This is a great book about how people get drawn into feuds and other types of conflicts and some of the ways people get out. It’s a really good example of a journalist combining stories with a partial review of the literature. It’s a balance that doesn’t always work but Ripley does an excellent job.
Ripley focuses on a few people and a group, mostly spread across the US but there is fortunately at least a little acknowledgement of the outside world. One issue I have with so many of these types of books is their myopic focus on the US. It’s less of an issue with this one, though it’s still an issue. Ripley does an excellent job of portraying all of these people are real people with real concerns and wants. She does a great job of providing context.
But what I find rather masterful is how Ripley weaves their stories throughout the narrative. Not every one of them, of course, as she mostly refers back to the mediator who couldn’t mediate for his town, but the technique renders everything she says more effective. The point that all of this is fundamentally the same is heavily reinforced by the technique.
I was forced to learn Conflict Resolution in junior high school and I really didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t understand the point at age 12 or 13. It’s one of those things I think need to be reinforced as you age, so if it had been taught in high school too, maybe I would have gotten something from it.
One of the things I got from this book is how I learned some of this stuff already, decades ago, and never used it. I forgot most of it, too. As with the people she portrays, and the lesson that you can fall back into conflict without practice…well, you can also forget to listen deeply, you can forget all the things you tell yourself about humanizing people you disagree with. One of the big lessons for me about this book isn’t just that people can get out of seemingly irresolvable conflict but that we all need to practice the types of high-conflict-reducing techniques and mindfulness otherwise they won’t work. And we all need these types of techniques, even if we’re not obviously trapped in “high conflict.” They just make us better people.
If I have a criticism (aside from the focus on the US), it’s that Ripley doesn’t deal with the actual conflict merchants and the like who feed off this stuff. There are some people who need this stuff in their lives, for whatever reason, and Ripley is pretty much silent on them. Talk to anyone in a mediation role who has to deal with the public on a daily basis and they will tell you that there are people who live permanently in certain states and no amount of mediation will get them out of it. (I’m thinking of the fire starters, here.) When Ripley deals with Beck, she only deals with his desire to stop being one of these conflict merchants, and not with how much he got out of it before he came to a point of thinking, briefly, that he shouldn’t be doing it. But I think you could argue that dealing with the people who love bad conflict and try to get the rest of us into it could be the subject of an entirely different book. So I think I don’t need to hold this criticism against the book.
I really did find it extremely valuable and well-told. I am going to buy a copy so I can refer to it in the future and I do think everyone should read it, especially anyone who hasn’t been exposed to conflict resolution or mediation already.