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Understanding High Conflict: Amanda Ripley Shares her Insights at GSX  

Amanda-Ripley-headshot.jpgAmanda Ripley, who will be taking the stage at GSX this year, is no stranger to conflict. As an award-winning journalist, Ripley’s career began with the Washington City Paper, covering the crime and courts beat. Since then, she has written about various conflicts within our society—from U.S. state laws that target adolescents to how journalists write about polarizing and controversial issues.

And when it comes to her work as a non-fiction author, Ripley notes that her process is always the same.

“Basically, I end up writing about some really wicked problem under my journalist hat,” Ripley says in an interview with The GSX Daily. And during that work, she comes to a point where things start to seem hopeless for the people impacted by the problem. “Then I start looking for people, usually regular people who have been through some kind of transformation.”

Finding those people allows her to figure out what can be learned from people who have been to the other side of whatever that problem is. For The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why, she searched for survivors of disasters, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way, she reached out to teens who attended public high schools in other countries. But for her latest book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, finding people who were previously stuck in wretched conflicts and had managed to find an exit was a feat she attributed partly to luck.

It's not hard to find people who are stuck in miserable conflicts. It's slightly harder to find people who have shifted out to something healthier, some other kind of conflict that's more productive.

“It’s not hard to find people who are stuck in miserable conflicts. It’s slightly harder to find people who have shifted out to something healthier, some other kind of conflict that’s more productive,” Ripley says. “But it’s particularly lucky to find people who have done that and are willing and able to talk about it publicly, because it’s a hard thing to talk about and it’s a complicated thing to talk about. Often, there’s a lot of emotion layered into it or you wouldn’t have been in high conflict if it weren’t.” 

In her book, Ripley noted that conflict can take several forms. She identifies “good conflict” as the arguments or debates that can help those involved learn from each other and grow—analogous to harder, tougher workouts that athletes slog through to build or condition muscles.

“High conflict,” however, lacks that productive outcome. The term emerged from high conflict divorces, a label attorneys coined in the 1980s after seeing several divorce proceedings stall in the courts, with each side filing claims against the other that only served to keep dragging out the fight.

Ripley notes that this kind of conflict is not limited to fractured marriages, but can also be seen in personal relationships, politics, and companies.

“The behavior is shockingly similar across very different contexts,” she says. “Having testified before Congress about their political conflict, there’s no difference that I could see between how they are experiencing it and how couples just stuck in an ugly divorce proceeding or gang members stuck in conflict talk about their conflict. There are different levels of violence and access to weaponry, but other than that, the behavior, the misery that they feel, the sense of wanting to get out but not knowing how, the tax that it takes on you spiritually, physically, intellectually, is the same.”

And the more she looked at conflict, the more she realized that at least some of any conflict was likely based on myth and misunderstanding, which also meant that enhanced listening is not only a tool that she should have as a journalist, but one that everyone should have in their toolbox.

The kind of sophisticated listening Ripley meant goes beyond the ability to recite what someone thinks they heard another person say.

“I mean, varsity-level, advanced human listening,” Ripley says. “I feel like the word is insufficient. It is a much bigger idea than it sounds. Most people do not feel heard most of the time, but about half of what most people want in conflict is to be heard. So, if you can give them that, even if you can’t give them what they want as an outcome, you are still building rapport, building trust, and learning from really trying to understand the other person. And it’s not easy.”

One method she recommends for anyone who has to deal conflict and is seeking to resolve it is called looping—a seemingly simple idea where after someone tells you something, you repeat what they said in the most eloquent wording you can use, and then ask that person if what was repeated was correct. While this can take some practice for those new to the concept, the payoff can be well worth it.

“When people feel heard, they act differently,” Ripley points out. “They say less extreme things afterward...and they open up to information they maybe didn’t want to hear. So, think about how that’s going to change everything else that happens afterward. If you need to solve a problem together, if you need information from this person, if you need this person to admit some mistake that they’ve made—anything at all is going to be more effective if the person feels heard first.”

Most people do not feel heard most of the time, but about half of what most people want in conflict is to be heard.

For security professionals analyzing potential threats, looping can also be a way to unearth details that were previously buried or perhaps unseen. While most in the industry use his or her curiosity to help problem solve, it’s also possible for anyone to overly rely on conventional wisdom or fail to anticipate the next threat by basing analysis on previous ones.

“That’s a risk. You’re always trying to stay open to information that you might not see on first glance,” Ripley says. “Looping is a way to systematically revive curiosity, especially in conflict, where there can be a false sense of simplicity. …Just in that process, you unearth information that could be really useful to you.”

By trying to fully comprehend what someone else is saying and ensuring he or she is correct, it often helps to uncover nuances or details that were previously unseen or unnoticed. And by actively listening to someone this way, it could defuse a potential conflict, as well as prevent a future one.

To find out more about looping, high conflict, and how to deal with it, listen to Amanda Ripley, keynote presenter for GSX 2021’s general session, "Breaking the Spell of High Conflict," on Tuesday, 28 September, 8:30 a.m. ET. The session will be live streamed in all theaters, as well as through the GSX platform.