High Conflict: How to break the spell?
We're bewitched by high conflict. But there is a way out.
This is a true story about two grown women who stopped talking to each other. For 30 years. Over a piece of cheese.
A century ago, two sisters named Anna and Maria immigrated to America from Italy, raising their families side by side in central New Jersey, working hard to keep afloat during the Great Depression. Anna made pizzas. Maria ironed shirts and cleaned houses. They learned English and went to church, celebrating birthdays and mourning deaths and growing older together.
Then one day in the 1970s, Anna went back to Italy to visit. While she was there, someone gave her a hunk of good Italian provolone, the authentic kind that originated in Naples, to bring back for Maria.
Anna came home as planned. But the cheese never made it to Maria.
What happened to the cheese? Nobody knows, to this day. Probably, it got eaten. Whatever the case, this disappearing cheese sparked a feud, the kind that seems to have a life of its own. There was a huge blow-up argument. And then silence. The sisters didn’t speak again for decades.
Conflict can be a force for good, pushing us to challenge each other and defend ourselves and do better. But sometimes, it escalates into something else, something called high conflict.
High conflict is what happens when discord distills into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them. High conflict acts like a spell, bewitching us without our realizing what is happening. The brain behaves differently. People feel increasingly certain of their own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side. Both sides feel the same emotions, though they never discuss it with each other.
“Where one was not going to forgive, the other was not going to forget,” Maria’s granddaughter Samantha told me. Each woman complained about how stubborn the other one was. On and on and on. “They were saying the same things about each other,” Samantha says. At her First Holy Communion, the sisters kept a wide berth from each other. Same thing at Easter. The family adapted, maneuvering around the sinkhole in their midst, trying not to fall in.
Right now, the United States is stuck in high conflict of the political variety, as every news cycle keeps reminding us. Many of us are just trying to avoid the sinkhole, hoping it will fill in one day.
For others, when we encounter the other side, in person or on a cable news channel, we feel a tightening in our chest, a dread mixed with rage, as we listen to whatever insane, misguided, dangerous thing they say. The more we try to escape the conflict, the more tightly we get caught in its grip, like a Chinese finger trap.
For the past four years, I’ve been following people and communities that were stuck in some kind of high conflict — and made it out. I’ve been learning from their remarkable stories, collecting patterns and wisdom, both practical and profound. There’s a lot to say about this, and so many questions I want to ask you all. But one way I can be useful right now, I think, is to make you a promise:
There is a way to make high conflict healthy, even the most dispiriting conflicts, like hyper-polarization — or sibling feuds. There are specific strategies that work to revive curiosity, humility, and surprise, without surrendering your own beliefs.
I’ve seen it happen right in front of me, again and again. People who have made this shift have certain things in common: they all found ways to rehumanize and recategorize their opponents, and they revived curiosity and wonder, even as they continued to fight for what they knew was right.
About 30 years after the provolone went missing, Anna’s husband died. Maria called her sister Anna on the phone. They talked for a long time. Not so much about cheese, but about their lives, their grandchildren, their family back home in Italy.
This was not a surrender, to be clear. The sisters still argued. They still got on each other’s nerves. Maria never forgot the missing cheese. The two of them continued to complain about each other to their grandchildren, just as they always had. But the conflict had shifted from high to healthy, and it stayed that way, until they died.
My new book High Conflict comes out April 6. Whatever else happens in this unsettled year, I am confident that we can, together, get less stuck. We can discover, share and create different sources of news and inspiration, fresh rituals, unexpected delights, constructive discomforts, and new ways to make ourselves useful. I hope to see you on this journey.
In remembrance of cheese, lost and found,
Which conflicts keep you up at night?
Whether it’s political polarization or a family feud, I want to know which issues or relationships have you feeling trapped, searching for a way forward—and how this newsletter can help.
In times of false simplicity, great journalism should complicate the narrative. This January 2, 2021, Washington Post story by Perry Stein and Laura Meckler looks back at why DC public schools failed to reopen during the first ten months of the pandemic. It is a powerful piece that doesn’t shrink from hard truths. But never once does this story collapse into us-versus-them simplicity. It identifies a deeper understory of the conflict, one that predated the pandemic in DC and across the country: “A lack of trust on both sides fueled failure at every turn.”
The U.S. Military is the last trusted institution in America. The question is, Why? How did the military go from being distrusted, 40 years ago, to being revered today? Is there anything that the rest of society can learn from the military about how to rescue trust from extinction? My latest story is on the Mystery of Trust.
I write about change and people who have undergone transformations (and the researchers who study them) for The Atlantic, Politico, The Washington Post and other outlets. You can find me on Twitter or email me at email@example.com.