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‘Get insanely curious when no one else is curious’
A Q&A with investigative journalist, author and conflict mediator Amanda Ripley
This week I saw a tweet from someone who reported that they were no longer willing to have any kind of relationship with anyone who supported the truckers.
I received emails from readers who told me they were arguing about the issue with children and grandchildren, and calls from people in my immediate circle having heated discussions with family. I spoke to friends in different parts of the country, who shared frustrations about the views of neighbours and others they were close to.
Even Ontario’s Premier is feeling the vise-grip of political polarization. Doug Ford said at a news conference Monday that “all of this has polarized us in a way that we could never have imagined.” One of his daughters has publicly supported the protests. Ford noted at the presser: “I’ve experienced this in my own family; it’s been one of the hardest things my family and I have ever gone through.”
None of this is a good sign. I fear that we are headed toward the kind of intractable conflict that tears societies apart. The question is: How do we pull back from the brink?
Investigative reporter Amanda Ripley has thoughts on that. The writer for The Atlantic published a deeply researched book on the topic last year, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. Here, she shares some strategies that may help us get through the next few weeks without losing relationships with loved ones — or societal cohesion as a whole.
I’ve been thinking about your book so much this past week. When we last talked, I expressed concern about the direction Canadian society was headed, and now here we are, embroiled in this major conflict. As I speak to you, there are helicopters circling overhead, there are police on the street, and I’ve had three exchanges in the past 24 hours with people who are in arguments with family or neighbours over the trucker convoy. This feels like high conflict. How do we know when it’s consumed us?
Usually high conflict is an us-versus-them conflict that seems to have a life of its own. Where the facts stop mattering very much and it becomes all about the fear of the other side.
There’s different ways to know that you’re in high conflict. One of the ways is when everything gets really simplified. Where the complexity of real life and real problems gets crystallized and gets spliced in half. There’s good versus evil. Us versus them. Black versus white. Democrat versus Republican. Which is usually a coping mechanism for people who are dealing with anxiety and fear and uncertainty and disinformation. Humans do this in those kinds of environments. Splitting is the psychological term for it, where you divide the world too cleanly in half.
There’s a few problems. High conflict is much more likely to become violent. That’s problem one. Problem two is that in high conflict, usually you will end up imitating the behaviour of your opponent without realizing it. You lose your core values at some point along the line. Then the third problem is that everybody suffers in high conflict, to different degrees. And usually it’s kids and marginalized people who suffer the most.
Why are these conflicts so difficult to get out of once you’re in?
They are very magnetic, so it is very hard to resist. In my book, I write about a conflict expert named Gary Friedman who knows a ton about conflict, has helped thousands of people through labour conflicts, and ugly divorces — and yet he still gets pulled into a political conflict in his own town. The point of that story for me was just to recognize our susceptibility to high conflict. It’s very hard to resist. Especially if you don’t very intentionally do things to interrupt the conflict. Which Gary eventually did, to his credit; he did find ways to interrupt that cycle.
But any intuitive thing you do in high conflict to try to get out of the conflict, will almost certainly make it worse. So you can’t do intuitive things; you have to do counterintuitive things. You can’t follow your instinct, it’s just no good to you. The normal things don’t work.
What would be an example of following your instinct?
Following your instinct in high conflict might include trying to argue and persuade over social media. That feels right, you know? “If I can just marshal the facts, point you to the studies, quote from all the most compelling sources, then that should help.” And it would in good conflict. In the kind of conflict where people are listening, where people have some trust between each other, ideally some rapport, some relationship, then it can work. But it doesn’t work in high conflict.
The list of things that don’t work is long. Shame doesn’t work. If you are not in someone’s group, ostracizing them is just going to make the conflict worse.
Another thing that Gary talks about is how when you’re in high conflict, and you’re in a position of authority, the instinct is to be super decisive and confident and never let them see you sweat. But in fact, we know from all the research that that doesn’t work either. You basically end up making yourself a target of convenience because you don’t look human anymore. So, if you show a little bit of humanity, and acknowledge that there’s no good answer here, every decision we make has a cost, that you lie awake at night worrying about the effects on families and kids from these decisions — that feels risky and dangerous. But in fact, if it’s genuine and authentic, it makes you human again. And it’s much harder for people to demonize you when you are human.
You flagged social media. There’s a line from your book that has really stuck with me: “We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side.” I’ve been seeing that play out on Twitter these past two weeks, with people on each side of the debate over the trucker convoy. What’s happening here?
It’s important to realize, first of all, that people are getting totally different information. To decide that hundreds of thousands of people who think one way or another are inherently immoral is nonsense, because they have different facts. That doesn’t excuse everybody’s behaviour; that doesn’t mean that people don’t have a responsibility to try to sort through the information. But it is a hot mess, to be fair to people. It’s different for regular people and voters and residents as opposed to politicians, or news media pundits, or people who are in a position where they really should have a better grasp on reality and might be intentionally exploiting conflict for their own ends.
What I always tell journalists is to try to be as specific as you can. Sabrina Tavernise, who writes for The New York Times, always does a good job with this, and it’s not easy. I remember she was writing about a Trump rally, and she was describing who was there. She described four or five different groups of people, who were there for different reasons. That is really important to do in high conflict — to, again and again, be as specific as possible, so that you’re not lumping huge groups of people together or oversimplifying. The urge, the impulse, is to trend toward oversimplification. In high conflict, that’s dangerous.
Can I ask you to go through the four things that inflame high conflict that you outline in your book, so we can recognize them?
I call them fire starters. One is humiliation. This is probably one of the most underappreciated forces that leads to high conflict. It’s anytime that people feel like they were up on high, and they’ve been brought low. Usually there’s an audience involved — that’s why social media can be so toxic. But anytime there is a perceived humiliation, that’s a high-risk situation. Nelson Mandela has this great quote where he said, there is no one more dangerous than one who’s been humiliated, even when you humiliate him rightly. It’s not about what is right or what’s fair, unfortunately, it’s about what people are feeling at this point in high conflict.
Another fire starter is the presence of conflict entrepreneurs. These are people or platforms that exploit conflict for their own ends. Often conflict entrepreneurs will frame everything as disrespect. Anyone who uses really grandiose language, the language of war, who seems to delight in every twist and turn the conflict takes — that person may be operating as a conflict entrepreneur. To be fair, we are all incentivized to do that in high conflict. Particularly in the social media platforms we’ve designed. But you want to try not to be a conflict entrepreneur, I think that’s the bottom line.
The other two are corruption — so, anytime an institution isn’t doing, or isn’t perceived to be doing, what it’s supposed to do, people will be motivated to take justice into their own hands — and then also the presence of the binary group identities that we’ve talked about.
You express a lot of hope in the book that we can escape high conflict and move into healthy conflict. What does that look like?
You want to be looking for people who have a big microphone — whether in news media or politicians — who are stepping out of the dance, who are doing something quite different and rejecting the feedback loops of high conflict. It is a very hard thing to do. Breaking out of that cycle, resisting that pull to stay with your group, is very hard to do. It’s very lonely.
Really keep your ear out for that. And also amplify the voices of people who break the narrative, people who don’t fit into one side or the other. Who are neither, nor. In my reporting, I’ve found that that is most people.
I know you also trained as a conflict mediator. What lessons could you share that might help us Canadians in this incredibly tense moment?
For individuals interacting with each other, day to day, it is really trying. It’s important to know that it’s not normal. This level of conflict is not normal, it’s not your fault, and it won’t be this way forever. But you do have to do something really hard, which is to get insanely curious at a time when no one else is curious. So, really trying to understand why people are behaving the way they are. It’s like a game of chicken. No one will listen until they feel heard. Right now, no one feels heard. Who is going to listen first? Who is going to interrupt that dance?
Not everyone can do it, and they can’t do it all the time. But at least for people who want to preserve relationships, which I think is really important, I would really urge people to ask questions that open people up. Get beyond the back-and-forth around vaccine mandates and truckers. Really trying to get underneath it: How does it make you feel when you see this footage? What do you wish you understood about the people you disagree with here? And what do you think is their best argument, if you had to find one?
Those kinds of questions can help to get to the understory of the conflict. Which is the most interesting and useful part.
This interview has been edited and condensed.