Here’s my dream.  To be able to have a healthy debate – whether it is around political or social issues or what to cook for the next holiday meal – where both sides feel heard and can walk away having learned something about themselves, the other person, or the issue at hand.  I can’t think of anything more valuable to our divisive discourse today.  And in this season of holiday gatherings where family members – of all stripes get together – this is essential.

In a recent Radio Atlantic podcast, #HannaRosin, interviewed High Conflict author Amanda Ripley.  They discussed the idea that we have lost the art of arguing well.  Ripley shares ( that in her years of interviewing people trapped in conflict she discovered she was asking the wrong question. It’s not about “How do we get out of conflict?” but instead “How do we get out of High Conflict?”  High Conflict is that paralyzing, all-consuming type of conflict where the original facts that propelled the debate to begin with, fade into the background and the conflict becomes its own reality.  What we want (and need) instead is Good Conflict.  While it may still  be emotional and heated, good conflict goes somewhere and people get heard. It’s a way of fighting smart with dignity and humility.

I have certainly experienced high conflict – and even in recalling those moments I can feel the red-hot burn of emotional turmoil in which the debate at hand lost its meaning and became about something unrecognizable.  Esther Perel ( who helps her clients create better, stronger relationships suggests the following:

When you are in conflict, step back and ask yourself what it’s really about. It tends to center on one of these three things:

  1. Care and concern
  2. Respect and recognition
  3. Power and control

If the argument is about whose turn it is to do the dishes, the heart of the issue is not about the dishes as much as it’s about sharing household duties equally – which is about respect.  The next step is to center your response on the right thing.  Rather than, “I can’t believe there are dirty dishes in the sink again!!” try, “When I find dirty dishes in the sink it makes me feel like you don’t respect me or our house rules.”  Next, all parties involved,  want to employ “looping” – Looping is a way of having a conversation in which you work to more fully understand what the other person is saying. Looping can slow the conversation down and usually calms high emotions in doing so. Looping also demonstrates your engagement in the conversation.

So, in this case, the person who has been negligent in dish duty could say, “Wow, I hear you felt disrespected when I didn’t do the dishes.  Did I get that right? I apologize about that and will do better.”

Winning the conflict is not the goal.  Ripley says that we should actually enter conflict with no intention of resolving it and instead focus on learning because through good conflict we actually get at the heart of the issue, we feel heard and understood, and our capacity to see the bigger picture expands.

That’s the dream.  We need it now, more than ever.