Peter Coleman on The Way Out of Polarization and Intractability



Newsletter #210 — February 18, 2024


On February 2, 2024 I (Heidi Burgess) talked with Peter Coleman, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University where he holds a joint-appointment at Teachers College and The Earth Institute. Peter directs the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR), is founding director of the Institute for Psychological Science and Practice (IPSP), and is co-executive director of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4).  He also is the author of two excellent general audience books on intractable conflicts, the first being The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts,  the second being  The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization. (He also wrote Attracted to Conflict, which is a more academic book that was co-authored by Peter's team of collaborators as well as Peter) and Peter was one of the people who helped us start Beyond Intractability, way back in the early 2000s.



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Highlights of my Talk with Peter Coleman

by Heidi Burgess

February 10, 2024

Peter started his talk explaining how he got into this field, which was surprisingly similar to our story about how we got interested in intractable conflict.  We both noticed that intractable conflict was a largely unstudied part of the field.  Most of the research in the field of dispute resolution and conflict resolution in the early 2000s was focused on ways of negotiating more effectively, and developing better approaches to mediation, arbitration, consensus building and other tools for resolving what we have come to call "tractable" disputes, as opposed to intractable conflicts.  Peter was one of the people who came to our very first conference where we were contemplating writing a book on better ways of dealing with intractable conflicts, which ended up being the Beyond Intractability website. Peter was as interested in finding ways out of intractability as we were, but instead of collecting research and writing that had already been done (which was our approach with BI), Peter started doing his own research.

He began by studying ripeness and the role of humiliation as a toxic emotion.  But he was particularly taken by an article written by Dean Pruitt and Paul Olczak, "Beyond Hope: Approaches to Resolving Intractable Conflict" which appeared in the book Conflict Cooperation and Justice: Essays Inspired by the Work of Morton Deutsch. Pruitt and Olczak used a systems approach drawn from clinical psychology, and they applied that approach to both marital and international conflict.

So I got interested in systems thinking and trying to understand intractability systemically.  I found our field a bit wanting in that because there were some systemic thinkers like Louise Diamond, John Paul Lederach, and Maire Dugan, who were thinking more holistically about conflict and long-term protracted conflicts.


But they were mostly using systems as a metaphor, as a lens through which to think. And I was trained by Morton Deutsch, who was an empirical scientist, you know, theorist, but an empirical scientist. And I really needed or wanted to be able to do research with data to see if it could help us understand the usefulness or lack of usefulness of these kinds of systemic metaphors.

So Peter teamed up with two social psychologists, Robin Vallinker and Andre Novak, who were applying ideas, methods, and models from physics and complexity science to psychology, and he recruited them to help study intractable conflicts.

The primary metaphor which they adapted from physics is the idea of "attractors" and "attractor dynamics." Attractors are simply patterns that you can see and that we fall into as human beings.

I always talk about people's siblings or their nuclear family, their family of origin, because you may grow up and move away and have your own life. But when you go home, you pretty much fall back into the attractor of your childhood.  And the politics of your siblings is still the same and you have the same old arguments. Why is that? I'm so different than I was 50 years ago, but somehow, the pecking order is the same. ...

That, Peter, explains, is an attractor.  We fall into the same traps, get pulled into the same arguments, the same distrust, the same assumptions about the other that we've always had. We're "attracted" to those familiar patterns. He further explained that

addiction is an attractor. You don't want to pick it up, but you just keep doing it, despite the fact that it's ruining your life. And in American society, political tribalism and political polarization and political contempt for the other side is a very robust attractor.  ... And you see the same kinds of dynamics in the federal government, in Congress, in the Senate, in their lack of bipartisanship and their obstructionism. So this is something like 50-year pattern that we're trapped in. And the evidence of that is pretty clear at the local level and at the state level and at the federal level. And again, there's no one thing that causes it. It's a constellation of things and how they come together.

So the key to finding a way out of political polarization and political contempt for the other side is to learn how to break down and escape attractors, both at the interpersonal level and the societal level.

To study attractor dynamics, Peter and his colleagues collected data from what they called a "Difficult Conversations Lab" which was modeled after John and Julie Gottman's "Love Lab." Both labs tracked conflict dynamics over time—the Gottmans studying the dynamics of marital conflict, and Peter, Robin and Andre studying student and other participants' conversations as they discussed various public intractable conflicts.

So, for instance, they would have people with opposing viewpoints come into the lab and try to develop a consensus statement on abortion. 

The first study, we just brought them in and had a facilitator there to shut it down if it got bad. And we said, "Can you try to generate a consensus statement of your thinking on this issue?" And then we just let it run.


And we were interested in comparing the conversations that went really poorly, that got stuck -- when people got frustrated and either needed to stop or they stopped themselves, with the conversations that actually ended up being what we would call constructive, the ones that the people felt were worthwhile, and they'd do it again. They would continue conversing with this person. They felt like they were able to generate statements that were sort of nuanced.


So then we compared those two. And the primary difference that we identified in the data was a collapse of complexity. Those conversations that went poorly, where people weren't willing to continue were very simple in terms of their emotional dynamics over time, in terms of how people thought about the issues in themselves, and in terms of their behaviors, how they treated one another.


And so we saw these patterns of simplification versus staying more nuanced, [more complex]. It's not that the good conversations didn't feel negative things, or that the participants didn't get frustrated or annoyed, but they moved in and out of positivity and negativity more dynamically over the time of the conversation, which allowed them to ultimately feel like it was mixed positive and worthwhile.


So complexifying the story is one important key to finding your "way out" of attractors.  Disputants have to somehow realize that there is much more going on than a simple us-versus-them, good-guys/bad-guys dynamic. We can do this by making an effort to read and watch and listen to people from outside of  comfortable circles. Whenever an important news story breaks, Peter says that he "finds four or five people on the other side of the political aisle who are smart, well-intentioned, but politically different from me. And I seek them out for information as well.... It is important for all of us, to complicate our understandings, our feelings, and complicate what we do."

A second key to finding a way out is to "reset" our relationships. "We're on such an automatic pilot that we need to really think about 'how do we start this over?'" He told a long story about reaching out to a neighbor who is on the other side of the political divide.  They'd broken off their relationship awhile ago, because their conversations had become toxic.  But Peter realized that if he was going to do what he was telling others to do in the book, he (Peter) should try to reach out to the neighbor and have a new conversation with him. 

He did that by asking his neighbor to go for a walk with him, because one of the other recommendations in The Way Out is to move:

So I asked him to go for a walk, which was intentional because one of the principles is the power of physical movement, either alone to kind of trigger our neuroplasticity and our flexibility and think in different ways, feel different feelings, and also movement together, moving with others side by side, ideally outside. And the value of that, that we're learning from neuroscience, is people feel a stronger sense of compassion and connection or openness to each other  when they move together physically, ideally outside, side-by-side.

The conversation went well, Peter reports. They both came to learn each other's stories, and came to a much fuller understanding of why they thought as they did, and they found they actually did have some commonalities, including a concern about the way toxic polarization was damaging their relationships and the country.  At the end of the conversation, Peter gave his neighbor a copy of his book.

You don't have to read it. You don't have to endorse it. But I wanted you to know why I'm doing this. I'm trying to open a conversation and keep the conversation going.  And, as we got into the elevator together, he looked at the back of the book, and he said, "Yeah. Political polarization. I don't know what to do about that." He said, "you know I feel all day long, I'm just triggered and outraged and angry, and I'm lost in the forest, and I have no idea how to get out of this." And I [Peter] said, "Well, I think all we can do is what we just did, which is try to keep the conversation going."   And they have.

As I told Peter in our conversation, I love this story. (And it is more detailed in the full interview.) But I asked him "how do we get enough people in this country doing that kind of thing to move the needle for the country?  That made a significant change for you and your neighbor. But that's one drop of water in a vast ocean." Peter responded

I agree with you. And not many people are going to read the book. I've come to that realization. So one of the things I'm doing is a lot of media — to try to tell stories like this so that it can get out there in different ways.


There are a couple of other things that I've been doing, one of which is consulting to about 30 different organizations that work in different spaces. Some of them work in politics, some of them work in the media, like One Small Step, which is StoryCorps people who are using media [to get the depolarization message across]. But there are other groups too. Because this is a wicked problem or a cloud problem, it's a complex set of things that are feeding each other, there's no one way to do it. It's not going to happen just one individual at a time. But these principles, I believe, are useful for different groups.

He also talked about how this ideas were used by the House Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress—which Grande Lum and Bill Froehlich also both mentioned in my recent interviews with them. And he talked about how it is being used by the Solutions Journalism Group to try to encourage journalists to change how they report the news to make it more transformative, rather than reinforcing our polarized bubbles.  The same thing has to happen, he said, with social media platforms. "These principles have implications at any level."

He is also working with a group called "Starts With Us." That effort started after Peter's daughter read The Way Out and observed, ""you know, people aren't going to do this. People aren't going to read this. It's too hard." That's when Peter and a group of colleagues worked to generate a set of ideas of things people actually could do, if they were to "live this every day." (One of those ideas was to go for a walk with someone who thinks differently from you—which spurred Peter to call up his estranged neighbor and ask to go for a walk.)

  • The first week [you work] with yourself and think about your tendencies and inclinations and habits and how you might start to reset and complicate and move.
  • The second week [you work with] your in-group, the people that you're comfortable talking politics with that you're probably not very honest with anymore because we're not comfortable enough to say "Yeah, I don't agree with that," right? And so how do you begin to use these principles with your own group to start to open that up and break that up?
  • Third week is how do you reach out?  How do you prepare to reach out with others across the divide? That's when I took that walk. 
  • And then the fourth week is trying to move into the structures and trying to identify structures [or organizations you could work with] that are trying to bring red and blue or black and white or people of difference together and do so intentionally in ways that, ideally, are about action. ... It's not just talking to somebody. It's not just listening to somebody. It's working together with somebody else to do something that you believe in. And that's so critical. ...

So our hope with the challenge is that it will introduce enough people to their own tendencies, their own group, how to reach out to the other, and how to find some of these places where you can do something that is meaningful to you with people that are different from you, because that's something that we're missing sorely in this country as we physically move away from each other.

In a further effort to reach more people, and to simplify his "ask," Peter has begun focusing on (and encouraging Starts with Us to focus on) the way toxic polarization is forcing friends and relatives apart.

What really matters to so many people right now is that they're losing relationships. Brothers, friends, coworkers that they used to hang with and enjoy, they just don't talk to anymore." And that's a pain point for the country. And if so, [we are suggesting to people to]  try this five-day thing or seven-day thing, this simple thing, simple exercises, and  invite them to do it. Start by giving them [the estranged person] a call and saying, "Any chance next week, you and I can take a walk." And then do these things to kind of prepare yourself for that. Because he said, "That is emotional. It's about your relationships that you're losing. And it's a pervasive problem right now in the country." 

That's another way Peter is trying to scale these responses up, and to get more people involved.

Read (or watch) more about how Peter is doing this himself with his neighbor, and how he is trying to spread the ideas from The Five Percent and The Way Out through Starts with Us and other de-polarization programs by watching the full video of our conversation


Read/watch the video


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