by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Do you find yourself caught up in unwinnable debates on cultural and political issues? Does your blood boil when your view of the world is challenged, leading you to engage in ill-advised arguments? Are you exhausted from continuing the fight, yet reluctant to withdraw out of fear of losing face? Is sustaining this mode of existence negatively affecting your health, peace, and well-being?
If so, you might be caught up in “high conflict,” which Amanda Ripleyjournalist and author of “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out,” describes as conflict that “can become malignant [and] hijacks precious time, trust, and energy, turning allies against each other and distorting reality.” It “takes on a life of its own, and eventually, leaves almost everyone worse off.” The term may be relatively new in literaturebut its presence and effect are readily identifiable in our polarized society.
Our politics, social media, and cable networks provide prime examples, but the workplace is not immune. Ripley notes that high conflict is more common in certain workplaces, such as universities and hospitals — clearly a concern for higher education professionals. Ripley shares strategies for preventing high conflict through the stories of politicians, environmentalists, businesspeople, labor organizers, social justice advocates, and others who were confronted with such challenges.
Recognize it for what it is — a deliberate attempt to suck you in. In “The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems,” Stephen R. Covey discusses the “all-time low for civility in discourse” and notes “[e]ven at the highest levels of government, where mutual respect once reigned, we hear time and again of outburst instead of dialogue,” and “demagogues [in media] have found a short cut to wealth by cheering and cursing people into opposing camps.” Ripley puts two terms to this: “Conflict entrepreneurs,” who “exploit conflict to their own ends” such as for profit, power or attention, and “conflict-industrial complex,” which allows conflict entrepreneurs to flourish and incite high conflict systematically.
In the workplace, conflict entrepreneurs engage in “recurring patterns.”[s] of dysfunction, extreme behavior, and perpetual blame. They’re often quick to accuse, eager to validate every lament and articulate new wrongs that no one else has thought of. They broker in rumors and conspiracy theories, dividing the world cleanly (usually, too cleanly) into good versus evil.” They value fomenting conflict and keeping it alive.
Recognize your tendency to engage in high conflict. In team sports, we cheer our team, boo the other, and feel proud when our team wins and uncaring about the other team’s loss — or angry and upset when the scenario is reversed. We shouldn’t treat all conflicts in such stark win-lose terms, yet we do in high-conflict situations. Ripley refers to this as the “conflict trap,” a term attributed to Gary Friedman, a mediator and co-author of “Challenging Conflict: Mediation Through Understanding” in which[b]oth sides stress the rightness of their position, look for weaknesses in their counterpart’s presentation, and turn to others who might see it their way for reinforcement and solace. Repeating the pattern over and over, they become hopelessly mired.” High conflict, Ripley notes, “draws us in, appealing to all kinds of normal and understandable needs and desires. But once we enter, we find we can’t get out. The more we flail about, braying for help, the worse the situation gets.”
Reducing unhealthy conflict begins with recognizing when we are caught in a conflict trap. We should not avoid all conflict. Ripley contrasts high conflict with “good conflict” in which “there is movement. Questions get asked. Curiosity exists. There can be yelling, too. But healthy conflict leads somewhere. It feels more interesting to get to the other side than to stay in it In high conflict, the conflict is the destination. There’s nowhere else to go.” You might be in a conflict trap if you can answer “yes” to any of the questions posed in the first paragraph of this article. Ripley poses similar questions, such as whether:
- It feels good when something bad happens to the other side
- You would be uncomfortable openly acknowledging something the other did that you agreed with
- You “ruminate.”[e] over the same grievances, over and over again, without ever uncovering any new insights.”
- You use words like “always,” “good,” “bad,” “us,” and “them” to describe the conflict
- You can no longer “remember the last time you felt genuine curiosity about the other side’s thoughts, intentions, or actions”
Develop strategies for reducing unhealthy conflict. Do you always run with the same circle of friends, participate in the same social media platforms and feeds, tune into the same news sources, and listen to the same pundits and politicians — all while lacking curiosity about, seeking to find common ground with , or accessing perspectives that challenge your own? If so, you may be in the sway of what Ripley calls “fire starters” who are the conflict entrepreneurs and others who put accelerant to the fire of conflict.
Ripley recommends distancing yourself from such individuals: “Notice who around you delights in conflict. Who tries to bond with other people over their shared loathing of [a common adversary]? Which leaders use the language of war to motivate their followers, when there is no war? . . . Which ones divide the world cleanly into us-versus-them, good-vs-bad? Which ones frame losses as a humiliation?” Consider where you gravitate for support, such as the people, voices, and media who support your view of the world, and challenge yourself to expand this circle to consider other perspectives and, if you can’ t agree, at least see the human in your adversaries.
Ripley offers other suggestions, including:
- “Investigate the understory,” such as through a mediator or other third-party who acts like a firefighter to “help keep conflict healthy and get underneath the usual talking points.”
- “Reduce the binary” and “complicate the narrative.” Fire starters live and want others to live in an oversimplified binary world of good vs. bad, us vs. them, which makes it too easy to justify one’s own worldview and vilify others. We must not accept simple narratives and should instead spark curiosity by noticing and amplifying contradictions and asking questions to identify what we may be missing in our respective narratives to expand understanding.
- “Buy time and make space” to understand one another by increasing positive interactions that counteract past negative interactions. Ripley highlights two mediation terms for doing this. “Looping” is Gary Friedman’s term for active listening “in which the person listening reflects back what the person talking seems to have said — and checks to see if the summary was right.” “Going to the balcony,” used by William Ury, negotiator and author of “Getting Past No: Negotiating Difficult Situations,” asks that we imagine we are on “a balcony overlooking the stage” where “you can calmly evaluate the conflict almost as if you were a third party [and] think constructively for both sides and look for a mutually satisfactory way to resolve the problem.”
Many factors contribute to high conflict, and we can’t control them all. But we can control our responses and not allow unhealthy conflict to consume us.