When I was 13 years old, my parents got involved in a court battle. I was past 40 when the issue was finally resolved.
We don't see ourselves wanting to engage in high conflict. Yet, there seems to be no way to avoid the tectonic forces of our world.
No matter where you look online or offline, someone is continuously bashing the other side. And often, that chaos spills over into our world.
Like it did with my parents. They had no intention of being sieged for over 25 years, and yet that's what happened.
Tensions escalate beyond a point, original facts disappear, and conflict becomes a reality.
Yet, all conflict isn't destructive. There's a difference between High Conflict and Healthy Conflict. The dangerous kind is when it's “us” vs “them”, “good” vs “evil”. That kind of conflict bestows arrogance and superiority. It layers on the rage, sometimes even dread.
It's a state where almost everyone loses, unlike in Healthy Conflict, where disagreement doesn't soar and serves more as a way to understand each other and improve.
“High Conflict” is a book by Amanda Ripley, which kept me reading late at night. Typically, my eyes are on self-shut mode by 10 pm (since I wake up at 4 am), but this book was fascinating. Plus, it tackles a topic that seems to swarm around us both on a personal and a societal level.
Is there a way around High Conflict? That's what I set to find out.
1: The Curse Of The Binary And Why It Divides Us
How do you know you're in a state of high conflict?
The answer to this question is defined by the tar pits.
Right in the heart of Los Angeles is a place called the La Brea Tar Pits. In one area alone, scientists have uncovered more than three million bones. However, these aren't obscure, random bones. Instead, each of the set of bones is a nearly complete skeleton.
For instance, there are skeletons of over two thousand sabre-toothed tigers. Next to the tigers were group sloths, western horses, bison, dwarf pronghorn, prehistoric camels, three-toed tapirs, llamas, wolves, birds of prey, even whole mastodons.
At first, you're baffled. How did so many animals end up in one place?
The answer slightly reveals itself when you winch yourself back to the idea that it was a tar pit. It's not even very deep, just a few inches deep. Yet, the moment a big animal wandered into that pit, it would be more than likely to get stuck.
Let's assume that big animal was a bison.
Once it was trapped, it would likely be sending out distress calls. The racket would get the attention of dire wolves (now extinct) who showed up in a pack to pounce on the trapped bison. They, too, would invariably get stuck.
It's estimated that the bones of over four thousand dire wolves have been pulled out of the tar pits. One by one, or in groups, predators would show up on the scene, only to get trapped in the same space. Once they were in, they could not get out.
And for us, standing on the outside, there's a sense of bafflement.
How could this situation get so out of control? Which is also ironically, you know you're in a state of high conflict. How come the other side can't see what is visible to you?
What's causing them to close their eyes to what's obvious? The other side's behaviour completely mystifies us. The root problem, it seems, is the power of the binary.
What is the binary?
You're watching a football game, and you're rooting for your team. It's clear that the other team is superior. The opposition trashes your team, and you're upset.
It takes a good helping of ice cream and vino Tinto to get through the evening, but your world starts to regain its sense of normalcy the next day. You don't go out in the streets screaming, vowing revenge.
In the case of the binary, it's “us vs them”, but in a manner that's enduring
Referendums, for example, are a binary. You're with us or against us. It's all black OR white. There's no scope for any grey to seep in. Positions harden because you're with one group and the other group is the enemy.
Binaries exist in the weirdest of places
Take a Psychotactics workshop, for example. Let's say we're in Brussels. It's time for dinner, and after a quick wash up, everyone shows up at the restaurant. Where should I be sitting? Right next to Renuka is what people tend to assume.
If you've ever been to a workshop, you'll notice that we never sit next to each other. Whether it's morning tea, lunch or dinner, we're often quite far away from each other. You can see why when you consider the binary.
Together, we form a force shield that says “do not disturb”, but when separated, we are part of the section we're seated in.
And this works in other situations too.
It's rare in our current workshops for clients to be in a group, but in the early days of Psychotactics, I'd do workshops for Auckland University. As is the case, companies often send groups of people to the workshop.
You've already figured out where this is going, right? Those groups huddle, almost seeming to hug each other because it's the easier thing to do. It's “us vs them”.
Whether it's astronauts vs ground control, copywriters vs designers, creative vs client management— they're all binaries. It's about the enemy and how their world is not ours, and they must go.
Yet, aren't you already creating a scenario for the binary to exist if you run a business?
Yes, you are. Android vs iOS, Apple vs Microsoft—they're all us vs them. Take any of your products or services, and it's seemingly a binary. It's you vs them. Your product is superior, or at least different in some way.
It's how we build the concept of uniqueness in marketing. It has to be a comparison. Yet, there's no overt conflict: thousands, even tens of thousands of books on food jostle for space on an online book store.
Hundreds of magazines cram themselves in an increasingly constrained book store. Everywhere we look, we see the spooky glow of the binary, but ironically it's quite the opposite.
Binary is a clear set of two camps
If you step into a country that allows for coalitions in its elections, you find something odd. You're more likely to find that voters don't necessarily align themselves to a party.
In New Zealand, for example, we have two major parties: Labour and National. If you look at the parties in power, you'll notice that Labour is in charge for a few terms, then it passes over to National.
Nothing special there, you may think to yourself.
Governments change all the time. What's interesting, however, is that the voters who put Labour into power are the very same who put National the last time around. In short, the voter doesn't see the binary.
While a small section of the population sees an “Us vs them” in elections, the very nature of the coalition system causes people to switch sides. That's because a coalition means that one party needs to get the majority and to do so, it has to align with other parties.
I know, I know. It sounds like a compromise, but when the voters look at the party, they don't see black and white. They see a mix of grey in there too.
When life exists in the binary, conflict is almost inevitable
The question that arises is: how do we get a couple in divorce proceedings not to form camps? How do we get astronauts to have more value for ground control and vice versa?
How can we make this entrenched battle just a football game that's intense but doesn't bring out the knives?
We do this by removing the middleman.
2: Removing The Middle Man
One day, my father called to tell me the “case was over”. It was his way of expressing that he no longer had to battle it out in court, no longer wait for hours at the lawyer's office, no longer have to worry about which direction the battle would meander.
The news was so out of the blue that I was compelled to ask him how this juggernaut rolled to a stop. “It didn't roll to a stop”, my dad informed me. “I brought an end to it”.
Notice how there seems to be no middleman in the ending of the case?
The conclusion of the case was tamer than you'd expect. My father, seeing the other party, walked over and said, “Can we sit down and have a chat? I'd like to end this endless court case.” The other party nodded.
Yet when my father got back to his side of the fence, the lawyer was furious
“You exposed your hand”, he said, clearly angry at the turn of events. “They'll know you're weak. You'll get a terrible deal.” As it turned out, the deal was not terrible at all.
Both parties knew where the 50/50 line stood, and though the final decision wasn't exactly a neat split, it seemed a lot better than the unending battle.
Middlemen, it seems, are dangerous, but author, Amanda Ripley, has a better name for them. She calls them “conflict entrepreneurs”.
In reality, the book “High Conflict” covers four reasons why conflict occurs.
- Group identities
- And yes, conflict entrepreneurs
Group identities are “us vs them”.
Corruption is a hard one to root out. Humiliation is avoidable, and most of us tend to stay away from it unless provoked. However, what seems to have blindsided us entirely is that someone is making money from watching us tear each other apart. In other words, there are “conflict entrepreneurs”.
Online social media almost neatly fits into this model of “conflict entrepreneurship”
Posting pictures of butterflies and kittens playing with balls of wool is nice, but nothing quite gets the attention as a rowdy online screaming match. The more people yell at each other, the greater the chances your post will keep bouncing to the top.
The more eyeballs on a battle—even if you're not part of it—the greater the chances you'll get distracted and click on an ad. And if enough people do it, the ka-ching sound of money never slows down.
The question to ask ourselves isn't whether there's something is true or not
Truth is a shifting goalpost at times. And facts can be distorted to show one angle. However, there's usually a fire starter at the source of many a conflict. It's in the interest of that person or organisation for the battle to continue unabated.
This pot-stirrer may not be solely motivated by money at first, but over time, revenue becomes crucial. And power. Power becomes a heady game because that person or organisation stands to lose a lot by not feeding the flames.
How do you know if you're being manipulated?
Most of the time, a battle requires you to stay constantly on alert. You're always on guard, always ready to defend your position. “Slowing down a conflict, with or without a peace treaty, requires an enormous amount of self-control”, say author Amanda Ripley.
Instead, you have to learn to use shortcuts. The first way to step away from conflict entrepreneurs is to “move away”.
Some of the examples in the book “High Conflict” are how a gang member moved away from his neighbourhood. Another example is giving up cable TV or simply deleting their social media accounts.
My parents chose to step away from the lawyer who wasn't interested in anything but outright war. Sometimes we can't avoid the person or move out. Each person may already be rooting for their side.
Families, friends, people you love and know well fall into this category. You can't simply walk away from everyone in your life. In such situations, you choose topics that don't involve such a high flurry of emotional content. And you pay close attention to how updated you are on everything.
You know you're being manipulated because you're up to date on everything in that space
You have information that didn't exist a few weeks ago. Now you're up to date on that information. You are more than willing to quote that information when someone brings up a counter view.
If your data is constantly fresh, you're in trouble, and so are the people you love. The conflict entrepreneurs have won and will continue to gain ground in your thoughts and words.
Is there a way out of this “High Conflict” situation?
Not surprisingly, there is an almost obvious way that all of us know and have used, We need to get out of the trench and peer into the opposite trench.
3: Getting Out Of The Trenches
In Assam, India, the high conflict is between farmers and elephants.
Going to the other side might seem more of a challenge since there's no common language. Moreover, the elephants were hungry. Fully grown Asian elephants need to eat 150 kilos (330 pounds) every day.
Only 5% of their natural habitat remains, and most of the forests have been replaced by farmland. To eat, they must raid crops.
The farmers are no pushovers.
They take every possible measure to defend their fields. Despite their actions, they still lose half of the rice crop every year. Plus, it meant a sleepless night for many of the farmers.
In the documentary “The Year the Earth Changed”, the farmer talks about how they would spend the entire night chasing the elephants back into the forest, but invariably they would return. “And we'd have to do it all over again”.
Elephants need to eat and don't always stick to farms.
Sometimes they enter villages and end up trampling people. Annually, around 400 humans and about 100 elephants lose their lives in this conflict. Then along came 2020 and the pandemic.
Suddenly the world ground to a halt. City workers returned home because of lockdowns and got involved in a project by local conservationists.
The humans decided to come halfway
Near the forest edge, they planted a buffer zone of fast-growing wild rice and grasses for the elephants to dine on. More than 500 people turned up to help in this quite odd activity. In just a few months, over 400 acres of land had whole plantations of rice.
What happened next?
Would the elephants still raid the village? Would they still trample over the farmland? Those were the questions that were uppermost in the minds of the villagers. The elephants: mothers, calves, the extended family shows up and choose to eat the crops planted for them.
The villagers were jubilant. They have the broadest smiles as they talk fondly about the elephants. The elephants keep to their patch through the harvest, never entering the fields or the villages.
The middle of the Venn Diagram is “listening”
The way we do battle is to stay on the far edges of our circles, never venturing to the centre, except to heatedly disagree. We may never want to engage in battle, and we say things that are even more annoying. We may say, “I respect your position”.
Respect your position?
How can you respect the other person's position when you don't even know what it is?
The fastest way out of conflict is to get to the middle of the Venn Diagram and listen. People and animals know when you're just nodding vs genuinely listening.
Listening involves hearing the other person out completely. Listening involves asking curious questions instead of questions that merely trap the other. Genuine respect takes time, patience and is plainly frustrating, to begin with.
Even those who are trained to listen rarely do so
A doctor will interrupt a patient at the 11-second mark, on average. When does the patient stop taking? Usually at the 17-second mark. Those six seconds are enough for the person to feel unheard.
When people are heard, they tend to make better points. They tend to acknowledge their inconsistencies and, incredibly, become flexible.
Very rarely do people want to tear out each other's eyes
World War I was as brutal as things could get. Even so, most predictions were predicated on the end of the war before Christmas. Yet, as Christmas Day approached, so did the rain and frost, with no respite in the fighting.
However, as night approached on Christmas Eve, in the year 1914, the British heard German troops singing Christmas carols. They also sang patriotic songs and hurled insults, but they were insults of a friendly nature. Lanterns and small fir trees popped up in the trenches on both sides.
There's a fascinating photo of a German soldier standing along with British troops in no-man's land.
To most people at the time, it seemed incredible that two sworn enemies would meet, let alone pose for a photo. They buried casualties and even repaired trenches and dugouts. The troops not only posed for pictures but exchanged gifts, even played games of football.
“How many people were involved in the football match?” asks the interviewer. “Well, the football—a proper football—came from the German side. And it wasn't a match. It was just a kick-about. About a few hundred soldiers got right into the game.”
Then in came the conflict entrepreneurs
The High Command—on both sides—decided that any such camaraderie would kill their fighting spirit. They expressly banned any of the soldiers from getting involved in any truces.
Signs were put up that said, “Keep to the trench in daylight”. No fraternisation was permitted in any shape or form.
A lot of our battles aren't our battles at all.
They're decided by someone else. Much as we believe that we have free will, we are prevented from crossing over to the other side. And if you do cross over, the whiplash is even greater. The moment you cross over to understand the other's point of view, you're branded as a traitor.
Families turn against each other.
So do friends. The war needs to be fought from the trenches, and people have to hurt each other. That's how high conflict continues to thrive. If you and I haven't spent time taking photos “with the other side”, then we're all playing an active role in keeping the battle going.
Yet, there's lots of room at the intersection of the Venn Diagram, but only if you're prepared to listen for the whole 16 seconds. Or 30 seconds. Or whatever it takes.
When people are heard, there's an intense feeling of satisfaction. Their anger subsides once they've said what they want to say. They may not be agreeable with your ideas, but they're not entirely disagreeable either.
I can't imagine a court case going on for 25 years.
All of those trips to the lawyer, all that paper work, those appearances in court. Plus it costs money and endless mountains of time. It's a state of high conflict. When we look around, there are many things to disagree with as we go through these rather tumultuous years.
Get yourself a pine tree, a football and go across to the other side. You're likely to be very surprised at what you'll learn and who you can be.