Amanda Ripley is a New York Times bestselling author, an investigative journalist and host of the Slate podcast How To!  Amanda’s writing combines storytelling with data to help illuminate hard problems and help find solutions. She writes about human behavior, how people get out of dysfunctional conflict, and how to educate children to think for themselves. She is the author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, The Smartest Kids in the World–and How They Got That Way, and The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes, and Why.

In the Education Week article entitled, Masks. Vaccines. Anti-Racism. Expert Advice for Schools Caught Up in Conflict, Amanda gave evidence-based suggestions for educators and administrators navigating high conflict in this uncertain back-to-school season. In Harvard Business Review, Amanda shares How to Work With Someone Who Creates Unnecessary Conflict. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, SlatePolitico, the Guardian, and the Times of London. Her stories helped Time win two national magazine awards.

Amanda has appeared on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX News and NPR. She has spoken at the Pentagon, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as at conferences on leadership, conflict resolution, and education.

Let’s hear from Amanda about her thoughts on the future of conflict in independent schools.

As an introduction, why is this work important to you?

As a journalist, I covered a lot of conflict over the years. Everything from terrorism to politics to education (the most controversial by far, as you all know). And most of those conflicts seemed important, fluid, interesting—and even useful.

But about five years ago, it started to feel like we were stuck—as a country—in dysfunctional conflicts that just weren’t going anywhere. And journalism was often just making these conflicts worse. Or having no impact at all.

So I went on a quest to try to understand how people get out of really ugly conflicts. It seemed like that was one way I could be useful—to find the stories of people who had found a way out of the soup. Anyway, I ended up following people who were trapped in all kinds of toxic disputes: a politician in California, a former gang leader in Chicago, an activist in England, and regular, frustrated voters in New York and Michigan.

Eventually, I realized I was asking the wrong question. It’s not about getting out of conflict. It’s about getting out of high conflict.

High conflict is different from the useful friction of healthy conflict. 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’s what causes us to lie awake at night, obsessed by a conflict with a sibling, a co-worker, or a politician we’ve never met.

In this state, the brain behaves differently. We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more disgusted by the other side. When we encounter them, in person or on a cable news channel, we might feel a tightening in our chest, a dread mixed with rage, as we listen to whatever insane, misguided, dangerous thing the other side says.

High conflict is the problem, not conflict. Which then led to the next obsession: how do you get out of high conflict? Well, long story short, that’s what everyone I followed eventually did. They didn’t give up or change their minds; they kept fighting for what was right. But they did it much more effectively once they got out of the trap of high conflict.

What do you see as the major conflict in K-12 schools right now?

On the surface? Well, in a lot of places, it’s the obvious flash points of the day: masks, vaccines, critical race theory, alongside the old standby classics (charter schools, testing, budgets, union contracts, yada, yada).

But the interesting thing about high conflict is that it is never just about what it seems to be about. There’s always a deeper conflict, underneath the surface. Usually, this understory is about fear, alienation, and a need to belong. To me, that’s where the really interesting conflict lies, if you can get there. 

In your book you talk about how high conflict contains an us-versus-them dynamic. How can school leaders be aware when this force is taking over?

Anytime you divide the world into groups—especially just two—you are bound to get into trouble in conflict. Humans are wired to discriminate against “them,” whoever they are. So you want to notice whenever these false binaries crop up—and try to keep blurring the lines, based on reality (which is usually messy).

The other day I interviewed a superintendent from California who is dealing with this. He noticed the way people would collapse into false simplicity in every debate over school reopening plans. Some of the teachers just assumed that parents who wanted schools to reopen didn’t care about teachers at all; and some parents just assumed that teachers who resisted reopening didn’t care about kids at all.

What he did was to keep explicitly reminding everyone that these things are not mutually exclusive. Very few people fit neatly into the boxes we build for our opponents. You can care about teachers and want schools to reopen, and you can care about kids and oppose reopening. So he kept reminding everyone about that reality—and surfacing complexity whenever he could.

How can school leaders bring their communities together to grapple with hard problems?

The most important thing to understand is that the normal rules of engagement won’t work in this kind of conflict. In fact, just about any intuitive thing you do to end a high conflict will probably backfire.

The wiser move, then, is to do several counterintuitive things—and do them strategically. First, learn to identify the temptations of high conflict (especially the urge to embarrass or exclude your adversaries—since it will only make them stronger). Second, investigate the understory of the conflict—by asking teachers, parents, and students different questions and listening in ways they can see. And third, build rapport right away—and relationships over time. In case it’s helpful, I describe these three steps in more detail in this Education Week piece.

The ultimate solution is not to get rid of conflict. America needs more healthy conflict–or what I like to call “good conflict” (in homage to the late Congressman John Lewis, who talked about “good trouble”). Good conflict can be heated and stressful, but it goes somewhere. Questions get asked. We experience surges of anger and frustration—alongside flashes of humor and curiosity. That is the kind of conflict that pushes us to be better people—and stronger school communities.

So we need to create a culture of good conflict. I’ve seen organizations do this (like this synagogue in New York), so I know it can be done, but it requires rituals and guard rails—the kind that are missing right now.

What skills and traits do you see as necessary for school leaders today? 

School leaders need advanced listening skills—the kind almost no one has naturally. I didn’t have these skills until I got some training. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I’d been interviewing people for 20 years before I really learned how to listen. I’ve now trained hundreds of other people to listen deeply, and I can say that it is a game changer.

Something like 50% of what people need in conflict is to feel heard—and they almost never get it. So, if you can learn to really listen deeply to people–in ways they can see–you will find that they lower their guard. They say more revealing things. They can even open up to hearing (really hearing) information they did not want to hear beforehand. And you learn things you did not know about the other person, the problem or yourself. It is the most powerful, underappreciated leadership skill out there. 

Lastly, what’s the question nobody’s asking right now?

The question nobody is asking is, What mistakes am I making about this conflict–right now? I ask myself that all the time now. I still have strong opinions, but I’ve gotten a lot less confident in my own perception of the other side.

This comes from witnessing the tunnel vision that humans get in conflict. I’ve seen really smart people make a lot of mistakes, missing huge opportunities, so I know I am making mistakes, too. The question is, what are they? That kind of haunts me a little bit. What am I missing here? It also makes me curious, which is a good thing.

At SAIS, we are grateful to learn from Amanda’s work. Join us at the 2021 SAIS Annual Conference to continue learning from our opening keynote speaker, Amanda Ripley, and to continue asking ourselves “What mistakes am I making about this conflict – right now?”