Learning to fight well
My notes and reflections on reading High Conflict by Amanda Ripley
When I was young, I heard older married people in my life talk about how to fight well with each other. I had no idea what this actually meant, but back then it seemed like the pinnacle of maturity to me. Fighting I knew, but doing it well seemed impossible.
High Conflict is a book about how to fight well, not just within a marriage, but as a person and a society. If the idea of fighting well in any of those contexts seems as impossible to you as it did to a younger version of me, then this is the book for you. The author, Amanda Ripley, defines the phenomenon of high conflict, what causes it, and gives some strategies for getting out of it. The book is exceptionally pragmatic. It isn’t a book with 3 easy steps for solving conflict; it’s a manual for the challenging work of making peace and building trust where none exists.
So what is “high conflict”? What I’m about to use isn’t Ripley’s definition, but in the spirit of “looping” (more on this in a second), I’m going to state it in my own words. High conflict is zero sum conflict. It’s a fight that has taken on a life of its own, where the only acceptable outcome is total capitulation from the other side.
It is probably pretty easy for you to think of some examples of High Conflict that you’re familiar with, but the one that hangs over the book is the politics in America. Ripley discusses this openly in the book —one of her motivations was to explore how we find our way out of the mess we find ourselves in.
One example of the sophistication of the book is that Ripley refuses to rule out High Conflict as a strategy. I expected Ripley to make the case that High Conflict should never be an option, but instead she simply points out that it is an incredibly risky option. It’s easy to say you’ll fight to the end, but it’s another thing to pay the cost step by step along the way.
The other side of this coin is the central theme of the book: to have peace, you have to let go of your sense of righteousness, acknowledge the other side’s humanity, and find a way to live together¹. This is a platitude, but one that Ripley makes practical. She talks through a number of examples of conflicts at various stages and draws out skills that can be used to reduce the heat of the conflict.
One particularly practical example is the concept of “looping”: saying back to someone in your own words what you think they mean. It’s harder than it sounds, but when it’s done well, it creates a shared understanding than opens the door to compromises that were hidden before.
Throughout the book, I found myself noting habits like looping that I wanted to apply in my own life, either at work or at home, to have healthier conflict (I’ve listed some of these in the next section below). But if something left me unsatisfied about the book, it was that while I could see how the lessons from High Conflict could help me have better fights in my marriage or at my job, I struggled to see how to apply these lessons as a society, where it feels like we need it the most.
In the book, Ripley struggles with this too and I think it’s why she chose to end the book in the way that she did. Her narrative about conflict comes from a synagogue in New York, B’nai Jeshurun, that has developed an institutional skill for dealing with contentious issues that threaten to lead to high conflict. They have a process that allows them to take on hot button issues, like how to handle interfaith marriage within the congregation, and chart out a course in a way that gives credibility to the final outcome. This ability to build the skill of fighting well, not just at a personal level, but at an institutional level, leaves open the possibility that we can also do it as a society.
My notes from High Conflict
- The importance of truly listening in de-escalating conflict and the skill of looping. Ripley talks about the concept of looping, where you repeat back to someone in their words what you think they’re saying. She and one of the experts she interviews point out how far it goes in reducing the tension between people and opening up opportunities for compromise. Being understood is so important to people that they will often relax demands if they think you truly understand and respect them. I’ve found this to be particularly useful advice at heading off conflict before it really gets going — and noticed that some of the most effective people I work with do this as a habit.
- What the process of exiting conflict looks like. Ripley tells the story of a man who leaves an all consuming gang conflict. Eventually he reaches a point where the cost of the conflict is too much and he wants to leave, but all the forces in his life — his relationships, his habits, his identity — threaten to pull him back in. In these crucial moments, he’s able to get the space that he needs to create a new path and leave the conflict. It’s important to recognize how difficult it is to get out of a conflict and support people as they try to find their way out. It’s not easy!
- Humiliation is an ineffective tool when applied to someone on the “other” team. Ripley points out that social groups often use humiliation or shame to enforce behavior norms. While this works within groups, because the target of the humiliation cares about their status and membership within the group, when applied across groups, it’s almost always counterproductive. It only serves to push the target closer to their group and create a new set of grievances, further intensifying the conflict². If someone is tiring of the conflict, this humiliation pushes them back in. When someone is from the “other” group, you should avoid humiliation at all costs.
- The role of group categories in how we act — and the fragility of those structures. Ripley recounts a study (I believe it is this one on Minimal Group Paradigm) where schoolboys were sorted into groups and told that it was because they favored one artist over another very similar artist, when in fact it was random. The boys then proceeded to form tribes based on this identity that was given to them and “discriminate” against boys from the other tribe. Ripley uses this study to illustrate how easy it is for us to fall into us vs. them thinking. But another thing jumped out about this experiment to me: how little really lies beneath some of the us vs. them categories, particularly in work places (team A vs. team B), and how little needs to be done to create a new, shared identity for the groups. Our minds are wired to sort into social groups and we should use this to our advantage.
- Be careful with labels. As I was reading this book, I started noticing how casually we throw around labels and how this opens the door to potential conflicts. A common example is when we’re discussing ideas for a new project at work. It isn’t just an idea or even James’s idea. It’s Product’s idea or Engineering’s idea. This attaches ideas to groups in a way that turns differences of opinion into group conflicts.
- The concept of Conflict Entrepreneurs. I loved this concept. These are the people that find conflict useful or entertaining and choose to enflame it. Ripley points out that often the key to finding a path forward is neutralizing these voices. Having a name for this behavior has helped recognize it as an anti-pattern and choose more productive responses, like acknowledging the complexity of the situation, when I find myself tempted to be a Conflict Entrepreneur.
- How systems prime us for conflict. Ripley points out how our systems can create conflicts that might not otherwise exist. The example in the book is how adversarial divorce systems lead to bruising fights that don’t have to exist (and how mediation helps couples avoid this extra pain). Ripley holds up the US political system as an example of a system that has conflict by design and the challenges inherent in that. I read the book having just left Switzerland, which has a more restrained political culture, and wondered how much of the conflict we experience comes from the system vs.conflict entrepreneurs using the system to create grievances.
1: I couldn’t help but think of Lincoln’s second inaugural address here: “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
2: Reading this section, I thought a lot about the Sonderbundskrieg (Swiss Civil War that led to the modern country of Switzerland) and the 1918 Swiss General strike, which I learned about while reading Why Switzerland. At the end of both conflicts, Swiss leaders are intentionally lenient on the side that lost in an effort not to humiliate them and to bring them back into society. It is this instinct that is credited with the stable and peaceful society that Switzerland is today.