Don’t let conflict devour our civic soul, says Joe Mathews

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Americans are divided over numerous issues lately. A new book looks at the costs of perpetual conflict and how we can free ourselves from its grip. Photo by Shutterstock.

Just getting through the day can now sometimes feel like an exercise in diplomacy, especially with disputes over COVID vaccines, mask mandates, and critical race theory in schools.  

But a new book offers advice on how to navigate conflict in our everyday lives — based on lessons from a lawyer. Commentator Joe Mathews shares the wisdom in this edition of Zócalo’s “Connecting California.”

Opinion column by Joe Mathews:

No vaccine can protect communities from high conflict. Even people who are skillful at de-escalation can get stuck in all-consuming battles. 

That’s the lesson of Marin County lawyer Gary Friedman, as recounted in journalist Amanda Ripley’s 2021 book “High Conflict: How We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.” 

Ripley’s book recounts conflicts from Chicago to Colombia. But it’s what Californians should read to navigate more peacefully through this polarizing time.  

Friedman, the godfather of conflict mediation, has an uncanny ability to help people listen and tap into their best selves at difficult moments. He started by representing both sides in divorces — putting spouses in the same room — in the late 1970s. Since then, he’s mediated thousands of disputes, published books, and taught lawyers and law students how to navigate conflict.

“When conflict takes over, it creates its own reality,” Friedman and Jack Himmelstein cautioned in 2008’s “Challenging Conflict: Mediation Through Understanding.”

Then, in 2015, Friedman ran for local office in Muir Beach, an unincorporated community of under 400 people in Marin County. Friedman thought that, as a board member of the Community Services District for roads and water, he could reduce the conflict in local politics.

Instead, he forgot his own lessons about avoiding the traps of conflict.

He and his allies called themselves the “New Guard,” turning “Old Guard” board members and staff into adversaries. Elected the board’s president, Friedman got rid of the snacks and social time that built connection and understanding. And he made rapid changes to the board’s practices — time limits on speakers, new rules on civility, establishing many volunteer sub-committees — that produced a backlash. 

Then he made a big policy mistake by proposing the doubling of water rates to pay for costs. As the “Old Guard” criticized his policies, he started to feel under attack, which made him more defensive and aggressive. 

Relations with neighbors soured. His view of the local conflict grew grandiose — in conversation, he associated the “Old Guard” with Donald Trump. 

“I couldn’t get it out of my head,” he later told Ripley. “It felt like we were at war.”

“Hearing Gary talk this way,” Ripley writes, “was alternately reassuring and alarming. On the one hand, if even the godfather of conflict mediation can’t help getting pulled into conflict traps, then we can all be forgiven for some of our pettiest moments. On the other hand, it felt ominous. If Gary could not resist the grasp, what hope is there for the rest of us?” 

When Friedman’s board ally lost re-election in 2017, the “Old Guard” took back control. Friedman contemplated resigning but decided to stay on and to better understand the conflict.  

He voted himself out of the board presidency, voted to eliminate his own sub-committees and often supported his opponents. He distanced himself from “fire starters” — people who had encouraged him to fight politically. He talked more about his gardening to make more positive connections. Eventually, he recovered from what he called his “personal derangement.” 

As Friedman and Ripley both explain in the book, some conflict is good and healthy when questions and curiosity move the people involved to understanding and better outcomes. 

But too much conflict is high conflict — where the conflict is so stagnant that the conflict itself becomes the destination. There is no winning such quagmires.  

“High conflict makes us miserable,” Ripley writes. “It is costly, in every sense. Money, blood, friendships.”

When I left a message for Friedman recently, he called right back. 

“I think I really learned humility in a much deeper way,” he says. “Maybe it’s really surprising, but people like me a lot more now when they see I’ve failed.”

Friedman is 77, and I asked him if he had retired from the conflict-mad local politics. 

He said no.

“Affordable housing is a big challenge,” he says. “The community is generally not inclined toward it. I’m trying to figure out… how we can have the conversation in this community and turn it into a reality.”

I couldn’t help chuckling. Housing might be the only California issue that can rival water’s power to inspire high conflict. At least Friedman is the expert in escaping it. 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman