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Amanda Ripley [Podcast] - BCB #23
Get smarter about conflict.
The third episode of the Better Conflict Bulletin podcast, The Transformers, is a timely conversation with conflict transformation pioneer and bestselling author Amanda Ripley. Following is a partial transcript of her insights, edited for length. To hear the entire discussion, listen below or on your preferred podcast distributor.
BCB: Today we are speaking with Amanda Ripley, who is a giant in conflict transformation. When I first started working in conflict transformation, someone always said, “Have you read Amanda Ripley?”
The article she is most known for is called “Complicating the Narratives,” so let’s start there. It’s considered a classic. Is that what you expected? What kind of response did you expect while you were writing that?
Amanda Ripley: No, I definitely did not expect that reaction. By far the biggest surprise I've ever had with any story. The backstory here is that after the 2016 presidential election, I was adrift, unsure how to be useful as a journalist, because it felt like any story I might do would either make things worse or have no effect at all.
And it seemed that journalism wasn't working the way it was supposed to. The places I wrote for were not trusted by half the country. So then, what were we even doing? These were the existential questions that were haunting me. And so I started casting about trying to figure out what was I missing about how this conflict was changing-- how we communicate in this country and what can be done.
I went to a gathering of different bridge building groups that was brought together… While I was there, I ran into David Bornstein, who's a journalist who started this nonprofit called the Solutions Journalism Network-- which is really cool and I highly recommend to people. He said, “Hey, what are you doing?” And I hemmed and hawed about the existential questions and he was like, “Okay, so you don't know what you're doing.”
I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “What if we commissioned you to… write an essay about what journalists could learn from conflict mediators? People who understand conflict intimately, but differently than journalists? People like peace negotiators, divorce lawyers, rabbis, ministers, you name it.”
And in my head I was thinking, “I don't think we have that much to learn from those guys.” We know a lot about conflict, right? Every story has conflict. That was drilled into me when I was 22. But… that really changed the course of my career and my thinking because I realized very quickly that there was a lot about conflict that I had not understood, that most journalists do not understand.
BCB: The article is now embraced by people and genres far outside of journalism. This is affecting teaching, documentary making, how we approach tech, and algorithms. How do your rules of “listen more and better” and “ask questions that don't agree with the prevailing narrative” work with that?
Amanda Ripley: A funny thing is that journalists don't think anyone wants to read anything about journalism. It feels like sausage-making. That’s a blind spot that I think a lot of journalists have. People don't want to read boring, repetitive, predictable stuff about journalism. But, I think that because we're in it, we don't realize how it lands for other people.
And so, I did go off and write this long essay and it was long. It was unforgivably long, and David and his colleagues at Solution Journalism Network really loved it, and they didn’t cut it too much. So now we're in really dangerous territory, because it was like 9,000 words, and I submitted it.
I sent it to big national outlets I had relationships with, and one after the other, they all said the same thing, which was: “This is fantastic. Super interesting. Could you cut it down by 90% and make it not about journalism?” And after the third time, my feeling was, “Sure, I'll do that. Maybe they're right. Maybe people don't want to read about this.”
Usually editors, as much as I hate to admit it, are right because they’re further removed from the story and they have a sense of what the public appetite is for something. And so I said, “Sure, let's do that.”
And David was like, “Mm, I don't know if we want to do that exactly.” What we did was we cut it way down and made it less about journalism for The Guardian. And then we put the whole thing all about journalism up on Medium. Anyone can post there.
That's the one that really went viral— the long one that was about journalism on media. And it was shocking because, look, I've written a lot of stories that I thought were way better and more riveting that got way less attention. So I think it just was the timing, because people were feeling, “There's got to be a better way to do this.”
And like you said, most of them are not necessarily journalists. There's a deep feeling, yearning for a different way to cover really difficult conflict. And so after it came out and we got this unexpected reaction. A bunch of people, including people outside of journalism, were [asking], “How do we put this into action? Can you help us? Can you give us a workshop?”
Again, thank God for David and his colleagues, because they said, “Sure.”
BCB: What do you mean by “get smarter about conflict”?
Amanda Ripley: It turns out there's the thing we fight about endlessly, the thing that conflict seems to be about. And then the thing it's really also about, which I like to call the understory of the conflict. It’s very important to try to figure out what that is.
And you can waste a lot of time and blood-- heartache, having the wrong fights with the wrong people, about the wrong things. That means you're never having the right fight that you really do need to have, because conflict is good. Conflict is important. Conflict is how we push each other to get better and how we get pushed.
The problem is when conflict becomes high conflict or malignant conflict… self-destructive conflict for conflict's sake, all-consuming, where we start to feel like we're morally superior than the other side. And we make just a ton of mistakes.
And eventually, the most diabolical thing about every high conflict I've looked at, is you start to harm the thing you went into the conflict to defend, whether it's your kids in an ugly high conflict divorce, or your country in high conflict politics.
BCB: You're talking about the way people are investing themselves and their whole identity in these conflicts. How can we avoid that and concentrate more holistically on who we are and how we're viewing these issues?
Amanda Ripley: I ended up writing a book called High Conflict about people who have made that shift-- people and organizations and communities who have been stuck in really ugly high conflicts, whether they're political or gang violence or any number of things-- and who shifted into good conflict, the healthy conflict where we get stronger.
One of the things that we find to be really helpful is… questions to ask people in conflict that we've collected from crowdsourcing with people like you and journalists and conflict researchers. Questions that help us get to that understory that get us unstuck from the same talking points and defensiveness that most of us fall into in most conflicts.
BCB: You're talking about the four steps in your Good Conflict methodology. Would you mind speaking more specifically about those?
Amanda Ripley: There are different ways to try to unearth the understory and it depends on what your goal is, who you are, what the relationship is. But one of those steps is to investigate the understory. And within that, there are these questions to ask in conflict. And some of those questions are very personal, which is a really good way to get underneath a conflict.
How do you know whom to trust? Because there's so much information out there, it can be really hard right now. Those questions are the questions we want to start with, and then get questions that help us… explain what it is we really want.
One that I like that actually comes from family therapy is, “What would it be like if you woke up tomorrow and this problem was solved the way you want it to be solved? How would you know? And can you walk me through that?” It gets us out of our usual bunkers and we start imagining something better.
BCB: You mentioned your book, High Conflict: Why we Get Trapped and How We Get Out. You've also written two other nonfiction works that I want to mention here: The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes-- and Why, and The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. Do you see any common threads between these three pieces, and has one informed the other?
Amanda Ripley: It's funny that it took me this long, but it was not until this third book was done that I started to see that they're all the same exact pattern. I don't know why I didn't notice it before… they seem to be about very different things, right? One is about disasters, one is about education, and this is about conflict.
But in every case, there are sort of wicked problems that I was covering as a journalist and hit a wall at some point, where I just couldn't figure out where to find hope. And… my only skill is to find people who have been through the woods and out again and learn from them.
With The Unthinkable, it was finding people who have been through really high stress life or death situations, whether it's a hurricane or a terrorist attack and saying, “What was that like? What surprised you physically, socially, emotionally? What do you wish you had known?”
It turns out there's a lot that disaster survivors have to say about those things that usually don't make it into our official emergency preparedness plans and conversations, because they're not usually at the table. That was the same thing with The Smartest Kids in the World.
We have better data than we've ever had about what kids in other countries are able to do in math, reading. and science. And it was clear that there was just a small number of standout countries where virtually all kids were really learning to think for themselves, regardless of their background.
It was hard to understand why Finland and not Sweden. So I followed American teenagers who spent a year studying in schools in those countries, in public high schools, and could compare their schools back home in Oklahoma or the Bronx, to their schools in Poland, South Korea, and Finland.
It was the same concept. Find those people who have learned the hard way a lot about before and after, or this place and another place. [It’s] the same with high conflict, as people who were stuck in really toxic conflict and are not anymore.
BCB: You mentioned a few minutes ago relationships with family members. You just [studied] how to talk with family members, but this goes far beyond the usual “How to talk to your insane racist uncle on Thanksgiving.” Did anything surprise you when you were working on that?
Amanda Ripley: This was really fun because you hear a lot of advice about “How to talk to your insane uncle,” and it always, for me, felt a little flat. And I host (a podcast) called “How To!” and every week we have somebody who comes to us with a problem that they're trying to work on, and then we find an expert. And the three of us get in a room and workshop the problem and try to help them.
In this case, we had a someone come to us who wanted to change how she talks about politics with her dad, who's more conservative than she is. It was really straining the relationship. So she and her brother, both of whom are grown, asked for coaching, which we gave them.
The cool thing is they then, with their dad's permission, recorded the conversation they had afterward about politics, which was like three hours long. We were able to listen to it and provide some post game analysis with them, which was really fun.
There were things that came up that I would say they got to the understory, which is pretty awesome. And it doesn't happen immediately, but they at least they glimpsed what it was they were really fighting about.
BCB: Now I'm going to turn one of your questions around on you. If we, as you say, get smarter about conflict, what would that look like to you?
Amanda Ripley: I think one of the things that I have learned… is the way that humiliation supercharges conflict.
Nelson Mandela had this great quote where he said, “There's no one more dangerous than one who's been humiliated, even when you humiliate him rightly,” which I love. So for me, (that means) I don't want to embarrass people, especially when there's an audience. It goes against my interest.
So I don't engage in that on social media. I'm happy to have a conversation in good faith with people, but I'll DM them if it looks like they're up for that. I just try to remove the audience. And also, it's really helpful if people are behaving in ways that just don't seem to make sense to you.
Just ask yourself, “Is it possible that they feel humiliated, whether they should or not?” I'm telling you, it explains a lot and helps you understand what they're doing, which makes it easier to understand how you could theoretically interrupt that cycle.
BCB: It sounds like there is a lot of the personal involved in what we do as a group.
Amanda Ripley: Humans behave the same way in high conflict, whether it’s a high conflict divorce or at scale in a war. The differences are in resources. What kind of leaders you have access to, weaponry-- those things are different and they matter.
BCB: And those can be dealt with… how?
Amanda Ripley: First of all, we have to understand what those things are. We have to understand how things like humiliation, conflict entrepreneurs, and binary group identities, tend to trick us into high conflict.
And we are all capable of being conflict entrepreneurs, especially in a time like this where it's really incentivized on social media and sometimes on cable news. There's a lot of attention and power that has been granted by many of us to conflict entrepreneurs. It’s important to just at first notice who they are and then try to distance yourself from them.
BCB: And even our brains are involved. The brain chemistry, the dopamine rush when you feel as if you've gotten the dunk and then you get affirmation for that.
Amanda Ripley: Exactly, yeah. You get a lot of affirmation and it makes you feel like bonded to your group, which is a good feeling. The deeper you get, the harder it gets.
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Amanda’s landmark article, written in 2018, brought conflict transformation to the mainstream. This links to the long form of the piece as it appeared on Medium.
This is a two-part episode Amanda conducted with Monica Guzman, Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels. It includes an exploration of a politically split family’s dynamic, as well as advice for their future conversations.
Connect with Amanda via Twitter, or her personal page which also hosts an account of her recent “field trip” to Congress.
Workshops, helpful tools, and support from the conflict transformation organization Amanda helped to found.