Peter Coleman, PhD, got his first taste of conflict resolution in the 1980s, as a mental health counselor in a psychiatric
hospital. Back then, riots in mental hospitals weren’t
Five percent of conflicts don’t respond to mediation or other
traditional conflict resolution strategies, according to research
by Dr. Peter Coleman.
uncommon. “At this time there were a lot of violent offenders
going into drug rehab or psychiatric hospitals,” he says.
Coleman turned out to be a natural peacemaker. When crises
emerged, he could often defuse the situation by talking to the
patients. “I just had an intuitive sense of how to do it,” he says.
But the one-on-one work he and his colleagues were doing
didn’t seem to be enough. Coleman wanted to address the
violence and drug addiction from a more societal level, “so that
these kids don’t get caught in these never-ending traps,” he says.
That desire led him to enroll in the doctoral program in social
and organizational psychology at Columbia University.
“We argue that they happen not just in the international
domain, but they happen in families, they happen in
communities, they happen all over the place,” Coleman says.
Last year, he published “The Five Percent,” a book that offers
examples of intractable conflicts and the factors that helped
facilitate their resolution. A key requirement seems to be some
sort of major shock. For example, Coleman talks about a
conflict between the anti-abortion and pro-choice communities
in Boston. “They had gotten stuck in this very hostile vitriolic
dynamic for years,” he says. Then, in 1994, an anti-abortion
advocate, John Salvi III, went to two women’s health clinics
in Brookline, Mass., and shot and killed two women. “That
shooting kind of ruptured this dynamic,” Coleman says.
Three women leaders from the anti-abortion movement and
three from the pro-choice movement began to meet in secret.
Eventually, they came out publicly to argue that the vitriol had
contributed to the violence, and the rhetoric changed.
Intractable conflicts don’t seem to respond to traditional
conflict resolution strategies, such as mediation. These tactics
“not only seem not to have an impact, but they seem to make
them worse,” says Coleman. To understand how these conflicts
can be resolved, Coleman and his colleagues employ tools from
another field — complexity science. The researchers study
conflict in the lab and the field, and they develop models that
incorporate some of the most important parameters. Using
complexity science to understand intractable conflicts enables
Coleman and his colleagues to view them in a different way and
find new strategies for interrupting the patterns of violence. n
Heather Van Uxem Lewis for Teachers College, Columbia University
Today, Coleman, a psychology professor at Columbia
University, works with a multidisciplinary team to study the
most difficult and intractable conflicts, such as the long-standing territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over
the Kashmir region. These types of clashes represent about 5
percent of all conflicts, he says.
Cassandra Willyard is a writer in New York.
MONITOR ON PSYCHOLOGY • JULY/AUGUST 2012