This story also appears in David Epstein’s newsletter, Range Report.
For 17 months, six “astronauts” from four countries were crammed together in a 775-square-foot concrete building, simulating a trip to Mars. They had no contact from friends or family.
Four crew members developed sleep trouble; one became depressed. Interpersonal conflict was a constant. Fifty times during the simulation, conflicts were significant enough that a crew member filed a report about it.
Even among astronauts who are highly prescreened for their ability to handle stress, conflict is both frequent and inevitable. “It happens on every single space mission,” Amanda Ripley told me. “Every single one.”
Ripley is the author of the new book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. Her reporting spanned astronauts and gang members to married couples and politicians, so I invited her to join me for a recent episode of “How To!”, to talk about strategies for turning “high conflict”—the kind that devolves into “me versus you” or “us versus them”—into productive conflict.
In terms of space missions, Ripley told me, the most predictable conflict is between the crew and mission control. “There’s a lot that is lost in that back and forth,” she said. Given that NASA hopes to put astronauts on Mars in a decade, the space agency has taken a special interest in effective communication and conflict resolution. What NASA has learned, Ripley said, is that “communication needs to be slowed down, and much more iterative than we expect.”
Ripley is, in my opinion, one of the best nonfiction writers in the biz, so High Conflict is a page-turner just for the stories. But she also came away with a toolbox for that kind of slower, iterative communication that forms the foundation of productive conflict. On the latest “How To!”, Ripley counseled a listener who is stuck in an intractable conflict with her partner, and below are (in small nutshells) three tips she shared that really apply to any kind of conflict:
Figure out what you’re actually upset about: “In most conflicts,” Ripley said, “there’s the thing we’re arguing about and the thing it’s really about. Every conflict has an understory, so to speak.” Ripley wrote about one couple who was getting divorced and went to war over who would get custody of…the Legos. Seriously. The couple didn’t realize it at the time, but the reason they were so heated over the Legos was that, in their minds, toys represented their child’s affection. Often, by the time people understand what they’re really upset about, it’s too late. Don’t wait until it’s too late to start taking a step back from the heat of arguments and searching for the understory—what you or the other person are really upset about.
Practice “looping for understanding”: When you’re in a contentious conversation, force yourself to repeat back what someone just said to you, in your own words, and then ask, “What am I missing?” That might seem tedious, a little cheesy, or just very difficult in the heat of an argument, but force yourself to try it. That simple act of making someone feel heard, and of making it clear that you’re truly trying to understand what they mean, can stop the barreling conflict snowball in its path. It can be the start of productive friction.
(This is a tactic that NASA mission control uses with astronauts, as part of frequent communication “check-ins,” but it hit closer to Earth for me. I have a two-year-old, and it immediately reminded me of pediatrician Harvey Karp’s book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block. In it, Karp describes his “fast-food rule.” At a fast-food order window, if you ask for a burger and fries, the first thing the order-taker will probably say is, “So that’s one burger and an order of fries. Anything else?” They are, essentially, looping for understanding—“This is what I heard, is that right? Is there anything else?” Karp suggests the fast-food rule for dealing with toddlers; I’ve found it very helpful, especially now that my son is trolling me.)
The seven-minute writing exercise: In a fascinating experiment, couples were made to spend seven minutes writing about their most recent dispute, from the perspective of an imaginary third party who wants the best outcome for everyone involved. “Imagine a mediator,” Ripley said, “or someone in the room who’s watching, and imagine how that person might think about this fight. How might he or she find the good that could come from it? And then you write that down for seven minutes from that perspective. The next time you have that fight, which you will, or some version of it, think about that third party perspective.” The couples repeated that exercise every four months for a year, and not only did they report feeling less upset about their argument than couples who didn’t do “this marriage hack,” as Ripley put it, they actually did not experience the slow loss of satisfaction that typically occurs for couples over time. So, how about you commit 21 minutes over the next year to give this a try?
Ripley shared more useful tips, and background on the science behind them, in her book, and in the “How To!” episode, so check those out for more…especially if you find yourself fighting for custody of the Legos.
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To hear Amanda Ripley help an American woman figure out ways to fight less with her partner, a Syrian refugee, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts.