#ASAE21 Game Changer: Resolving High Conflict

Amanda Ripley—an author, expert in what causes high conflict, and investigative journalist—is optimistic about people returning to a healthier way of managing conflict. She says reconvening as a society is a good start.

None of us are strangers to conflict anymore, especially after the turbulent events of the past year and a half. Political, racial, and social unrest have left many people feeling like they’re living in a polarized world.

Even family gatherings have become hotbeds of uncertainty as everyone tries to navigate awkward political and health-related differences and preferences. In short, tension is high. Add another coronavirus surge to the mix, and the world starts seeming like an incubator for strife.

However, the problem is not conflict, according to Amanda Ripley, investigative journalist and author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. “We need healthy conflict so that people can stand up for themselves and be challenged and people can get better as individuals and societies,” she says.

Ripley, a speaker at the 2021 ASAE Annual Meeting, will share her evidence-based insights on how to resolve high conflict during her Game Changer session on Monday, August 16.

High Conflict Is Prevalent

It’s important to keep in mind that not all conflict is bad and that there are different kinds of conflict. In her work, Ripley focuses on “high conflict,” a term coined in 1980s divorce court cases. About a quarter of the divorce cases in the U.S. can be considered high conflict, she says, meaning they are stuck in endless patterns of hostile emotions.

The cases stay in courts for years without progressing, and everyone suffers to different degrees. But high conflict is not limited to divorces. There is high conflict in politics, companies, and interactions with neighbors. “The problem is not conflict,” Ripley says, “The problem is high conflict.”

In every case Ripley has studied, whether it’s politics, gang violence, or environmental activism, there are accelerants for high conflict. “We have unintentionally designed many of our institutions—from politics, to the news media, to the legal system, to social media—to generate high conflict,” Ripley says.

The incidents that tend to escalate into high conflict, like humiliations and binary group identities, are prevalent in many institutions now, and they are rewarded, so they are incentivized. That means people have to get smarter about how they fight. “We have to change our institutions, so they cultivate good conflict,” Ripley says.

Resolution Is Possible

Five years ago, Ripley was motivated to research high conflict more in depth because she sensed her own profession of journalism was making things worse. “It felt like the facts didn’t matter,” she says. “The stories didn’t matter. Everything I thought was true was upside down.”

She came to realize that there are perceived facts and that for many people trust and fear matter more than facts. Following people who study intractable conflict all over the world allowed her to get a better grasp on why things were happening the way they were.

The research about other kinds of high conflict globally revealed that it is conceivable to downshift from high conflict to good conflict. “It is absolutely possible to do this,” Ripley says. The evidence shows that there is the potential to make it happen—sooner rather than later. Ripley is cautiously optimistic. “I’m 100 percent convinced we could get out of this cycle,” she says. “I’m not 100 percent convinced we will, but I want to be realistic about it.”

A good start? Continuing to reopen society. “Seeing people in person, going to church, going to school, going to sporting events, and music concerts together is a huge way to make conflict healthier,” she says. “We need to have more honest, good conflict across our big divides—political, racial, geographical—and work on our institutions to make them less toxic.”

(Handout photo)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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