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Why I Study Seemingly Impossible Conflicts


Guest articles > Why I Study Seemingly Impossible Conflicts


by: Peter T. Coleman


Our ability to address seemingly intractable conflicts may very well determine our capacity to survive as a species. Intractable conflicts are defined as disputes that are highly destructive, enduring, and particularly resistant to attempts to resolve them. Currently, about 40% of intrastate armed conflicts have persisted for 10 years or more, with 25% of the wars being waged lasting for more than 25 years. Although we are seeing more peace negotiations than military victories these days, 25% of them relapse into violence within 5 years.


I became interested in studying enduring conflicts initially through my experiences working as a counselor with violent urban youth in psychiatric hospitals, and then through my work as a community mediator for the New York State Criminal Courts and as an instructor in a course on preventative diplomacy at the United Nations. As a doctoral student, I first began to conduct research in this area focusing on "ripeness" (a readiness to negotiate). This often entails a radical shift in intentions, attitudes, and behaviors (from destructive to constructive), and is extremely difficult to achieve due to long histories of animosity, suspicion, fear, and atrocities committed by many of the parties involved. The literature suggested that in prolonged conflicts, ripeness typically occurs as a result of the intense pain, suffering, and sense of dread that accompanies a violent stalemate between the conflicting parties. However in many intractable conflicts (particularly conflicts over "truth" and "justice"), such suffering has the paradoxical effect of further entrenching the parties in the conflict.

In response to this paradox, I began work on a more comprehensive model for conceptualizing the shift toward constructive interactions in intractable conflicts; initially developing a theoretical model that offered alternative avenues to fostering ripeness through the application of basic Lewinian principles of motivation and change. This model stressed the importance of addressing obstacles or constraints to peaceful encounters, such as a lack of trust, interpersonal contact, and safe channels for communication. Removing such constraints can increase ripeness without the rise in intensity of conflict associated with increases in pain and suffering.

However, as my understanding of various intractable conflicts deepened (such as those regarding abortion or race relations in communities and the conflicts in Cyprus and the Middle East), so did my awareness of their complex and dynamic natures. In other words, I began to recognize that studying conflict at a single point in time, or focusing on a single aspect (e.g. obstacles), was ultimately problematic because it failed to capture the fact that conflict, particularly intractable conflict, is multifaceted; involving multiple experiences and encounters between many different parties over a variety of issues under diverse conditions which change in time.

Thus, I embarked on a new approach to this work. It built on four basic premises regarding contemporary conflict: 1) our world is becoming increasingly more complex, ecologically, politically, economically, and socially, 2) human systems are ever-changing and the pace of change is rising, 3) such complexity and dynamism place extraordinary demands on our capacities to accurately comprehend enduring conflicts, and 4) this often leads to oversimplification of problems and an over-reliance on our primary frames of understanding, which are useful but limited. For instance, if we reflect on many of the ethnopolitical conflicts in the post Cold War world, we see a complex pattern of interlacing schisms emerging– based on ethnicity, religion, economic well-being, population density, environmental degradation, collapsed states, globalized markets, and geopolitical shifts. Equally intricate patterns of discord can be found in many of the protracted conflicts in our institutional, group, and personal lives. Despite these trends, much of the research on intractability is either fine-grained and piecemeal (focusing on independent cause and effect relationships), or case studies of specific situations viewed through a particular disciplinary lens. Similarly, our interventions, often informed by such research, have limited or even unintended negative effects.

With funding from the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Community Foundation of Boulder, I began to convene a multidisciplinary team of experts which developed a new theoretical model that connects prior research on psychosocial coherence and complexity with basic differences in the underlying dynamics of intractable versus more manageable social conflict (Coleman, Vallacher, Nowak, & Bui-Wrzosinska, 2007; Nowak, Vallacher, Bui-Wrzosinska, & Coleman, 2006; Vallacher, Coleman, Nowak, & Bui-Wrzosinska, 2010b; Vallacher, Coleman, Nowak, & Bui-Wrzosinska, 2010a). The model employs concepts and methods from dynamical social psychology- in particular the idea of attractors (patterns in data that resist change) - and portrays intractable conflicts as those which have lost the complexity and openness inherent to more constructive social dynamics.


To date this project has resulted in over 40 publications and 45 conference presentations by our team, publication of a new trade book (The Five Percent), a proposal of a new scholarly book (The Gravity of Conflict), a special issue of Peace and Conflict: The Journal of Peace Psychology showcasing dynamical-systems theory applications to conflict research, development and publication of an on-line computer visualization tool for working with intractability (Nowak, Bui-Wrzosinska, Coleman, Vallacher, Borkovsky & Jochemczyk, 2010) and, with TC's Ed Lab, the creation of several short introductory videos on intractable attractors ( We are also currently developing an executive education module in this area, which will be completed in Spring, 2012.



ONE IN EVERY TWENTY DIFFICULT CONFLICTS ends up not in a calm reconciliation or tolerable standoff but as an acute lasting antagonism. Such conflicts -- the five percent -- can be found among the diplomatic and political clashes we read about every day in the newspaper but also, and in a no less damaging and dangerous form, in our private and personal lives, within families, in work-places, and among neighbors. These self-perpetuating conflicts resist mediation, defy conventional wisdom, and drag on and on, worsening over time. Once we get pulled in, it is nearly impossible to escape. The five percent rules us.

So what can we do when we find ourselves ensnared? According to Dr. Peter T. Coleman, to contend with this destructive species of conflict 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 unresolveable disagreements. Informed by lessons drawn from practical expereince, 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.

A timely, paradigm-shifting look at conflict, The Five Percent is an invaluable guide to preventing even the most fractious negotiations from foundering.

2011 Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts

Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teacher's College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.

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Contributor: Peter T. Coleman

Published here on: 16-Sep-11

Classification: Conflict, problem-solving


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