Stepping out of "the zombie dance" we're in, and into "good conflict" that is, in fact, life-giving
Amanda Ripley began her life as a journalist covering crime, disaster, and terrorism. Then in 2018, she published a brilliant essay called “Complicating the Narratives,” which she opened by confessing a professional existential crisis. We journalists, she wrote, “can summon outrage in five words or less. We value the ancient power of storytelling, and we get that good stories require conflict, characters and scene. But in the present era of tribalism, it feels like we’ve reached our collective limitations … Again and again, we have escalated the conflict and snuffed the complexity out of the conversation.”
Yet what Amanda has gone on to investigate — and so, so helpfully illuminate — is not just about journalism, or about politics. It touches almost every aspect of human life in almost every society around the world right now. We think we’re divided by issues, arguing about conflicting facts. But at a deeper level, she says, we are trapped in a pattern of distress known as “high conflict” — where the conflict itself has become the point, and it sweeps everything into its vortex.
So how to get out? What Amanda has been gathering by way of answers to that question is an extraordinary gift to us all.
Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist who sometimes describes herself as a "recovering journalist" — and a trained conflict mediator. She's written several acclaimed books, including High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. You can find her essay “Complicating the Narratives” on the Solutions Journalism blog. She is the co-founder of the company Good Conflict and hosts the Slate podcast How To!.
Transcription by Alletta Cooper
Krista Tippett: Amanda Ripley began her life as a journalist covering crime, disaster and terrorism. Then in 2018 — and this is how I became aware of her — she published a brilliant essay called “Complicating the Narratives,” which she opened by confessing a professional existential crisis. We journalists, she wrote, and I quote, “can summon outrage in five words or less. We value the ancient power of storytelling, and we get that good stories require conflict, characters and scene. But in the present era of tribalism, it feels like we’ve reached our collective limitations … Again and again, we have escalated the conflict and snuffed the complexity out of the conversation.”
[music: Seven League Boots by Zoë Keating ]
Yet what Amanda Ripley has gone on to investigate and so helpfully illuminate is not just about journalism, or about politics. It touches almost every aspect of human life in almost every society around the world right now.
We think we’re divided by issues, arguing about conflicting facts. But actually, she says, we are trapped in a pattern of distress known as “high conflict” — where the conflict itself has become the point, and it sweeps everything into its vortex.
So how to get out? What Amanda has been gathering by way of answers to that question is an extraordinary gift to us all. What a pleasure to complicate this narrative with the wise Amanda Ripley.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
I spoke with Amanda before a live audience at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, of the University of Minnesota.
Tippett: Amanda is both a chronicler and a participant in bringing the fuller story of our time and our life together into the light. And I have been wanting to meet Amanda in the flesh for a long time, and I’m really grateful to Humphry for conspiring with me to get her here.
Amanda Ripley: Thank you so much, Krista. I’ve been having this conversation in my head with you for like five years. So it’s exciting that it’s happening. I’m very grateful. I’m excited.
Tippett: Well, let’s go. So I always ask a question of origins. I don’t know that I knew this when I started doing that, but that’s a technique that’s used, often in conversations where we’re trying to not have the predictable conversation. And you wrote something that was just so helpful to me on why that works. I mean, I have all kinds of experiences of why it works. But you said something that was really interesting — that stories of origins when we talk about our early life, our childhood, you said: these are “by definition dimensional and messy,” unlike the debate we think we’re going to have. Because, you said, “real life is not a bumper sticker.” [laughs]
So, I think the question I want to ask you about origins, coming to focus in on our topic today is, how you would trace the roots of your awareness of your attention to conflict in the earliest background of your life, in your childhood — your attention to conflict and what you took away from that about what to do with it.
Ripley: I don’t think I really realized this until pretty recently, but if I look back — most of us, I think your first exposure to conflict is at home. With your family. If you think back. What’s the first time you experienced conflict? Maybe it was with kids in the playground or on the street, but probably it’s with a parent or watching parents have conflict.
So in my case, my parents had a lot of conflict. And it took different forms, but it usually involved a lot of yelling, particularly by my mother. But she, as my father was quick to point out when I showed him a draft of the book, she was not entirely to blame. And they both participated in this conflict in all kinds of ways. But as a kid, I would do this thing where I would monitor their conflict. So I would monitor those fights from the top of the stairs. And I can vividly remember sort of drawing in the carpet, listening to them fighting. And I think it was a way to control it. Like a way to feel like I could, I was surveilling the conflict, if that makes sense. And for me that never ended in a way. As a journalist, you’re always monitoring conflict.
Tippett: Yeah. So I see — right. A lot of these patterns we learned don’t serve us when we get older. But— you, I think you wrote somewhere else. I think when you’re watching as a child, when you’re surveilling, when you’re listening, monitoring, as you said, you’re — that’s your way to try to feel safe, to try to keep yourself safe, to think that you can participate in keeping everybody else safe. And it feels to me like that flows very naturally into the reason that you would become a journalist.
Ripley: Yeah. Right. And I used to just feel like that was a failing. In other words, because it’s a delusion. It’s sort of a grandiose one. That you can control conflict by writing about it or monitoring it. On the other hand, I think there is some helpfulness sometimes in trying to tell stories about the conflict that are enlightening, if they are, or illuminating. But it’s complicated.
Tippett: So I’ve seen you writing, but tell me if this is right — was it around 2016 that you really started to come to this conclusion that this is not working? What do you remember? Was there a day or was there an event or a story that brought that home?
Ripley: What would have happened in 2016? I’m trying to think. [audience laughs]
Tippett: [laughs] Yeah, I know. Okay. But I mean, in terms of the journalism you were doing.
Ripley: Yeah, it just felt like — I mean, I had grown up where my dad was a Republican, my mom was a Democrat. We got The Trenton Times and The New York Times delivered every day in New Jersey. And the New York Times was revered in my household, rightly or wrongly. But my parents were the first in their families to go to college. Education was revered. I think there was a certain status attached to The New York Times, you know what I mean?
But I think after the 2016 election, I couldn’t — [laughs] I mean, how do you not ask yourself if this is working out the way we’d planned? I mean, in other words, if — it didn’t seem to matter what the New York Times reported about Donald Trump because half the country didn’t believe they were acting in good faith.
Tippett: So, but I mean, I just feel like you — you wrote, I think in “Complicating the Narratives,” which was 2018. There are all kinds of ways to analyze, right? You can talk about the influence of social media, you can talk about the business model of journalism. And you said, “All of this mattered.” This is where you came to. “But none of these explanations felt quite adequate. Something else was happening, too. Something that had not been named.”
Ripley: Yeah. So in my kind of midlife crisis of wondering, what is journalism? Does it matter? How can I be useful in this world in which every story I do either will have very limited impact or just make things worse, potentially? Partly I could go off on that midlife crisis because I was a freelancer. So I had some distance from these places at this point. And there’s a lot of privilege in that to sort of question fundamental things, which is much harder to do when you’re in a newsroom every day having to go do dangerous, difficult reporting.
Tippett: Yes. Right.
Ripley: So I just want to name that. But also, so I kind of went off trying to figure out, what is going on here? How do I make sense of this? How do I be useful? And again, went down a lot of different avenues, all of which matter. But when I started spending time with people who study intractable conflict or who have been themselves in intractable conflict, or malignant conflict, is it sometimes called, then it was like everything clicked. That part of how you have to understand, at least for me, what’s happening is to understand what high conflict is, which is a special kind of conflict, which doesn’t behave according to the rules of normal or healthy conflict. And it’s very magnetic. It’s a kind of conflict that becomes us versus them, where we feel increasingly morally superior, and increasingly baffled and threatened by the other side or person. And we make a lot of mistakes.
So there’s a lot of research on this, and there is kind of a bright line between healthy conflict, good conflict, and high conflict. And just as a quick example: anger is okay. In all the research on emotion and conflict. I’m a big fan of anger. I don’t know if anyone else is a fan of anger? [audience laughs] But it is initiatory, it is important as a signal. It’s energizing. Contempt is really hard to work with, and the same with disgust. So that’s a bright line to just give you an example of what I’m talking about. But, that for me was a really helpful, bigger umbrella to understand how all these other forces were interacting.
Tippett: And really what you did is you got interested in, of course I like this because the human condition is my lens. That’s — I mean, there’s this line where you said in “Complicating the Narratives,” “After spending more than 50 hours in training for various forms of dispute resolution, I realized that I’ve overestimated my ability to quickly understand what drives people to do what they do. I have overvalued reasoning in myself and others and undervalued pride, fear and the need to belong.”
And I want you to flesh this out: “I’ve been operating like an economist, in other words — an economist from the 1960s.”
Ripley: Yeah. This is the thing that I think is really helpful for me in trying to understand where we need to get to. So if you think about economics used to be based on — I’m sort of reducing it down, so forgive me for the economists in the audience — but used to be based on certain theories about how people would behave. And then finally Daniel Kahneman and others convinced the field, more or less, that actually human behavior isn’t quite as simple as you are assuming.
Tippett: Right. And the idea also was that there was — that we were basically rational. That people were basically rational economic actors. And of course that wouldn’t be true all the time, but somehow this overall rationality would balance it out.
Ripley: Exactly. Yeah. And it turns out that’s not right. And so you get this field of behavioral economics and, for a long time we were thinking of calling that essay “Behavioral Journalism,” but that felt too creepy and weird. So, but that would be the goal is: what if you started over with journalism and you tried to create a field of storytelling that was designed based on what we actually know about what humans need to thrive and make decisions in a world that’s inundated with information, and that requires a lot of interdependence across different groups. So what would that actually look like? And I think your show is closer to that, where you’re thinking about the audience as a human.
Tippett: Okay, so I want to come back to something that you just touched on. Well, I — let me just say this. So really this conversation we’re having and the investigations you’re doing, the conversations you’re leading, the entry point was journalism, but this is really a conversation, exploration, and truth telling about what it means to be human and alive now. So, before we get into breaking down high conflict a little bit more, which feels so familiar even as you start to describe it, I really do want to kind of establish this foundation that you’re on — that psychology is on too — that conflict in and of itself is not problematic. That it’s often productive. That it’s necessary. That it is and can be a good.
Ripley: Yeah. This is the single biggest mistake that I think gets made in public discourse around this. I mean, we need conflict to get better, to be challenged, to challenge each other. In fact, I think the U.S. needs a lot more good conflict, not less. There’s no better shortcut to transformation that I know of. And that’s not what we’ve got. So we’ve built a bunch of institutions to cultivate high conflict as opposed to good conflict, which means we could design them differently to cultivate good conflict.
But there’s a place called the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University where Peter Coleman studies, and his colleagues study, conflict. And so they’ve hosted more than 500 strained and awkward arguments between people who disagree on profound, important things like gun control, abortion, the Middle East. And what they’ve found is you can roughly sort those conversations into two buckets, which is: there’s one group that get really stuck in the same one or two negative emotions. And then there’s another group where there’s movement. So yes, they experience frustration and anger, but then there’s a flash of curiosity or even humor, God forbid. And then, back to frustration and anger. So when you see it in the data, it’s like a galaxy of emotions as opposed to just one. And that I think is how it feels to be in good conflict. There’s a sense of movement.
Ripley: Yeah, that something is possible here and you can’t predict exactly what it is. And in those conversations, people asked each other more questions and they came out of the lab more satisfied than they’d come in. So I think I hold those graphs in my head as far as what we’ve got and what we could have and what I hope we have.
[music: Crown of September by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: I want to read two things that just put them side by side from “High Conflict.” You said, “We need turbulent city council meetings, strained date-night dinners, protests and strikes, clashes in boardrooms and guidance counselor offices. People who try to live without any conflict, who never argue or mourn, tend to implode sooner or later as any psychologist will tell you. Living without conflict is like living without love: cold and, eventually, unbearable.”
And when you introduce the notion of high conflict, you describe it as, “the mysterious force that incites people to lose their minds in ideological disputes, political feuds, or gang vendettas. The force that causes us to lie awake at night, obsessed by a conflict with a coworker or a sibling or a politician we’ve never met.”
Ripley: Right. So that’s the diabolical thing about high conflict. In every single one I’ve followed all over the world, you end up harming the things you care most about — the thing you went into the conflict usually to protect — without realizing it. So there’s something diabolical about that system of high conflict where usually everyone suffers, but to very different degrees, which is maybe worth noting here that the phrase “high conflict,” which I liked better than “intractable conflict.”
Tippett: Which is Peter Coleman’s phrase is “intractable conflict.” Right.
Ripley: Yeah. I just feel like “intractable” feels like impossible. Even though, I think that’s not technically true. If you look at the —
Tippett: Yeah, “high” has a kind of alluring drama to it. [laughs]
Ripley: And it doesn’t — it could go, it could change. What goes up might come down. So the phrase “high conflict” comes from high conflict divorces, which in the ‘80s, lawyers started noticing that about a quarter of American divorces were stuck in perpetual cycles of hostility and blame. And, you know who suffered the most.
Ripley: Which is kids.
Tippett: Yeah. Right.
Ripley: And that’s true today in the United States. And that’s true in, in every high conflict I’ve seen, whether it’s gang violence or guerilla warfare…
Tippett: That the children suffer.
Ripley: Yeah. So there’s a lot of similarity across really different conflicts, really different high conflicts because humans are humans and there’s collective behavior that’s important and there’s different access to resources and weaponry, and that’s important. But the behavior is really similar, which for me, is exciting because then it means you can learn. You can learn from high conflict divorces, and you can learn from high conflict politics. And it’s sometimes helpful to get out of the myopic focus on one kind of conflict and look at its sideways from another context.
Tippett: Something that this also sparks in me that I’ve thought about in these years is also how we have such a body of experience and intelligence in our personal lives about navigating conflict — about how there’s going to be lots of times when love is not a feeling, but just things you do despite how you feel that day. That with the people we’re intimate with, we don’t say every — we don’t blurt out everything we’re thinking all the time because we know we’re in relationship. And there are times when what you do is you don’t talk about certain things because you know it won’t be heard or —
So one of the things you talk about, one thing high conflict does is it collapses complexity. And I was thinking about how annoying it is when you’re getting relationship counseling and they say, you know, you said “you always.”
Tippett: And you’re like, “Well, but it’s true. It’s always true.”
Ripley: [laughs] Right?
Tippett: And collapsed complexity is actually collapsing the fullness of reality. So what do we, what do we know about our brains on simplicity and our brains on complexity?
Ripley: Right. So one of the things that Peter Coleman and his colleagues tried, once they realized there were these two kinds of good conflicts and high conflicts in the lab, they decided, well, could we induce one or the other? So they experimented with different things. And one thing that they did was to show people a news story before they went into the lab, about some other hot-button controversy.
And they gave half the group a traditional news story with basically two sides. What you might see about most controversial issues, where you have sort of activists or advocates arguing back and forth like a tennis match. And then they gave the other half a story at the same length, about the same controversy with more complexity, tethered to reality. So it might say, “in fact, it’s hard to sort Americans into two camps when it comes to abortion rights. In fact, most Americans have very complicated feelings about abortion.”
Ripley: “And there might be four or six or eight different categories if you really try to reduce it. And if you ask the question differently, people will answer polling on this subject very differently.”
So those people went in and had good conflict conversations, and the ones who read the traditional stories went in and were much more likely to have the less good or high conflict conversations.
So it’s an example of how we can be primed for curiosity and complexity, which is awesome. And I think has obvious implications for journalism, particularly in a time like this. Because I feel like my whole job now is to get people to be curious about things that they’re not curious about but maybe should be.
And so I think all of our normal cognitive biases get much more extreme in high conflict, and the research supports that. So you literally lose your peripheral vision — and figuratively — and you miss big opportunities that — I mean, everyone I followed for High Conflict who was stuck in really, really difficult conflict and then shifted to good conflict, every single one of them made huge mistakes that they regret because the narrative was so powerful.
So just as a quick example. Curtis Toler, who was a pretty high-ranking gang leader in Chicago for many years, was really trapped in a series of vendettas with a rival organization based on a story that he had had in his head since he was a kid about a homicide that was tragic and heartbreaking for him and many other Chicagoans. Eventually, he runs into the guy who had done that shooting and is at a point in his life where he can hear him. And he had that feeling — I don’t know if anyone’s ever had this feeling — where you’re listening and suddenly something comes undone in your head and in your heart, and you realize that you’ve been really wrong about something you’d assumed about your enemy or the opponent. And it’s a very destabilizing moment, very disorienting moment. But it was really important to him to staying out of high conflict, to be able to realize the mistakes that he had made. All for understandable, human reasons. But it just doesn’t serve us well in the world we live in to stay too long in that world in which we are morally superior than other groups.
Tippett: That’s hard right now, I think, because in our fractured country, I think people feel very justified, and like that it’s very, just very true that they’re morally superior. That’s our high conflict. Right?
Ripley: Right. No, it’s — just to circle back to Curtis, one of the things he told me is, “I think whenever there’s a better-than and a less-than, there’s always room for war.” So Curtis now works for Chicago Cred, which interrupts gang violence in Chicago, and is doing really difficult work trying to treat people who are most at risk of shooting or being shot as complicated humans. And interrupt this cycle so they make fewer mistakes, just the way he wished he could have done sooner for himself.
Tippett: Something I’ve heard you talk about too is that we all have many identities. What is that line, “I contain multitudes.”
Tippett: And that’s just true of all of us. And you said something that can happen and in the high conflict, I guess people are really locked into and defined by, and they’re defining the other person by, an identity. And you’ve talked about how it can happen that another identity that somebody has, like you describe this moment kind of breaks loose and enters the room.
Ripley: Right. That’s well put. I mean, I think with Curtis it was his identity as a father. And it’s often that, but not always. But that is a very effective way to try to help people out of high conflict is to light up their identities outside of the conflict, especially their identity as a parent or a child.
So if you think about it, all the time, our identities are shuffling and reshuffling. So one of the problems right now is that we are locked into this binary winner-take-all political system. Where people don’t have anywhere to go. So the more partisan leaders and influencers and pundits you can get to question, to sort of step out of the conflict, step out of the, the zombie-dance of high conflict, then the more space you create for other people to still hold on to their identity as a Republican or a Democrat. And deeply refuse political violence as an option. So you have to create that space.
And just very quickly, one of the things that, I love this because I think it’s so hopeful. Colombia has been through a lot of violence for half a century. And they’ve also tried a lot of things to invite people out of conflict. Out, literally — out of the jungle, out of the guerilla groups to disarm and reintegrate.
Lots of complexity there, you know. But putting all that aside. One of the things that has worked best according to pretty new research by Juan Pablo Aparicio, is they did these very simple public service ads during Colombia national soccer games, national team soccer games, and — because they knew from listening to former guerilla members that all of them listened to these games on the radio in the jungle whenever they could. And they, in those ads would just say very simply: next time, come home. We’re saving you a seat. Watch the next game with us. And it was the mothers and fathers of guerilla members. And what they saw is the very next day, twice as many demobilizations, voluntary departures from the conflict, which, over time, over nine years of running these ads added up to more people leaving the civil war voluntarily then left when the peace treaty was signed.
So that’s incredibly powerful. And there had to be other things happening. It wasn’t just the ad, but they lit up this other identity on purpose in a way that really resonated.
[music: Haena by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: You have said that there should be, in journalism, a “fear and loneliness beat.”
Ripley: Yeah. Yeah.
Tippett: Talk about that.
Ripley: Wouldn’t that be interesting? What if somebody gave you that job?
Tippett: Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s kind of what you’re — What, that’s a little bit of an illustration of how that could be very sophisticated.
Tippett: It’s not about feeling sorry for people, it’s about acknowledging the reality.
Ripley: Right. Because there’s a few things that pretty reliably trigger high conflict, and one of them that I think is most underappreciated is humiliation. So, until we start talking about that and reporting it and understanding it, we’re really not telling the whole story. So to me, that’s where I think journalism needs to go, right, is there needs to be more psychologically informed reporting that we’re not afraid to do. And I think still, it makes people nervous. It makes editors nervous.
Tippett: Yeah. And that, just saying — just making sure you attend to both sides or pay pays over to both sides, you’ve said it’s just another form of simplicity. That’s actually not complexity.
Ripley: Right. I mean, it’s a trap in a way, and you can spend a lot of time arguing about it. Like right now, there’s a lot of people arguing about which side is worse when it comes to rhetoric. And I’m happy to weigh in on that. And that’s how this always goes. In every high conflict, it’s asymmetrical, all over the world. And everybody rightfully focuses, understandably focuses on the same questions: Who is worse? Who is more to blame? And that is not how you step out of this dance.
Tippett: I mean the other thing about the fear, what was it? Fear and belonging? It’s just to acknowledge that as a dynamic is to cover, in journalistic language, the full humanity of whoever’s being covered and also the consumers of the journalism. I mean, we have this fascinating and terrifying phenomenon right now that, that this high conflict and polarization is happening everywhere, globally. And I personally think that fear — and there’s a lot of good reason, people are being reasonable when they’re fearful now. Right. But, there are a lot of things reasonably to be fearful about.
Tippett: That another way to describe what’s happening in the world is it’s the amygdala on the loose.
Ripley: Yeah. john powell, who runs the Othering and Belonging Institute, he explains it really well, I think. He said: The pace of change — social, economic, technological, which way predates the 2016 election, to your point. As well as I would add the pace of news — the influx of information, has so outstripped our capacity to process it, that it creates this profound anxiety and a sense of unease. And one thing we know about humans is that we’re good at noticing when we’re unhappy or afraid especially, and we’re really bad at assigning a reason why. So into that void will step a long list of conflict entrepreneurs and politicians and pundits who are happy to give you a simple story about why you feel the way you do that blames somebody else.
So I think, for me, it’s been helpful to think about that bigger picture of where did that malaise come from? And sometime it’s being tweaked and embellished and incited on purpose now.
Ripley: I’ve been really struck just — I came here from DC and I was in the hotel room last night watching Friends I think, which appears to be on the 24 hours on network TV. But anyway, the commercials were so fear-based because you all are in the middle of an election. And I was like, “Whoa.”
Tippett: Right. And then here’s, here’s also the terrible result of that, which you also write about in such a compelling way. Fear doesn’t — when people feel vulnerable or humiliated or all the things one feels — it doesn’t, nobody says, very rarely, “I feel scared. I’m afraid.”
Tippett: No, we get mad because that feels like a strong thing and that gets rewarded. And I really, you often — you’re doing such complicated research and then you also do, you’re always applying this, and I think this is a lesson for all of us, to, again, to what’s happening close to home. Like you notice — I saw you telling a story about your son — and you notice you understand in a way that I don’t think I did with my children at home — that when they’re afraid, it shows up looking like anger. Being mad.
Ripley: At least with my son it does. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone.
Tippett: No, it makes so much sense. But it’s interesting that this is something that we all do routinely and are so lacking in self-awareness about it. And now, I mean, it’s such a crisis for our life together.
Ripley: Yeah. Yeah. And I do this too, to be honest. I — that maybe that’s where he learned it. But I, when I’m frightened, I just, without thinking I get angry, you know? I’m trying to undo that programming, but, because it’s super unhelpful. It’s an interesting thing. How are all of our visceral assumptions about what will work when we feel threatened, when we want to persuade, all of those are wrong. And this is the lesson that I relearn every day. In high conflict, any intuitive thing you do to get out of the conflict will almost certainly make things worse. So now I try, don’t always succeed, to take my first intuition. and just ask myself, just ask, “could I do the opposite? What would that look like?” Because that’s how you step out of that dance. But it’s very unintuitive.
Tippett: How much of the time does that work?
Ripley: It takes a lot of practice. It takes a lot of practice in low-stake settings.
Tippett: That’s worth practicing.
Ripley: Totally. Totally. So for me, I talk in the book about looping as a listening technique, and there’s other ones out there, but —
Tippett: Yeah, talk about looping.
Ripley: Okay. So looping is something I learned from Gary Friedman, who’s a conflict expert, who’s in the book, who also gets sucked into high conflict, as soon as he runs for office in California. But then extracts himself out of it, to his credit. Anyway, he teaches this to mediators, and I’ve now taught it to a lot of journalists because it’s totally transformed how I interview people and how I talk to friends and family. But it’s basically you’re listening for the most, the thing that seems most important to the other person who’s talking, what’s most important to them, not to me, which was hard, for, I’m embarrassed to admit, took me a while to make that switch. And then I try to play it back to them, not robotically repeating the words, but distilling it into the most elegant language I can muster. And then, also easy to forget, then I check to see, “Is that right?” Because when you do this?
Tippett: You ask them.
Ripley: I literally ask them.
Ripley: Is that right? Because they can tell even if you’re wrong, which is way more than I’d like to admit, they can tell you’re really trying. So it’s sort of injecting a little humility. Because there’s that old saying, the only mistake in communication is thinking it happened. We think we understand each other and we think we’re saying the thing. And actually it’s much more iterative than that. It’s very hard to get to the real thing on the first go-round without some back and forth.
Tippett: This is also about how there’s so much going on in a conversation that’s happening that’s not in the words.
Tippett: Right. And also that you can ask a curious sounding question. I mean, this happens in journalism all the time, but the other person at an animal level knows whether you’re actually curious or not, and they’re going to respond to their animal level experience of you.
Ripley: Yeah. There was some really good research on this, where they tried to see if people could tell if other people were listening, based on the obvious cues. So I used to think it was listening if I was nodding and smiling at the right moments and came prepared with my questions and furrowed my brow and all those things. It turns out that’s not listening. People can tell when you’re really listening. And it’s usually — not always — based on what you say next.
Tippett: No. Yeah.
Ripley: Are you actually hearing what I’m saying? I mean, you’ve been interviewed by reporters, you know this feeling of you say something that feels really revealing and to you important and you actually want to say more about it, and they immediately go to something else, you know, and you’re just like, “oh.”
Tippett: Yeah, it’s about them.
Tippett: Kind of following on this wonderful place we got, which is things we can do, things we can practice. I kept a couple of pages of notes of places in your writing where you share the power of a better question. A question is such a powerful thing. And so, if a question — The way I think about it is that answers rise or fall to the questions they meet. So if a question is combative, it’s just very hard not to be combative back. And if it’s simplistic, it’s really, as you say, even if you really have something you want to say, somebody asks you a simplistic question, it’s really hard to transcend that and say something complex.
And you’ve talked about specific questions that have been found to be useful in different settings. And these were, these are suggestions for reporters: What is oversimplified about this issue? How has this conflict affected your life? What do you think the other side wants? What’s the question nobody is asking? What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side in order to understand them better?
Here’s another one working with a newsroom: What do you want the other community to know about you? What do you want to know about the other community?
A couple that in my life, one that was really important to me early on was with an evangelical philosopher Richard Mouw, who said, he was talking actually about the issue of gay marriage, which is interesting to remember. And he said, “I just wish we could stop the suspicion and we could just start the conversations about saying, ‘What are the hopes and fears you bring to this?’”
And Francis Kissling, who I actually talked to in this space, and we had a conversation about abortion and vowed — with two people on the two sides — and vowed not to use the words pro-life or pro-choice, which you can actually do. And she talked about this question she’s used asking — and this is something you have to get to because it’s a vulnerable question — but if people can get to a place to say: What in my own position or group causes me discomfort? And what do I admire in the position of the other?
Ripley: I’m so glad you shared these because I was dying to ask you what questions you like to ask to get to this because I’m constantly adding to that list. [audience laughs]
Ripley: This is great. One of the questions that we got from Jay Rosen was along those lines.
Tippett: And he’s a kind of journalistic sage.
Ripley: Yeah, a thinker. And his question was: Where do you feel torn? Right along those lines. And then the other one I’m really into right now, which comes from actually family therapy, which is: If you woke up tomorrow and this problem was solved the way you want it to be solved, how would you know? Walk me through that day? Because people very rarely get to talk about, or even think about what a better future would be like. And it’s just a way to get out of our old grooves on this, on whatever the subject is, and try to be filled with wonder and curiosity again.
Tippett: And you’ve talked about how you’ve experienced people who get to that other side and how life-giving that is.
Ripley: Yeah. I think this is the thing that’s hardest to talk about because people don’t believe you typically, but — [laughs] When you actually are in the presence of good conflict with people you really profoundly disagree with. When there are enough guardrails and connective tissue, there’s something euphoric about it. You want more of it. So I actually ended the book with a woman named Martha Acklesberg who lives in New York City and went on this very unusual, three-day homestay exchange to visit conservatives in Michigan. And she said to me: I want to be the way I showed up there all the time in my life: open, curious, able to be surprised.
And this is someone who’s very partisan and she was visiting someone who was very partisan on the other side. So it was, it was not an easy experience. And I think somehow it’s easy to sort of gloss over that. It was upsetting at times, frightening at times, angering at times, and also exquisite, and something that very few of us get to do anymore.
Tippett: It’s just a, it’s a manifestation of what you said, the qualities of good conflict. That it is movement. Right? It’s growth.
Ripley: Right. And you feel it in yourself.
[music: The Stone Mansion by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: At this point in the conversation, political scientist Larry Jacobs came up to curate a few questions from the audience at the Humphrey School in Minneapolis.
Larry Jacobs: First question: Is the current moment new, or a repeat of the past, with social media serving as a megaphone this time?
Ripley: Well, I think there’s a lot of similarities in the current moment to other high conflicts all over the world and throughout history. I do think that what’s new is we’ve really reached the upper limits of the ability to solve these problems with us versus them adversarial thinking. We just can’t solve big problems that way anymore because we’re too interdependent and too aware of each other, and too globalized. So we can’t keep using the same old us versus them model to try to solve problems. And that’s particularly obvious in politics. And one of the reasons the U.S. is so much more polarized than other countries is that we have a binary winner-take-all system with just two choices. So if you win, I lose. And most democracies have proportional representation where it’s not winner-take-all. And there’s rank choice voting, which more states are experiencing — experimenting with is an example of something that would be better. Where you get to choose your top four candidates or five candidates as opposed to one.
So I think we’ve — A lot of this is the same. And yes, social media matters, although maybe a little less than we’ve assumed. I think human behavior matters a lot. And, if you, if you look at just the way the world has changed and the flow of information has changed, trying to solve this high conflict with more high conflict is going to make things worse.
Jacobs: Next question: How do Jewish, trans people, Black, Indigenous, and people of color work to reconcile with those who do not see them as human and see them as some part of an evil conspiracy to indoctrinate kids or take over the world?
Ripley: Yeah. I think there are some situations and some people that you’re, you’re not going to reach. And there’s often in high conflict, that group feels much bigger than it is, until things get worse. So there’s a, there’s a very difficult line there of who, who is still willing to engage in good faith? Who is open to questioning their assumptions? Can I question my assumptions about them? I think power matters and not everything is complicated. And: people are complicated.
So it’s funny because when I’m not sure of this myself, and I struggle with it internally, I often find it really clarifying to reach out to people who have been in much worse conflict. Because the things, for example, Curtis Toler asks young men to do in Chicago right now are much, much harder than anything we have asked of members of Congress. And yet they have far more trauma and far fewer resources.
So it can feel, and it’s a little bit of a trick of the mind, it can feel like millions of people are beyond talking to. But in fact, if you talk to someone like Curtis or people who work in civil war in other countries or even genocide, you cannot give up on anyone. It may not be that you personally have to engage. That’s okay. But someone sure does.
And it’s a little bit of a bummer because I feel like I’d like to give up on some people and I’m sure people would like to give up on me. And that’s not the way this is going to go down. We are stuck with each other in this country.
One of the things — that I was talking to someone who worked on peace in South Africa — one of the things that has to happen is we have to convince each group that the other group is not leaving. They’re not going to be annihilated, they’re not going to die out. We are stuck with each other and we’ve got kids together just like in a high conflict divorce. So it’s really hard to come up with an example of someone you would give up on completely.
Tippett: John Lewis said that.
Ripley: Okay, I feel better.
Tippett: “Never give up on anyone.” What?
Ripley: I feel better knowing that he agreed. [laughs]
Tippett: But you’re right. It’s not necessarily that everybody needs to be with them. I — one thing john powell also says: We’re in relationship. You can look at those fractured maps, red states, blue states. He said, you can be in a good relationship. It can be a bad relationship. You’re right. We’re in a high conflict divorce situation, but we’re in relationship.
Ripley: Yeah. And we’ve got kids together.
Tippett: And we’ve got kids together.
Ripley: And we can get divorced, but you’re still going to have to deal with the custody arrangement. I mean, that’s just the way it is. William Ury, who works on peace negotiations all over the world, he says, there’s no winning this marriage. And I think that’s a good way, a good thing to keep in mind.
Tippett: And I think one thing that people get paralyzed about, understandably, and start to feel hopeless, like there’s nothing they can do, there’s no group they could convene, there’s no relationship they could build close to home that would matter, because they’ll look at their worst case, most violent. I really am — This language of conflict entrepreneur is helpful. I can’t change that person’s mind.
Tippett: But I think I’ve heard you say: you don’t have to start with the worst case exemplar.
Tippett: Who you can get in the room or, or, or build an actual relationship with matters.
Ripley: Right, because your mind will naturally go to the extremists, the worst case, the deviant outliers, and that’s understandable because they are threatening. And I’m always trying to remind myself to widen the lens. To look at a fuller picture. So when Curtis came out to talk to some senate chiefs of staff about how he helps interrupt violence in Chicago and how we might try to do that on Capitol Hill. And their reaction, understandably, was: You’re talking to the wrong chiefs. We’re not the problem. And you hear this again and again. I hear this with members of Congress. I mean, it’s amazing and you hear it with gang members: It’s not us. It’s those, it’s those guys. And they’re not wrong, often.
And so — but the nice thing is to be able to turn to Curtis and say, “What do you think? Since we don’t have the right people in the room, is all hope lost?” And then he says “Well, Amanda, we never have the right people in the room at first.” That’s, you just, that’s not how these things start. You start with who will come into the room, and then you slowly expand the circle, and you’re not going to get every single person.
Jacobs: Another question, this one’s from online: How do we have civil conversations when we cannot agree on what the facts are and what is real?
Ripley: Yeah. This is where my head often gets stuck. You go round and round. Well, what if this happened and then this happened? Well — But we can’t do anything because — or let me phrase this another way. I am afraid because we cannot agree on basic facts. To go back to your point, let’s say the thing. So if we can’t even do that, isn’t all hope lost?
Often I will try to ask that question: How do you decide whom to trust? When I’m interviewing someone who breaks out some information that I know to be false. I was like, “How do you — because I’ve heard this other thing, so how do you know?” And that gets actually into some interesting spaces.
Tippett: So that’s the question you’ll ask when somebody’s giving you a fact that you doubt?
Ripley: Right. Rather — I used to get into a, you know, I’ll be like, well actually…
Tippett: Here’s my fact.
Ripley: …statistically, let me just give you this controlled study that. And that’s just not the way people work. I wish it were. And so, so first I try to acknowledge what they’ve said. Like, “Oh wow. So you feel like X, Y, Z. Huh.” So now they know I heard them. Cause that’s half of what people want is to be heard, happens about 5% of the time, according to the research. So at least I could give them that. And then, “It’s funny because I heard the exact opposite. How do you decide who to trust today?” And that doesn’t fix it. We still got a big problem. But why we’re not talking about trust and how to build it every single hour of every single day in this country I do not know. I don’t, I don’t know how we get out of this without working on that because…
Tippett: Which again is, is the question we’d be asking if it were in a real-world relationship.
Ripley: Right, right. If it was a couple in the room.
Tippett: That’s what we’d be focusing on.
Tippett: And we focus on that all the time in our lives.
Ripley: Right. Right. It’s not a new problem. But it is a harder problem and a more amorphous. I mean it is — But I once interviewed a trust researcher and he said to me — I don’t know why I found this reassuring, but maybe you all will too — He said: It’s impossible to survive without trust. So everybody trusts something or someone.
So then it’s about, well, why? Why that thing and not the other thing? And how does that shift? Because there are countries that have dramatically, including Germany, dramatically increased trust in recent history in public institutions. So why aren’t we studying how they did that? And there are — I mean, to be fair, there are people focused on this, like The Trust In News Project is a great example. But I feel like more creative, talented, dedicated people need to be focused on this.
Tippett: I also think that it — I love hearing you talk about stories that do something different, that work. Because the truth is for all the reasons we’ve been talking about, the complexity of human beings and our psychology and how, what a powerful motivator fear is and our bodies are — it was designed to protect us.
Tippett: It’s not the enemy, but we got to, we’ve got to grow up.
Tippett: And, so there’s a reason that the terrible, inflammatory story, the conflict entrepreneur, even the story about the most catastrophic, terrible, heartbreaking thing that happened today — it mobilizes us. And it is a challenge for journalism, to know how to make goodness as riveting as evil.
Ripley: Yeah. Right. But you know it’s possible. I mean, there’s some wiring here that is hard to resist. And there’s a lot of wiring that we’ve managed to get better at.
You know, oh gosh. The other day I was talking to an editor at a national news outlet that I won’t name that, and he said: The problem is we’ve just gotten too good. We know people too well, so we know how to push out headlines they will click on.” He literally said, we are too good at knowing what’s in people’s hearts and minds. And I wish I had said, I didn’t think of, I always think of it an hour later. I was just flummoxed at the time because I’m not on staff at a place, and so I’m not in this all the time. And I was like, “Wow.” What I should have said is, “Well, you know what really gets a lot of clicks is porn. So why doesn’t your prestigious news outlet just do that? If you know people so well, what’s the difference?”
So this idea that this is different and acceptable, needs to shift. And I think more and more journalists are getting really just exhausted from this.
Ripley: Just like readers, and it’s —
Tippett: Yeah. We all share this problem, this challenge. And just in terms of kind of bringing this down to this question that we all want to ask: What can I do? How can I make a difference? This person, Dan Christensen, would you just tell the story of Dan Christensen?
Ripley: Yeah. So the best thing that’s ever happened to me on Twitter is I met bus driver Dan, who is a public bus driver in Portland, Oregon, who’s also very fascinated by conflict and communication and has read a lot of books on it and tried out a lot of things on his bus because, you know, who’s taken a bus recently in a city? [audience laughs] Okay. So there’s a good amount of conflict that happens on public buses. So he has this lab and as he puts it, you know, “I just assume every day that I’m the only one who’s unarmed and I’m strapped in.” So he has to interrupt conflict. And he has a bunch of techniques that he uses.
And we had him on the How To! podcast for how to deal with a fight in public when you’re not the one directly in conflict. And he does a bunch of things that I’ve learned from. And one of them is as soon as someone comes on the bus, he welcomes them with a genuine smile, “Hi, how are you?” Even when they don’t respond.
Tippett: That’s so, that’s brilliant. That’s create — that’s hospitality. And that’s a tool, a technology that humans use to elevate how people walk into the room.
Ripley: Because he feels like something might go down.
Ripley: But somewhere in your subconscious, you might think of me as a friendly. You know what I mean? I’ve greeted you as a person. I’ve seen you. And he said when he was wearing masks during the pandemic, he could tell that people could tell if he was smiling or not even under the mask. Because you know how your voice changes when you smile. So he would always smile with or without a mask.
And then when conflict erupted, he has a methodology, which I love, which is basically: two questions and a choice. So first, he pulls the bus over and opens all the doors because it’s important not to corner people who are in conflict, metaphorically or literally. Let me just say that again. It is important not to corner people who are in conflict. Something to keep in mind. They have to have a way out. And so then he gets on the intercom, which is helpful. I wish I had an intercom. [audience laughs]
Tippett: [laughs] Yeah.
Ripley: And he says, “What happened?” He doesn’t say, I mean, there’s a million things he could say. Like, “What are you doing? What is your problem?” And he says, “What happened?” In a voice of genuinely wanting to know. So this takes practice.
Ripley: And then, you know what usually happens? Because people, when they’re in that amygdala hijack mode, they don’t really see a question coming. So it forces them to think for a second.
Tippett: To think.
Ripley: And so they’ll say, “well he closed the window and I da da.” And Dan will say, “I can tell you’re really mad.” So he’s looping them quickly. And then he says, “What do you want to do next?” So it’s not him telling them. And then he gives them a choice, which — because usually that flummoxes them, like, “wah wah wah.” And then he says — that’s my angry conflict voice — and then he says, “I could call someone right now, which I’m going to have to do, or you could come up here and talk with me. And we get everyone safely to where they’re going.” So he’s offering them a way out: come with me. There’s a lot more to it but he’s just a very wise, experienced practitioner. [laughs]
Tippett: It’s such an important story. We have to bring this to a close. We could obviously keep talking forever. I have to say, I was really intrigued that you quote Rumi, [laughs] the poet, Muslim mystic, at the beginning, at the very beginning and the very end of High Conflict.
Ripley: Yeah. Isn’t that the great thing about writing a book, you just do whatever the heck you want. [audience laughs]
Tippett: Yeah. But it ends, “when the soul lies down in the grass, the world is too full to talk about.” So this is actually also spiritual work we’re talking about, isn’t it?
Ripley: Absolutely. I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of these conversations is joy, wonder, hope, dignity, and faith. So thank you for bringing those things into my ears, especially during the pandemic. You really helped keep me sane. And I think many other people. I vividly remember going on those endless walks. I just kept walking the same routes.
And you know how people would cross the street when they saw you coming, which I get, but it’s not a great feeling, just intrinsically. [laughs] And I remember listening to you talk about how you too had cut down on your news consumption. And I felt like, “Oh, it’s okay.” Like you gave me permission to do that. And also to question: Is there a better way to do the news? You know maybe it’s not just that I’ve gone soft if Krista’s doing it. [laughs] So thank you for that.
Tippett: Well, if I was a source of nourishment to you then I’m very pleased because we need you. Thank you for what you’re doing and for this beautiful investigation you’re on, on behalf of the rest of us, and for being here today.
Ripley: Thank you.
[music: Eventide by Gautam Srikishan]
Tippett: Amanda Ripley is the author of several books including High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. You can find her fantastic essay, “Complicating the Narratives,” on the Solutions Journalism blog of the Solutions Journalism Network. She is the co-founder of the company, Good Conflict and hosts the Slate podcast How To!
Special thanks this week to Larry Jacobs, Lea Chittenden, and the entire staff at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota for hosting this event.
The On Being Project is: Chris Heagle, Laurén Drommerhausen, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Colleen Scheck, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Gautam Srikishan, April Adamson, Ashley Her, Amy Chatelaine, Romy Nehme, Cameron Mussar, Kayla Edwards, Juliana Lewis, and Tiffany Champion.
On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. We are located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. Our closing music was composed by Gautam Srikishan. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
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