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Trying to Make the Impossible Possible

Peter Coleman, author of The Five Percent, combines psychology with mathematics and other disciplines to help implacable foes resolve their differences. Hear Coleman interviewed by NPR's Ira Glass for "This American Life." Read a profile of Coleman in TC Today:

By Patricia Lamiell

Peter Coleman will tell you that nothing motivates him like a good quagmire.

Coleman, Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) at Teachers College, was once called with his team to a high school in the South Bronx to try to address rampant gang violence that had claimed the lives of three students. They learned in interviews with parents and other community members that the conflict was the result of many interrelated factors, including “miserable housing, drug money, poor health care, even lead paint,” Coleman recalls. Yet for all the crosscurrents and complicated history, each of the warring gangs had reduced the fight to something very simple: The other group was the problem. And the longer the conflict lasted, the more it intensified and spread, causing a feedback loop in which newer flare-ups fed the original one.

Coleman, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, is one of the world’s leading experts on addressing intractable conflict—entrenched hatreds between individuals, groups and nations that not only fail to resolve but worsen over time. As detailed in his recent book, The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts (2011, Perseus), he is a self-described “empiricist” and one of a small group of social and hard scientists who have adapted ideas from complexity science and applied mathematics as well as psychology, anthropology, political science and even physics to analyze the most daunting, irrational, visceral conflicts and suggest paths to healing.

“Sometimes, fostering empathy between people is not enough,” Coleman says. “With some conflicts, you have to look deeply into the problem, look below the radar at some of the less obvious events and dynamics, to begin to understand all the things that are driving the conflict, separately and in relation to one another. But then you also have to bring it back to the real world, in real time, so we rely on the people directly involved in these situations to test our findings. We try, as much as we can, to take very abstract ideas and run them by the people on the ground, to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Coleman’s book title refers to the 5 percent of intractable international conflicts first identified by the political scientists Paul F. Diehl and Gary Goertz, who examined 1,166 of the world’s major international rivalries from 1816 to 2001. Diehl and Goertz found that while 95 percent of these conflicts could be resolved through diplomacy, mediation or military victory, the remaining situations were so complex and entrenched that they required an entirely different approach.

“Darfur, Israel-Palestine, Congo, Afghanistan,” Coleman says at one point during the course of four short videos in which he talks about his new book (see them at “Years ago, these were all smaller, more manageable problems, but somehow they grew and spread and became what they are today: virtually impossible to solve.”


Understanding the Patterns

in the five percent, coleman identifies 57 possible causes of intractable conflicts, including power imbalances, deep identification with a conflict, religious and cultural differences and trauma. These variables can combine to form a complex system of constantly changing currents that are inseparable from one another.

“Most important to understanding these patterns,” Coleman writes in The Five Percent, “is a phenomenon called ‘attractors,’ organized patterns in the behavior of systems that emerge, endure, and of course attract. Picture how a whirlpool organizes in a river current, a tornado in a summer storm system or a violent maelstrom out at sea. All are strong, attracting structures formed by the dynamics of their surrounding conditions.” Attractor patterns of conflict rarely respond to third-party mediation and resist change in general. Some attractors may be invisible, but they represent “powerful forces that are really shaping what you see and what you think and feel and, ultimately, what you do,” Coleman says. “They suck people in and take over their lives. When complex conflicts escalate, it’s just like everyone falls off a cliff. They fall into this huge hole that took years to dig but only seconds to fall into.”

Coleman is no stranger to conflict in his own life. Raised in Chicago in the 1960s, he experienced school desegregation and witnessed the violent antiwar movement and the nonviolent civil rights movement firsthand. He moved to Iowa at age 10 after his parents divorced. After working with chronically violent youth in New York City in the 1980s, he returned to school to learn how to use the power of ideas and science to address difficult social problems.

He began exploring the literature and discovered the work of ICCCR founder Morton Deutsch, now TC Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education, one of the fathers of the field of conflict resolution and himself a protégé of Kurt Lewin, a pioneer of social psychology. Coleman ended up working on his doctoral thesis at TC with Deutsch, collaborating with him on many projects and publications—including The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, which has become one of the field’s leading texts—and ultimately building on Deutsch’s ideas.

In his personal life, Coleman once had a serious falling-out with a cousin that escalated into a protracted feud. “One time, he just crossed a line, and we had this huge argument and didn’t talk for years,” he says. “We just got stuck.” Finally, after many efforts by relatives, the two had a rapprochement. Yet Coleman still has a hard time talking about it. “I can get sucked right back in,” he says. Perhaps because of this experience, Coleman has staked out intractable conflict as one of his main areas of expertise. Having been trained and certified as a community mediator by the New York Criminal Courts, he was surprised to learn that for a small percentage of conflicts, traditional negotiation and mediation tactics simply do not seem to help.

In The Five Percent, Coleman traces his own work back through Deutsch to Lewin, who “developed the field-theoretical approach to the study of social conflict” by incorporating two ideas from Gestalt psychology. The first idea is that every social phenomenon, including conflict, occurs in a “broad field of forces operating to move it in a positive or negative direction.” The second is that humans have a psychological need to simplify the complex. Simply put, we are driven to seek coherence and resolution in any confusing situation. Lewin also borrowed from the field theory of physics, which saw social phenomena not as a collection of individual forces between one body and another, but instead as a “complex field of forces” that should be analyzed in totality. Solving a complex conflict, Lewin said, requires that we resist the human tendency to oversimplify and instead continue to see it as a broad, constantly changing field of social relationships and currents.

Deutsch, in turn, has defined conflicts as either constructive, with people ultimately cooperating to achieve a common goal, or destructive, with competition over a goal and unequivocal winners and losers. He has sought to understand the conditions that foster constructive outcomes rather than destructive ones and to apply those concepts to conflict mediation.

Coleman builds on these ideas by, first, identifying the situations—intractable conflicts—in which they do not apply. He uses complexity science, a relatively new branch of applied mathematics, to chart the many relationships and crosscurrents that often do not make sense or may even be hidden to the participants in an intractable conflict. As they exercise their cognitive tendency to simplify the complex, the combatants often oversimplify and dig in to a polarized, us-versus-them, I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong mentality. But intractable conflicts are neither polar nor linear. They are whole systems—loops of interactions, hubs of agreement and disagreement—that form a landscape of attractors. Coleman’s method “maps” the conflict, allowing the parties to see obvious and even hidden areas of agreement and impediments or aids to resolution. It also challenges the mediator to recognize that while emotions can and often should be put aside in more typical, lower-stakes disputes, they are central to intractable conflicts and must be addressed.


Beyond the Formulaic

when consulting with a group, coleman asks conflicting parties to set a goal of changing patterns of interaction, but not necessarily outcomes, as they air their differences. He asks them to let go of attractors, the hot buttons that pull them back into the conflict. “Traditionally we think of conflicts as having solutions, something like solving a math problem,” Sarah Lutman, President and Managing Director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, wrote in a blog after participating in a Coleman-led workshop. “Thinking of an intractable conflict as [a] system, whose stasis depends on persistent tending of a landscape of forces and factors, is proving a helpful new conceptual framework for me as I go about my work.”

Coleman’s research shows that complexity can foster tolerance as well as conflict, but only if people’s day-to-day interactions can predispose them against polarized positions. Speaking about his book to an audience at the Harvard Club of New York City, he cites the example of Hindus and Muslims in India, who live in crowded, mixed communities, working, shopping and attending school together. These daily interactions allow people in each group to see those in the other as not entirely bad. In other places, however, where different groups live in close proximity but are not typically integrated (such as Israel and Palestine), that opportunity, for the most part, doesn’t exist. The attractors have collapsed on one another and hardened into an intractable conflict that becomes progressively more difficult to resolve and gets handed down from generation to generation. There are Israelis and Palestinians born into the conflict who have never known another way to live. This makes it even more difficult to see past their problems.

During the past 13 years, Coleman has employed the ideas and methods of constructive conflict resolution to help various organizations at TC, elsewhere within Columbia University and outside the university resolve difficult conflicts. In 2001, in the wake of some racially charged incidents, he cochaired an internal TC committee studying issues related to race and cultural sensitivity—work that, among other things, led to the creation of what is now the Office of Community and Diversity. As a consultant, he has helped train young adults in Harlem to serve as conflict negotiators in high school classrooms, worked with a symphony orchestra in Detroit to resolve a violent labor dispute, and helped an interagency group of United Nations peacemakers understand the utility of employing complexity science to conflict and peace. Two years ago, Coleman received a joint appointment at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, run by Jeffrey Sachs, where he is currently leading a series of faculty seminars on complexity science, modeling and sustainability. He has traveled to Haiti with Sachs and written about political and economic conditions there.

Coleman continues to oversee ICCCR’s many activities but focuses his efforts on teaching, research and writing. He conducts some of his research through ICCCR’s International Project on Conflict and Complexity, an interdisciplinary consortium of peace and conflict scholars and practitioners working in the areas of violence prevention, conflict resolution and sustainable peace. The project is run by a multidisciplinary research team consisting of Coleman, two social psychologists (Andrzej Nowak and Robin Vallacher), a physicist and expert in system dynamics (Larry Liebovitch), a social anthropologist and practitioner who specializes in international conflict and genocide prevention (Andrea Bartoli), and several doctoral students.

Coleman writes and blogs in the popular media, applying the 5 percent theory to current news and trends to help persuade doubters that intractable conflicts, as hopeless as they may seem, can be solved. He believes the principles in his book can provide a road map to solving the world’s most intractable conflicts, but only if the gap between theorists and practitioners can be bridged. In a recent blog on the Psychology Today website, Coleman reported that a survey of conflict resolution practitioners revealed that their work “had been largely unaffected by the important contributions generated by” 18 university-based centers of conflict resolution, while “much of the research conducted at these centers was found to be ‘removed from practice realities and constraints.’ ” So Coleman presses on with his research but also makes sure it is available to conflict negotiators in the trenches. “I chose a career in conflict resolution because it felt real and it felt human,” he says. “And that’s what my book tries to do: take some of these ideas and translate them into ‘What can we do to make people’s lives better?’ ”


Hear Peter Coleman interviewed by NPR's Ira Glass for "This American Life."

Published Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011


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