Differentiating Between Good and Bad Conflict

Written by Nathan Hall |

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While conflict is often perceived in a negative way, not all conflict is bad. Healthy conflict challenges us, pushing us to think differently, to understand others and drive self-improvement.

In contrast, bad conflict– or High Conflict, as Amanda Ripley refers to it as in her book of the same name–is not healthy. It does not serve to make us better, or to help us understanding one another. Amanda writes, "High conflict is what happens when conflict clarifies into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them". It is where we increasingly feel a sense of superiority and understanding, distancing ourselves further away from them. When high conflict takes over, the original dispute takes a backseat to the conflict itself.

Here are some characteristics of good and high conflict as outlined by Amanda.

Good ConflictHigh Conflict
HumilityCertainty
FluidityRigidity
Many different emotionsSame emotions
ComplexitySimplicity
NoveltyPredictability
PassionRighteousness
Spikes in stress hormones,
followed by recovery
Chronic stress hormones,
rumination, sleep disturbances
CuriosityAssumptions
QuestionsAdvocacy
All sides want to find a solutionOne or all sides do not want to
find a solution. They want to fight.
Non-zero-sum thinkingZero-sum thinking
Violence unlikelyViolence more likely

How to prevent High Conflict

Investigate the understory

Take the to explore the other side. Be curious and seek to understand, not to convince and be understood. People need to feel as though they are being heard before they can listen.

Reduce the binary

Get rid of the Us vs Them, and unnecessary groupings. When we are in high conflict, we have the tendency to reduce issues and people into binary camps– good/bad, left/right, vaxed/unvaxed. Doing so creates caricatures and overly simplified positions.

Marginalize the fire starters

Fire starters are those who enjoy the conflict, and seek to bond over mutual loathing. They use inflammatory language to increase division and strengthen the identity of Us. Distance yourself from these people.

Buy time and make space

Viktor Frankel says "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” When we are caught up in our own emotions or the energy of the group, we are not thinking at our highest level. These are the moments we are most vulnerable to group think, bias, and just poor decision-making. The best way to counter these things is to create more space between what has stimulated what you are feeling, and when you respond to that stimulus.

Complicate the narrative

In difficult conflict, simplicity can blind us. By reducing complex issues into simple narratives, we dismiss the many nuances and perspectives surrounding the issue, which tends to lead towards simplified solutions. The simpler we make complex issues appear, the less we investigate and seek to truly understand. To combat the oversimplification, we need to remain curious and be willing to engage in perspectives that seem in opposition. Remember, conflicts are never as simple as they may appear.

"Living without conflict is like living without love: cold and, eventually, unbearable. But if conflict shifts into high conflict, it can burn down the whole house. The distinction matters."

Amanda Ripley

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