What Makes For Good Conflict?

Does it seem like there is some conflict or controversy at every turn these days? Whether it’s related to politics, vaccinations, family dynamics, or turf-wars at work, I feel like rarely a day goes by without some sort of conflict.

I was eager to read Amanda Ripley’s new book, High Conflict. Amanda is an investigative journalist who’s spent her career trying to make sense of complicated human mysteries using data and storytelling.

Amanda has identified HIGH CONFLICT as what we see much of these days. Something may start small then becomes all-consuming. The facts that initially led to a disagreement fade into the background, the US vs. THEM dynamic takes over, and the conflict overshadows everything else.

The good news is that in her work, she discovered that there are ways out of high conflict. Techniques we can apply to shift into “good conflict.” Good conflict often is heated and stressful, but it leads to a worthwhile discovery or more informed decision-making. It’s a way of fighting smart, with dignity and even humility.

If you’re wondering what might be the difference between High Conflict or Good Conflict situations, the author shares some distinguishing characteristics:

Good Conflict



Many different emotions




Spikes in stress hormones



All sides want to find solutions

Feel sad when bad things happen to the other side

Non-zero-sum thinking

Violence unlikely

High Conflict



Same emotions




Chronic stress hormones prevail



One or all sides want to fight.

Feel happy when bad things happen to the other side

Zero-sum thinking

Violence more likely

In the book’s appendix, Amanda offers some suggestions about how to avoid a conflict escalating to become High Confict. A way to create a culture that is conflict resilient.

  1. Investigate the understory – What is the real issue? What is the context that may be shaping people’s perspective on the issue? It may require a mediator to get involved so that everyone feels heard. Once people feel they’ve been heard, they are more willing to listen.
  2. Reduce the binary –¬†Identify what the parties have in common. What are their common values or shared identities? Don’t allow complexity to collapse into a competition. Move away from the Us vs. Them mentality.
  3. Explore the narrative – “Be suspicious of simple stories.” There is always context to discover and is driving the various perspectives of a situation. Get curious and ask questions of those who disagree with you and truly listen to their responses. It can immediately make conflict healthier. Being curious requires humility…accepting that you don’t have all the answers. Here are some of my favorite questions to demonstrate that curiosity:
    • What is oversimplified about this conflict?
    • What do you want to understand about the other side?
    • What do you want the other side to understand about you?
    • What would it feel like if you woke up and this problem was solved?
    • What’s the question no one is asking?
    • Where do you feel torn?

So if you find yourself in a situation that feels like High Conflict, try these three techniques and see if you can create some Good Conflict instead. Chances are, most everyone involved will thank you for it!

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or email her your Good Conflict story at mduesterhoft@people-results.com.