Managing conflict to build common ground

We live in an era that’s not our best time and not even normal, according to Amanda Ripley in the July 22 AFT TEACH keynote “Confronting Conflict: Building Common Ground in Our Schools and Communities.” These times can feel very broken, Ripley said.

At TEACH, as in her latest book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, the investigative journalist and bestselling author examined the inner workings of ugly, unproductive “high conflict” often seen on social media, in politics and in everyday life. And whether or not you engage in what passes for political discourse, this state of high conflict is accelerated by social media.

Photo of Amanda Ripley speaking at AFT TEACH 2023
Bestselling author and investigative journalist Amanda Ripley studies “high conflict” and how to walk it back.

AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram introduced Ripley to a packed house. He noted that because he’s from Florida, he’s no stranger to conflict, but he added the hope that our members could take what they learned from the session for their personal transformation, “sort of like good trouble.”

Most toxic conflicts start out with something small, Ripley explained. These arguments can stem from a pig, in the case of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, to a watch, in the case of a Chicago gang fight.

Examples of high conflict abound where there’s a “false binary,” such as a rivalry like the two-party American political system, which founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both foresaw and resisted. This false binary is a dangerous reduction of reality into just two sides. In her book, Ripley points to a binary in the growing inequality between privileged and marginalized groups.

How to address high conflict? First, Ripley amplified something Ingram told her, that teachers do conflict resolution every day, “from the moment they wake up in the morning until the moment they go to sleep at night.”

Ripley said it’s important to understand the source of conflict: usually humiliation or disrespect, a violation of dignity or a feeling of not belonging—imagined or real. It only takes one or two rogue cousins to create mayhem and a family feud, she said.

The conflict becomes larger than itself, she continued. Opponents feel righteous and superior. They feel mystified and threatened. The original source of the conflict—whether watch or pig—fades into the background. Eventually, everyone suffers. And who suffers most? Kids, especially children of color from low-income families.

In every case of high conflict, Ripley has found, eventually we start to mimic the behavior of our opponents. High conflict makes issues seem simple, and it sometimes leads to violence.

AFT members at the General Session
“Teachers do conflict resolution from the moment they wake up in the morning,” said Ripley, echoing AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram.

Solutions to high conflict

It does not have to be this way, Ripley said. She then laid out crucial steps for moving toward “good conflict,” where both sides are heard and problems get solved.

Maybe avoiding the news helps you keep a happier outlook, Ripley has said in a video interview. But news avoidance is higher in the United States than anywhere else in the world, and it leads to polarization and high conflict—including the name-calling, humiliation and dehumanization of social media.

This is a trap, Ripley warns. By fleeing toxic media, we wind up turning over the narrative to extremists. The result is relentless negativity in the news. This chips away at people’s hope, Ripley warns, and they may give up on civic engagement and even democracy itself. Maybe we should do something differently, she suggests.

Ripley offers solutions to resist being pulled into the high-conflict vortex: Do not engage with what she calls “conflict entrepreneurs.” Disengage, or ask questions with true curiosity: Is this what the fight is really about? (Hint: It’s often about race or fear.) Find stories of people who have changed their minds. And break the binary.

AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick C. Ingram, Amanda Ripley at the June 22nd General Session of AFT TEACH 2023
From left, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram, keynote speaker Amanda Ripley and UFT chapter leader Johanna Josaphat.

An example Ripley offered is that when principals volunteer to substitute teach, the rest of the school staff feels more collegial, respected and honored—as though their leader is not just a boss but part of the team.

She also suggested solving problems together, which can start with finding trusted elders or community mediators.

Finally, there’s “looping.” In her book, Ripley describes looping as “varsity-level listening” during an argument. It requires showing with your words that you’re truly listening. Listen for what is most important to the people speaking. Distill what people say and play it back to them in the best possible way, and then review and revise it until perfect—until they feel like you “get” them.

During a panel discussion after her talk, Ripley was joined by Ingram and Johanna Josaphat, an AFT teacher leader and a United Federation of Teachers chapter leader. Josaphat said it’s important to build trust with students and families. She said to “flip the switch” on the way we think about conflict, from deficit thinking to opening up space for growth. And she recommended an open-door policy in which parents feel welcome at school; they could even come teach a class.

That way, families can see what educators do, Ripley added. In the end, what everyone wants most of all is to be heard.

[Annette Licitra]