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Making Peace: New Book Provides Tools for Solving Intractable Conflicts

Five percent of all difficult conflicts end in a destructive quagmire. Think of the current debate over global warming or the Israel-Palestine conflict. How can we overcome these? An Earth Institute psychologist, Peter T. Coleman, offers tactics in his new book, The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts. Coleman, who also heads Columbia’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, will sign copies of his book on Thursday at Columbia’s Lerner Hall. He recently took questions about his book from State of the Planet blogger Kim Martineau.

Q: The facts in every difficult conflict vary, but you claim there are common tactics that can lead to peace. How?
A: Conflicts between the U.S. and the Taliban and between estranged siblings are of course profoundly different. But they share basic similarities, and our research tells us both can be managed constructively. This requires understanding their underlying – and at times imperceptible – dynamics; how such conflicts organize over time into tightly-coupled systems of multiple conflicts that become enmeshed, stuck and resist change. When we see this we can identify new venues for peace.

Q: If you’re fighting for truth and justice in conflict how can there be compromise?
A: There often shouldn’t be. In fact, compromise is often sub-optimal and there are times when corrective action or violence are necessary. But our society goes there too quickly. Violence is often a failure of the imagination. Nelson Mandela was creative; employing non-violence early in the campaign against Apartheid, but when civil disobedience was met with violence, he turned to violence – but only against the country’s infrastructure, not the people. Ultimately, his vision was to get the Afrikaner government to the negotiating table, and he used multiple tactics to get them there.

Q: Global warming has become one of those intractable conflicts you write about. What can be done?
A: A recent study found that the more educated Democrats are, the more they believe in human-caused global warming while more educated Republicans are more skeptical on the issue. This tells me the divide is about emotions and values, not science and information. One solution is to remove climate change from the conversation and identify clean energy, pro-business alternatives to fossil fuels. The Danes did this during the 1970s oil crisis and today get 20 percent of their energy comes from wind turbines.

Q: Can it help to frame the debate in a new way?
A: Absolutely. We did a study on moral conflicts—such as over abortion, affirmative action, penalties for pedophiles—and found that when an issue is presented in terms of pros and cons, people get stuck and angry. But if you present the same information from different perspectives, people become more open to learning and reach a more sophisticated understanding of the problem. This is simply an effect of framing the conversation in less simplistic (pro/con) and more nuanced ways, and the effects are profound.

Peter T. Coleman will give a brief talk and sign copies of his book on Thursday, May 5, 4 pm to 6 pm, in Columbia’s Lerner Hall, Room 555.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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12 years ago

Sounds like a very interesting book. Maybe we should offer one to our leaders, might help them resolve conflicts and avoid wars!

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