“There are two sides to every story” is the common, concise version of a more-lengthy quote from a 1700s sermon by the popular American Christian theologian Jonathan Edwards.
At a more contemporary and practical level, investigative journalist Amanda Ripley in “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out” addresses the two sides with real-life, in depth accounts from people whose lives were turned around once they escaped dual thinking that everything is either right or wrong, good or evil, us or them.
“High Conflict” is about “the mysterious force that incites people to lose their minds in ideological disputes, political feuds, or gang vendettas.” The term “high conflict” is described as “what happens when conflict clarifies into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them [and] the rules of engagement no longer apply.”
Lower-level conflict is helpful to keep everyone pensive and growing during the challenging mundane times of our lives. But, what about when things get so dicey that political careers are upended and even lives are lost. “High Conflict” goes deep to understand serious disagreements and to recommend solutions to help mitigate potential personal and national disasters?
“High Conflict” is divided into two parts that explore getting into conflict and then getting out. Three appendices provide succinct guidance to recognize high conflict in the world and in yourself and how to prevent it.
The author relies on extensive interviews to follow the engaging stories of several individuals who were embroiled in high conflict from environmental activism, local politics, and gang violence in the U.S. to guerrilla warfare in Columbia. Much of the conflict came from the perception and perspective of the individuals themselves linked with numerous outside forces deemed “fire starters,” accelerants that “lead conflict to explode in violence, including group identities, conflict entrepreneurs, humiliation, and corruption.”
The individuals get mired in tar pits (like the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles), getting drawn into a nasty situation where they find it exceptionally hard to extract themselves. But they can be extracted.
Numerous conditions assist with the arduous extrication including the support of caring relatives, friends, and professionals; time and distance away from the pit; and understanding complexity of relationships, especially that the us-versus-them mentality is a losing attitude.
The strategy stressed throughout “High Conflict” to rethink us/them relationships is the application of “looping.” Looping is a technique co-developed by conflict mediator Gary Friedman, one of the personalities exemplified throughout the book. Looping, which is essential to “engaged” or “active listening,” is an interactive communication technique whereby the listener repeats back to the speaker what they thought they heard to make sure they understand what the speaker really means.
This technique is critical to more-fully comprehending what a person is saying, whether you agree with them or not. By honestly hearing them out, you show that you care about what they have to say and even who they are as a unique individual.
Overall, your own individual integrity, authenticity, and humility go a long way to reducing tensions, building relationships, and ultimately solving community and even national problems. When integrity, authenticity, and humility are in place, avoiding tar pits through techniques such as looping and understanding the other’s story become almost natural. As in the 2000 movie “Boiler Room,” the reason the focal character, Seth Davis played by Giovanni Ribisi, was involved in illegal ventures was tied to his deep desire to please his father by showing himself to be a successful entrepreneur. Delving into the backstory helps find the path to deliverance.
After all, there really are at least two sides to every story. A full quote of Jonathan Edwards from one of his early sermons is: “There are always two sides to every story, and it is generally wise, and safe, and charitable, to take the best; and yet there is probably no one way in which persons are so liable to be wrong, as in presuming the worst is true, and in forming and expressing their judgment of others, and of their actions, without waiting till all the truth is known.”
Practical observation and advice, since no one is the epitome of good or evil. There is really no us versus them, and we are all redeemable.
• Anthony J. Sadar is an adjunct associate professor at Geneva College, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania and co-author of “Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry” (CRC Press, 2021).
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HIGH CONFLICT: WHY WE GET TRAPPED AND HOW WE GET OUT
By Amanda Ripley
Simon & Schuster, $28, 368 pages