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Peter Coleman addressing the CRI audience during Conflict Resolution MonthIn conjunction with Colorado's Conflict Resolution Month, the Conflict Resolution Institute's Center for Research and Practice hosted a presentation on October 27, 2011 by Professor Peter T. Coleman of Columbia University. A renowned expert on addressing seemingly intractable conflicts of all types, Dr. Coleman works strategically toward constructive conflict resolution and sustainable peace.

Coleman's presentation focused on research and findings presented in his recent book, The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts1. This book integrates lessons drawn from practical experience, advances in complexity theory, and the psychological and social currents that drive conflicts, both international and domestic. Coleman offers innovative new strategies for dealing with disputes of all types, ranging from abortion debates to the enmity between Israelis and Palestinians.

For the past several years, Coleman has been the lead investigator on "Modeling the Fundamental Dynamics of Intractable Conflict," a multidisciplinary project that applies the principles and methods of complexity science to understand what Coleman calls "the Five Percent problem." According to Coleman, "to contend with this destructive species of conflict [the Five Percent] we must understand the invisible dynamics at work." Coleman has extensively researched the essence of conflict in his "Intractable Conflict Lab," the first research facility devoted to the study of polarizing conversations and seemingly unresolvable disagreements.

Coleman's book available nowColeman's book employs a new theoretical model which connects prior research on coherence and complexity with basic differences in the underlying dynamics of intractable versus more manageable social conflict. The model brings concepts and insights from dynamical social psychology, in particular the idea of "conflict attractors," which are scenarios that pull the actors in the conflict further toward the "us and them," or good and bad perceptions of conflict which ultimately leads to intractability. Furthermore this model portrays intractable conflicts as those which have lost the complexity and openness inherent to more constructive social relations.

Although intractable conflicts are only about five percent of the world's conflicts, Coleman states that they undermine the security and well-being of societies everywhere. He asserts that as conflicts become more drawn out, and actors become more drawn in, formerly complex thinking processes devolve into less complex more "cohesive" thought processes. These "cohesive" thought processes then stifle actors' creativity in dealing with conflict and ultimately resulting in stronger in-group identities and an increased sense of exclusive and competing interests between disputants.

Coleman describes a situation in which a conflict reaches a point of extreme coherence where the actors have come to accept the unacceptable as merely status quo. At this point, even seemingly insignificant events can trigger the conflict system to enter a process of moving from one attractor landscape to another. This situation, according to Coleman occurs when a conflict system has become so coherent that it is operating on the "edge of chaos." It is at that point where he believes that certain "actionaries" could intervene to disrupt the coherent mind-set of the polarized actors and begin to shift the attractor landscapes in a more positive and constructive direction.

Through his research, Coleman then discusses how traditional negotiation techniques focused on the interests of disputants have limited application when dealing with Five Percent conflicts. Coleman proposes a new system of making incremental changes to the socio-political apparatus. By directing conflict away from the negative and dominant attractor landscape to a more constructive positive orientation, the practitioner can ultimately create a stronger and more sustainable outcome.

The Conflict Resolution Institute sponsored a series of events during Coleman's visit to DU. In addition to the well-attended presentation on Thursday, October 27th, CRI sponsored a dinner giving students an opportunity to meet Coleman and further engage him in a more intimate setting. Before his departure the next day, CRI hosted a faculty luncheon to discuss Coleman's article, "Rethinking Intractable Conflict: The Perspective of Dynamical Systems," published in The American Psychologist, 20102. Coleman's visit to DU proved to enrich student and faculty discussions with regard to intractable conflict and his multidisciplinary approach to conflict resolution.

ColemanColeman is Associate Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is the Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, (ICCCR), and the Advanced Consortium of Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute at Columbia. Coleman began his professional career in the 1980s as an actor in New York working in television, theater and film. When he left the spotlight to serve as a mental health counselor for violent inner-city youth, Coleman found his true calling as an expert in conflict resolution, even though he says that, at that point, "I had no training in the area. I was just working from my gut."

Coleman holds a PhD in Social and Organizational Psychology from Columbia University and a BA in communications from the University of Iowa. He sits on the boards of the APA Division 48 and of the International Association of Conflict Management. He is a research affiliate of the International Center for Complexity and Conflict (ICCC) at The Warsaw School for Social Psychology in Warsaw, Poland. Coleman's book, The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts1 is published by Public Affairs and was released in May, 2011. He is currently working on his next book, Smart Power: How Adaptive Leaders Navigate Conflict to Succeed3.

-- Devin Rau


1Coleman, P. T. (2011). The Five Percent: Finding solutions to seemingly impossible conflicts. New York, New York: Public Affairs.
2Vallacher, R. Coleman, P.T., Nowak, A., Bui-Wrzosinska, L. (2010). Rethinking intractable conflict: The perspective of dynamical systems. American Psychologist, V.65(4), May-Jun. pp. 262-278.
3Coleman, P. T. and Ferguson, R. (In Progress). Smart power: How adaptive leaders navigate conflict to succeed.