.

At the very least, this is important in terms of preserving your own sanity. If you stay up all night fuming about a person’s viewpoints, trying to have these interactions prevents you from being angry all the time. Someone can back into these more positive interactions from a sense of self-preservation.

Yes. Now, there are certainly times when people will say, ‘How am I supposed to engage with someone who doesn’t fight fair or refuses to see reality?’ And that’s a fair question. Those are hard conflicts. But a large part of what I’m trying to do here is help myself. It’s not just about the other person, or the other side. It’s about How do I go through this conflict without losing my mind? How do I hold onto the things that are most important to me?

And so even if you can’t do anything about them, you’re trying to hold onto your own dignity. It’s about saying, ‘Okay I want to make this person seem a little bit more well-rounded so I can stop just hating them and like wasting my time or getting so frustrated.’

I think that makes a lot of sense. As we wrap up, is there something about high conflict you think everyone should understand? 

Well, I want to make clear that high conflict is not a fixed trait for most people. The vast majority of people who fall into high conflict and can also get out. It’s a moving target. That’s important to recognize.

I think a lot of people will find that comforting. I know I do. 

And it’s also good to know about your adversaries. Most people — not all —but most people on the other side are also moving targets. They have had other times in their lives where they are the people who prevent the high conflict and they’ve had or will have those times when they are engaged in high conflict. One of the traps of high conflict is a fixed mindset about your enemy. And you can make big mistakes by thinking that change is never going to happen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.