The Surprising Truth about Conflict: What We Learned in a Conversation with Bestselling Author and Award-winning Journalist, Amanda Ripley.

Photo of High Conflict book cover

For World Savvy’s inaugural Changemakers Series event on July 28, 2021, CEO Dana Mortenson sat down with award-winning journalist and author Amanda Ripley to discuss her latest book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. It was a dynamic and thought-provoking discussion exploring the causes and impacts of high conflict on interpersonal, community, and national levels, and what we all – young and old – can do as responsible community members and citizens to shift from high conflict to healthy conflict.

Over the course of an hour that flew by, Amanda walked us through her journey of understanding high conflict. She met with conflict experts such as mediators, gang violence interrupters, religious leaders, ex-guerilla fighters, and more, and analyzed toxic and violent conflicts in Chicago neighborhoods, the Colombian jungle, and even within US politics. What she found was that most high conflict shared two key characteristics: 

High Conflict (A conflict that becomes self-perpetuating and all-consuming, in which almost everyone ends up worse off. + Typically anus-versus-them conflict.)

Through the stories of individuals shared in the pages of High Conflict – Gary, a conflict expert who finds himself embroiled in a local political feud, Curtis, a former gang leader turned violence interrupter who now works alongside the man who killed his childhood idol, and Sandra, one of many ex-guerilla fighters in Colombia – Amanda painted a picture not just of what high conflict looks like, but also how we might extract ourselves and instead pivot to good conflict. 

Good Conflict (Surprise, Fluidity, Many different emotions, Complexity, Humility, Passion, Spikes in stress hormones, Violence unlikely) vs High Conflict (Predictability, Rigidity, Same emotions, Simplicity, Certainty, Righteousness, Chronic stress, Violence more likely)

These characteristics of good conflict reminded us of something else: World Savvy’s Global Competence Matrix, which outlines the relevant behaviors, attitudes, and skills World Savvy works to instill: valuing multiple perspectives, comfort with complexity and ambiguity, empathy, questioning prevailing assumptions, engaging in inclusive dialogue and collaborative problem solving. It is our hope that, by approaching conflict with these skills and dispositions, today’s youth will be equipped to engage in healthy conflict that moves us all forward and addresses some of our world’s biggest challenges.

“The big lesson for me is: the problem is not conflict. We need conflict. That is how we get stronger, that is how we get pushed, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our countries, in our schools. We need to stand up for ourselves, we need to challenge each other - and be challenged! So there is something that I like to call good conflict - the way John Lewis said “good trouble” - there is good conflict which is necessary and healthy. And you can actually see the difference in the data. Questions get asked, curiosity still exists, and you still experience anger, stress, frustration, all of those things, but you also experience other emotions, like flashes of understanding, surprise, humor even, curiosity...The kind of conflict you’re in really matters.” - Amanda Ripley

Imagine for a moment a world where healthy discourse and good conflict takes place. Where statehouses, neighborhoods, and dinner tables are filled with rich dialogue where multiple perspectives are valued and welcomed. This important work begins when schools are equipped with the tools to transform their learning environments, and where students develop essential skills like critical thinking, problem solving and communication. These skills are foundational to fostering good conflict over high conflict. 

World Savvy envisions a future where all people, young and old, are empathetic, civic-minded, engaged global citizens. Where they can collaborate across cultures, communicate across difference, and solve complex problems. And we believe this vision starts with education – with preparing a generation of empathetic and engaged young leaders ready to address complex, real-world challenges.

This year, in an engaging series of online conversations, we’re highlighting changemakers and thought leaders across sectors who share this vision. Just like Amanda Ripley did, they will inspire us all to know more, care more, and do more for a more sustainable, equitable, and peaceful world. In this six-part series, we’ll learn from journalists, activists, civic and nonprofit leaders, young changemakers, and more.

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