In July, the U.S. almost defaulted on its debt because of partisan gridlock. In the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians continue to fight a seemingly intractable battle. And in our own backyard, gang violence continues in a self-perpetuating cycle. Research shows that one in every 20 conflicts ends not in reconciliation, but in a long-term impasse. But researchers are finding that science –- and even math –- can create ways through these impasses. We look at the science behind conflict, and how it can be applied to modern-day problems.


  • Peter T. Coleman Associate Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University; Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, Teachers College, Columbia University; Co-editor, "The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice"


  • 13:06:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. If you could think of one international conflict today that seems intractable, what would it be? Many of us would say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has been simmering for decades. Despite many attempts to broker a two state solution, peace seems to slip away with every new attack.

  • 13:07:21

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIExperts say that conflicts like this one develop lives of their own. The drive that people involved to go against their own best interest and that's behavior that often leads to their own ruin. In fact, researchers say that five percent of international conflicts become intractable and though they're uncommon, these conflicts last an average of 36 years and have accounted for some 49 percent of international wars since 1816.

  • 13:07:52

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut how can scientists quantify conflict? And how do we apply it to our daily lives? Our next guest uses science and practice to do just that. Peter Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University. He's also director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University's Teachers college. He's the author of "The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts." He joins us in studio, Peter Coleman, welcome.

  • 13:08:27

    MR. PETER T. COLEMANThank you so much. Pleasure to be here.

  • 13:08:29

    NNAMDIBefore we talk about current examples of intractable conflicts and how to crack them, let's talk about the essence of conflict, if you will. Walk us through the common, the top five elements, if you will, or essences as you call them of conflicts whether it's a family feud or a years old territorial dispute between two countries.

  • 13:08:51

    COLEMANWell, just by definition, conflicts are just, sort of, things opposed, things in clashing. It can be ideas, it can be interests, it can be needs by different groups and parties. But these intractable conflicts have a variety of different essences. And I spent about -- a couple of years looking at the literature to try to get some sense and some clarity on what those things are. And what I found was, in fact, there are something like 57 different essences identified in the literature. That it can be long term trauma as a result of the conflict.

  • 13:09:25

    COLEMANIt can be a sense of identity associated with the conflict. It can be, sort of, equal power groups of that there is no one group that can be victorious, unilaterally. So there are a variety of different things, structural things, psychological elements and really just sort of scarce resources that can be involved. But what we found is that it wasn't really any one of these things that they -- these different types of long term conflicts had in common. But it was how they, sort of, all come together and organize in a way that makes it very difficult to unravel them and to address any part of them.

  • 13:10:01

    NNAMDIAnd among those 57, you can talk about, oh, four or five of them, domination, inequity, gender, like that.

  • 13:10:10

    COLEMANSure. So many of them will have a long history of some type of dominance or oppression of one group or the other and sort of seething resentment by low power groups. Again, they can have often times a sense of identity and a need for the low power group to gain some sense of sovereignty or some sense of dignity and recognition. And those factors can be very powerful and play an important role. But the more that we study these things, the more we try to move away from a sense of any one core cause because there are many conflicts in the world.

  • 13:10:46

    COLEMANAnd often times there are conflicts that are around sovereignty and around identity but they're able to negotiate them and to work through them either in non-violent ways or eventually in non-violent ways through negotiations. But some of these conflicts, the ones that we're studying, that we call the sort of five percent, seem to be unresponsive to our typical strategies. And that's because we argue that there is no one or, you know, few elements feeding them but that there's a variety of different things that are coming together to make them so intractable.

  • 13:11:18

    NNAMDIAnd that variety is captured in the 57 or so categories that you have put together.

  • 13:11:22

    COLEMANWell, it's really captured in a process. I mean, it's how people sort of psychological needs and the real needs and their needs for security can sometimes all collapse into a very clear sense of their the enemy, we're the victim and it's very simple. So it's a very complex constellation of issues and needs and interests that collapse into this very simple dynamic.

  • 13:11:49

    NNAMDIA key element of all of these conflicts is something mathematicians called attractors. Can you give us an example of what these attractors are and how you use science and math to identify them?

  • 13:12:01

    COLEMANYeah, attractors is an idea coming out of applied mathematics and essentially what attractors are, are sort of patterns that you see in data. But, I think, a good example is if you look at voting in this country. If you look at voting either state by state or across the country, sort of, red state and blue state voting in the 2000 election, you see a pretty strong pattern of even within states where people voted blue and red or certainly across the country.

  • 13:12:31

    COLEMANAnd then after 2000, you see that we have 9/11, there is a major financial crisis, there is huge changes in the global power balances in terms of major impacts that took place domestically. And yet if you look at the election in 2004 and you look at the demographics, you see almost the same exact pattern of voting that you saw in 2000. And that is just a, sort of, pattern that's resistant to change despite the fact that there were major changes happening globally and domestically. But you still see people, basically, voting the same way in the same place for the same people.

  • 13:13:10

    NNAMDIAre these attractors the things that make us dig in, say, we're in an argument despite the fact that we may sense if not know that we're not necessarily acting or talking in our best interests?

  • 13:13:23

    COLEMANAbsolutely. They seem to have a power of their own that, sort of, takes us over and, you know, I think probably many of your listeners have experienced this. It could be with a sibling, it could be with a spouse or a an ex-spouse but it is a sort of dynamic. And you may go into a conflict thinking, you know I want to be my best self, I want to make this work, I want try to talk this. But as soon as the other party says something or does something that resonates for you.

  • 13:13:50

    COLEMANYou find yourself right back, sort of, you know in this antagonistic sense of enmity that you -- and you can't help yourself. And part of it is that you're really drawn by the, sort of, history. The long history and sense of negativity that’s really festered and fostered in your relationship for a long period of time and it brings you back in.

  • 13:14:09

    NNAMDIThat's something I frankly have noticed in myself. You've created software that shows how these attractors work. And negotiators can use it to map out how they are likely to make progress in a conflict. Tell us about that.

  • 13:14:23

    COLEMANWell, we wanted to create something -- we actually created this when we were working in the South Bronx with schools that were experiencing chronic patterns of violence. And as we talked to people involved in the schools, we found that there were so many factors that were contributing to these patterns and they felt depressed and overwhelmed by them and we did too. So we wanted to create something that would give them a sense of how all those things again would sort of collapse into a very simple patterns of either negative interactions, destructive interactions or more positive interactions.

  • 13:14:54

    COLEMANAnd so we created a visualization software which allows anyone in a situation like that or a third party intervene or trying to make things better, to sort of plug in what they think are the main things driving the conflict, what's more important than others, how things are affecting it right now versus in the long term. And if they can sort of plug in those -- their sense of those factors, it generates a -- really a picture, a visualization of how -- what we call the landscape of the conflict currently is shaped.

  • 13:15:25

    COLEMANAnd it'll -- gives people a sense of -- and then they can actually turn from that and try to make it better, try to change it, try to intervene, try to do what they think ideally would help and it also gives them a sense of the unintended consequences sometimes of their well intention acts.

  • 13:15:42

    NNAMDII want to go back to a statement you made earlier, a point you made earlier and see if I can find a point of connection with what you were just explaining about attractors and the earlier point. How do we go from conflicts where there are a variety of elements being argued to one where it's an us versus them mentality, like you mentioned earlier?

  • 13:16:03

    COLEMANWell, I think cognitively, it's very -- it's important for people to be able to have some sense of clarity when they're in a conflict, particularly if it's a conflict that's particularly threatening. And so even though situations, relationships, maybe very nuanced and complex. When a conflict's intensifying, become threatening, it's important for us, it's almost a survival mechanism for us to try to simplify and get clear on, all right, who's responsible for this? Who's with us? Who's against us?

  • 13:16:34

    COLEMANAnd that kind of simplification process, again, is in some ways a natural process that we go through when we face anything that's extremely complicated and intense. But it can collapse to a point where no new information gets in, it becomes very simple and what we call self organizing. It becomes resistant to new information. So you're sure who the enemy is, you're sure who's on your side and any new information coming in seems to be irrelevant.

  • 13:17:02

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Peter Coleman, he's a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University's Teachers College and the author of "The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Are there some conflicts you think will never be resolved and if so why? Call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, ask a question, make a comment.

  • 13:17:36

    NNAMDIYou can join the conversation there. You have a good example in your book of a married couple, Kasha and Anthony whose marriage ended in an intractable conflict. Can you tell us their story?

  • 13:17:49

    COLEMANSure. This is based on a true story. And it's about a couple that were very happy for many years together and raised children together and they put a lot of time and money and energy into building, sort of, their dream, you know, weekend house. And then eventually the marriage soured and they went their separate ways or tried to divorce. But the house that they had both worked on and paid for and really cherished became a very important splitting issue.

  • 13:18:19

    COLEMANAnd it became so important to both sides that they not lose the house or perhaps more importantly that their ex-partner not get the house that they poured most of their money, all of their resources into legal fees to fight for that house to -- and at some point in fact lost the house because they had to file for bankruptcy.

  • 13:18:41

    COLEMANAnd so it was this sort of tragic story of one thing in the context of this relationship really taking all the anger and resentment of the relationship and then really sucking them in into a dynamic where they were part of their own undoing. They lost their financial stability, they alienated other people in the family. So it became this sort of chronic focus for all -- several years until they, in fact, lost the house.

  • 13:19:10

    NNAMDISo we're talking about, first, a marriage and the divorce that clearly was made up of a wide variety of elements, a wide variety of complaints, if you will, that somehow the participants boiled down to one down to one complaint, one issue, the house.

  • 13:19:28

    COLEMANExactly. I mean, think about a marriage, for a long time you have things about your spouse that you love and adore and things about them that bother you, but it's sort of a mixed bag. And when they came to the decision to divorce, there wasn't rage in the relationship, but they had decided that it was time to split up and they could actually come to decisions about how to divorce someone amicably except around this house. This house seemed somehow cherished and somehow special and so all of their rage and resentment was really sort of focused on this one thing and it really became part of their undoing.

  • 13:20:04

    NNAMDIAre you facing an intractable conflict or seemingly intractable conflict in your own life? What have you done to try to resolve it? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on cracking intractable conflicts. Again, the number, 800-433-8850. Do you ever find yourself digging in in an argument, even though you kind of you're going against your own best interest? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:22:28

    NNAMDIWe're having a conversation with Peter Coleman about cracking intractable conflicts. He is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, author of the book, "The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts," and director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University's Teachers College. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you have called already, stay on the line. We will get to your call. But the number, 800-433-8850, we still have some lines open.

  • 13:23:00

    NNAMDIDo you ever find yourself digging in when you're involved in an argument even though you know you're going against your own best interest? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Peter Coleman, when it comes to applying the research you do at your center to real world conflicts, you often get resistance from mediators on the ground who say that the research going on in Ivory Towers just doesn't work with problems on the ground. How do you bridge that gap between science and practice?

  • 13:23:32

    COLEMANWell, I think it's a valid criticism oftentimes. I think that psychology, conflict resolution and, frankly, many fields oftentimes have a kind of increasing gap between practitioners on the ground and those in laboratories doing research. There was a report done funded by the Hewlett Foundation about probably 12, 13 years ago now. And they looked at all the research happening in theory centers around universities on conflict resolution.

  • 13:24:03

    COLEMANAnd they looked at the practitioner's skills and practices. And what they found was this sort of increasing gap between the two. They found that practitioners were really not paying any attention and reading the journals that the laboratory researchers were publishing, and the researchers weren't paying much attention to the needs and the concerns of the practitioners. So, our center is really focused on that problem, our center at Columbia.

  • 13:24:27

    COLEMANOne thing we did initially is put out a handbook called, "The Handbook of Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice," where we started to say, well, here's an area of theory and here are its important implications for practice. So, we really have been trying to connect those dots as much as possible. And the research that we write about in this book, "The Five Percent," is research that either other scholars have conducted empirical research or has taken place in one of our labs, either our lab at Columbia or our lab at University of Munich in Germany, South Florida. We have multiple labs in our team where people are doing ongoing research.

  • 13:25:03

    NNAMDIWell, we got a tweet from Steph Cantazano (sp?) or @StephCantazano who says, "Sounds like our guest is talking about the U.S. Congress. We cannot let this conversation about intractable conflicts go by without talking about what's happening on Capitol Hill just five miles down the road. This summer, the impasse between Republicans and Democrats almost put the nation into default. How can legislators work to change this Us versus Them mentality assuming they want to do that, which is not necessarily a correct assumption?"

  • 13:25:38

    COLEMANWell, that's a great question. I actually wrote an editorial this past summer called, "Washington is Fixed and Needs to be Broken," because I have the same sense that there is this very strong polarized attractor pattern that's taking place in Washington. And part of what I argued in the editorial was that to some degree Americans really need to take responsibility for this polarization in Washington and that we really need to look at our own selves and our own choices and the ways that we contribute to our leaders. We, in fact, you know, vote these leaders into office.

  • 13:26:13

    COLEMANWe do have some power and authority in terms of deciding who's there and how they take up their jobs. And I think, again, if you go back to the elections, our country is in many ways very polarized and very stuck. And our leadership in Washington resembles that. So, you know, one simple way, I think, that Americans can start to change that dynamic is if they themselves start to listen to and talk to people of different opinions, open up the possibility that there may be valid points of view that are different from their own and start to have those conversations so that we all have more informed sense of the problems that we face.

  • 13:26:51

    NNAMDIYou wrote in a recent Huffington Post piece that President Obama can help alleviate the impasse between Republicans and Democrats by channeling lessons from Nelson Mandela. What do you mean by that?

  • 13:27:03

    COLEMANWell, Mandela was an, you know, an extraordinary leader. But one of the things that Mandela represented was many contradictions. Mandela was raised by a father who was a regent and was a collaborator and a conciliator and would bring people together and unite them. Yet Mandela was also trained as a trial lawyer. He was trained as a boxer, so he was also a tenacious fighter.

  • 13:27:28

    COLEMANHe believed in non-violence, which was a core value of the African National Congress and was involved in non-violent, non-cooperation and protest. But at some point, when he realized that that was going to be met with violence, he in fact went underground and studied violence, studied...

  • 13:27:47

    NNAMDIArmed struggle.

  • 13:27:47

    COLEMANStudied armed struggle and was sort of nascent leader of this movement. So, he himself sort of held these internal contradictions. And in his long journey from, you know, through apartheid struggle to eventually to a multi-ethnic South Africa, he used all of these different strategies and tools in very adaptive ways, depending on who he was facing and how they were responding to him. He would adjust and adapt.

  • 13:28:17

    COLEMANHe did that in prison. He used what we called jujitsu tactics in prison so that he learned in Robben's Island the -- he knew the verse and chapter of all the rules in prison and he used them against the guards in prison. He used their own rules against them. So, he was very, very facile and creative in the types of influence that he could muster to serve his sort of long-term vision of uniting whites and blacks and others in South Africa.

  • 13:28:47

    NNAMDIResolving conflicts indeed seems to be what he was all about, especially in the second half of his life. We move on to the telephones. We talk with Tricia in Alexandria, VA. Tricia, you're one the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:29:01

    TRICIAOh, hi. I wanted to go back in the beginning of the conversation when you were talking about the couple fighting over the house.

  • 13:29:07

    NNAMDIKasha (sp?) and Anthony, yes.

  • 13:29:09

    TRICIAAnd I know from my own family history that, in my opinion, I think that this kind of fixation on, you know, on something like that that kind of is not the most important thing in the larger picture of whatever the conflict is, it seems to be, in my view, a coping mechanism. A way to, like, latch on to one thing and just, you know, to avoid having to deal with the rest of the big picture. Can you comment on that?

  • 13:29:41

    COLEMANWell, I think that's a tremendous insight. You know, part of what we find in long-term difficult conflicts is that the types of responses that people develop and generate over time are oftentimes attempts to cope. They do this in studies with young people and children in Israel-Palestine that they create a sort of sense of responding to the conflict that helps them cope with the fact that they've lost brothers and uncles and parents to the long-term conflict and violence there.

  • 13:30:12

    COLEMANAnd so, they develop a sort of sense of belief, a sense of understanding of the conflict that helps them deal with that kind of trauma. But it starts to become, again, a main factor in the continuation of the conflict. They believe that the conflict is good and noble. And those that have perished did so for the right reasons. And therefore, the idea of negotiating a peace becomes unfathomable.

  • 13:30:38

    COLEMANSo, there is a very basic coping mechanism that takes place in these very intense conflicts. And you say with caution, Anthony, to some degree, the focus on that as the core issue was one way to manage their past resentments and their anxiety and the instability of what they were facing in the divorce.

  • 13:30:59

    TRICIABut ultimately, I think it has a negative effect on the ability of the individual to heal. And I know this from my own family history. In particular, where we had a very broken childhood and I see all my adult siblings kind of struggling over and over throughout our adult years with, you know, fixations on things that are to me kind of off the point because it's almost easier.

  • 13:31:26

    COLEMANAbsolutely. Well, you're right. There is a paradox oftentimes to the coping mechanisms that come up. They can help us in the short term manage and address the situation that we face. But if we're not able to work through them, move beyond them, then they can themselves become a focus of our problems in the future.

  • 13:31:44

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Tricia. You too can call us, 800-433-8850. Are there some conflicts you think will never be resolved? And if so, why? 800-433-8850. Here's Andrea in northern Virginia. Andrea, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:32:03

    ANDREAHi, Kojo, thanks for having me on. I wanted to ask about the point where you're in a conflict and you know that you're entrenched, you know you're going down the wrong path and you can't seem to see the alternative that you might have. How or what sort of tactics do you recommend, you know, aside from taking a break and taking a deep breath to get through that and just slows things down enough to realize that you have options?

  • 13:32:37

    COLEMANAgain, a great question. I think that, well, you know, I hate to self proselytize, but I have to say if you read the book it will give you some insight into a variety of different techniques and strategies that I think are helpful. But sometimes really just listening to others, others' perspectives on the issue. People that you trust that you have some sense of -- no one ideally with any real stake in the conflict itself, but people that you think have a useful point of view on, you know, matters of life.

  • 13:33:10

    COLEMANAnd simply talking through with them in a way that you're open to the possibility that perhaps some way you're perceiving things or experiencing things may not be 100 percent accurate. Maybe there's some possibility that sometimes you're overreacting. Just to start to get a sense of other perspectives and other points of view. And that can start to kind of breakdown your sense of certainty about how you're victimized and you're right and they're wrong. Because when it's very clear like that and there's no sort of grey area in the conflict, that's when chances are you're in a dynamic like this.

  • 13:33:47

    NNAMDIIn a personal situation, it is sometimes difficult to find someone who, as you characterize it, has no stake in the conflict itself. Because if you go to a friend or relative, that person may not have a direct stake in the conflict, but they do have a stake in your ongoing friendship or relationship with that person and so has a tendency to be biased in your favor. How does one avoid that?

  • 13:34:12

    COLEMANWell, you know, of course there are professionals. There are mediators, there are counselors, there are clergy that are available to help people think through and talk through these things. And you're right, you want to try and find someone that won't sort of just reinforce what you already think or know or believe you know, but someone that you trust well enough and trust their sense of perspective and maybe even neutrality to help you think through these things a little differently than you would tend too by yourself.

  • 13:34:44

    NNAMDIAndrea, thank you very much for your call. Debra in Rockville, MD has what seems to be an intriguing question. Debra, you're on the air. Go ahead please.

  • 13:34:54

    DEBRAThank you for taking my call, and I'm sorry I didn't start at the beginning of the show. But I study international conflict resolution at Montgomery College and everything you've been talking about so far could apply to a number of international situations. How do you feel about that? And before that what's the name of the book?

  • 13:35:16

    NNAMDIThe name of the book is "The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts." We're talking with the author, Peter Coleman. He is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, Debra.

  • 13:35:30

    DEBRAThank you.

  • 13:35:31

    NNAMDIHere he is.

  • 13:35:32

    COLEMANYeah, so we're -- myself and my team of scientists that work on this problem of intractability are grandiose enough to really believe that we are identifying a phenomenon, a sort of process that is sort of relevant to conflicts, you know, between couples and families, within communities, within organizations that have some kind of polarization. And also, as you say, in the geopolitical realm. We do look at, in the book itself, we discuss Israel-Palestine, we discuss Kashmir and the conflict that's gone on there for decades.

  • 13:36:13

    COLEMANAnd in particular, we studied a conflict an internal civil war in Mozambique. Mozambique was a very important conflict for us to study, because it had a long history of colonization. It had been a 16-year-long vicious bloody civil war. And then within a very short period of time, some sort of peculiar things happened and the country essentially moved to peace within about two years.

  • 13:36:42

    COLEMANSo, we study that because it was a sort of classic protracted intractable conflict that where something happened, some small things happened that eventually led to the unraveling of that conflict and to what the U.N. considers a stable peace. So, yes, these ideas, these practices that we describe in the book have many applications in the international realm. And, in fact, that's where most of these types of conflicts are studied. That's where most of the data is on these types of conflicts, because we do have, you know, 200-year-old databases that look at international dynamics.

  • 13:37:18

    NNAMDIDebra, I'm going to narrow it a little bit while continuing to talk about international conflict. How important is location in peacemaking? Is it ideal, better, preferable for all parties to be on neutral territory? Does that make a difference?

  • 13:37:35

    COLEMANWell, again, you know, I want to specify that there's all types of peacemaking and all types conflicts. And what we argue is that, you know, 95 percent of them can be addressed in more traditional ways with either mediation, where people sit down together, where there's shuttle diplomacy, where a mediator will go back and forth between countries or between individual leaders in negotiator process. With these types of conflicts, with the five percent conflicts which have a long history and a very strong dynamic that you're trying to address, then yes it oftentimes is...

  • 13:38:13

    NNAMDII guess I was thinking of the Middle East peace process.

  • 13:38:16


  • 13:38:16

    NNAMDIIt seems to have most of its success with the operating on neutral ground.

  • 13:38:20

    COLEMANYeah, definitely to, you know, and again there is a long history of peace makers bringing some of the leaders, either formal leadership or what they call track two leaders, you know, clergy and journalists and people who are influential in the societies and bringing them offsite, bringing them away out of country and having them, you know, be together and bring their families together and start to think and experience each other in very different ways.

  • 13:38:45

    COLEMANAnd that can shape and really alter their sense of the other -- their sense of their own group, their sense of the problems, and then they can return to country and start to, you know, affect the peace process through their channels of influence. So, that is a very, very important, very useful and very common strategy in many of these long-term conflicts.

  • 13:39:06

    NNAMDIDebra, thank you very much for your call. And from the international, I suspect, to the domestic, here is John in District Heights, MD. John, your turn.

  • 13:39:17

    JOHNThank you. As a retired street policeman and have to dissolve many just basic arguments on the street, I've come to understand several things about dissolving conflicts. And one was don't be quick to tell someone else what they're thinking is wrong. I hear you, I understand you and I disagree and this is my particular point of view. That's number one. Number two, don't deny the other person's experience when they are receiving from you what they are doing.

  • 13:39:49

    JOHNI'm not doing anything to you. Yes, you are. Well, I'm not doing anything to you. Yes, you are. No. Recognize that what the other person has said that you are doing to them you are doing and that can bring -- that can bring in some type of diffusing or some type of solution. But to deny the other person their experience and what that meant to them, that's another way of not being able to solve a problem.

  • 13:40:15

    NNAMDIJohn, you make a very good point, and I brought it up because Peter Coleman did some work in the South Bronx trying to resolve a gang violence problem. Washington D.C., as you know, is struggling with a gang problem of its own. A lot of us feel that these senseless killings will never end. Talk a little bit about your experience there and what it has taught you about the notion that we have that some conflicts won't ever be resolved because the actors wouldn't have a purpose if there were fighting one another, and please include your observations on John's experience.

  • 13:40:47

    COLEMANYeah. Well I think the process that John characterized is really one of sort of holding respect for the other even though you have a different point of view. You have perhaps your own sense of what the problem is, but not shutting the other person down, and I do think that that's a critical process in trying to constructively navigate these situations. Otherwise as John suspects or has probably experienced, things will simply escalate into a, you know, a more and more intense situation where no one can hear each other and then it can get more and more destructive.

  • 13:41:24

    COLEMANIn the South Bronx we were asked to come in to work with a school community there that was dealing with long-term violence between different ethnic gang groups of young people, and as I said, we, you know, did interviews with a variety of different people and found that it was a very complex and complicated process, and part of the problem was that as we talked to people within the conflict, the conflict was very simple to them. It was always the other side.

  • 13:41:54

    COLEMANIt was always, you know, that group of kids or young people that were murderers, and that were attacking us, and that were victimizing us, and we were simply here just trying to sort of get through the day. We were trying to survive and had a good life. So to them in it, things were very simple and clear. But when we would talk to people sort of on the margins of the conflict, you know, members of the school community, or clergy, or even the sort of youth violence officers in the neighborhood, they understood the sort of overwhelming complexity of the violence that was taking place in the school, and the variety of things that contributed to that.

  • 13:42:30

    COLEMANSo that's, again, one of the core characteristics of these kinds of problems. They are oftentimes very complex and multiply determined, but to those in them, they become very overly simplified, and therefore sort of closed to any sense of really other things that may be driving the conflict.

  • 13:42:46

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line, we'll get to your call. If the lines are busy, shoot us an e-mail to Send us a tweet @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:44:47

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Peter Coleman. He's a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University where he's also director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University's Teachers College. He's the author of "The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts." And we have been taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you facing an intractable conflict in your own life? What have you done to try to resolve it? 800-433-8850. You can send email to Here is Beth in Fairfax, Va. Beth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:45:29

    BETHHey. Well, I want to kind of follow up on the reference to President Obama's dilemma that you were discussing earlier and the comparison drawn with Nelson Mandela's conciliatory strategies, because, I mean, it seems like this is a really important intractable conflict to understand. And it seems to me actually that, you know, Obama spent the very first, you know, most of the first part of his presidency trying to establish terms in which there could be recognition of different kind of points of view, validity of different kinds of investments.

  • 13:46:06

    BETHHe was actually ripped apart, I think, for doing so, and that it seems like the movement towards resolving the conflict is actually taking out one point of view and standing for it in this way, but suggests maybe there is something about, you know, there's something about this conflict that doesn't, you know, there's some pressure or some kind of contextual thing that -- in which mediation, the sense that we're being led to reconciliation is actually fueling some of the anger.

  • 13:46:37

    NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you brought that up, because as I recall, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa was also controversial, but of course, Nelson Mandela brought a certain moral authority that conceivably nobody else in the world has at this point.

  • 13:46:54

    COLEMANAbsolutely. Well, yeah. No. I agree with you that I think the Obama administration, just to touch on that for a moment, is facing circumstances -- a set of very extreme constraints and polarized circumstances that make leadership tricky, that as you say, a more conciliatory approach, attempt to bring people together and have constructive conversations together, sometimes in some environments are simply much difficult or ineffective.

  • 13:47:29

    COLEMANBut I also think that the landscape of Washington is a complicated place, and there are places for negotiation, integrative problem solving, and conciliatory strategies, there are many avenues for that. Sometimes they're not as public as others, sometimes they're sort of behind closed doors. And part of what we just argue is that these days, particularly these days I think with such polarization, what is needed is a type of leadership that is really kind of -- there are multiple strategies. There isn't the right way to be a leader in this time. There is a need, I think, to have a variety of different tactics and strategies that even at some point may be contradictory.

  • 13:48:11

    COLEMANAnd that's what's we've seen actually in leaders in the past, and that's what we did see with Nelson Mandela. His ability to play off tensions within groups and between groups, where he could both be a conciliator at a higher level, but also then challenge them at sort of a lower more direct level. So it's not a simple leadership strategy, but I think it's a critical leadership strategy under these kinds of conditions.

  • 13:48:37

    NNAMDIBeth, I'd like you to stay on the line and listen to this, because President John F. Kennedy was faced with what seemed like an intractable conflict with the Soviets, but on June 10, 1963 in a speech at American University, President Kennedy urged the Soviets and Americans themselves to reexamine their attitudes about each other and living peacefully together. We're going to play it now. I'd like you to tell me whether you think 48 years later it still has, in your view, any value.

  • 13:49:08

    PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDYFirst, let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as be wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.

  • 13:49:59

    NNAMDIBeth, your view?

  • 13:50:03

    BETHWell, I think it's really -- that's also another example of an international conflict, and because there's a different kind of pressure put on the stakes of that, you know, that kind of schism. And even in the case of Nelson Mandela, South Africa had gone through, you know, decades and decades of, you know, international pillaring for the kinds of problems that were going on within the country, and so the pressure to be seen as one who is being conciliatory was enormous.

  • 13:50:32

    BETHAnd for some reason, we don't have that same kind of, like, foment. There's no one out there sort of trying to be the leader, other than, you know, the kind of -- Obama the first two years of presidency being like we -- there's that urgency that Kennedy is talking about. There's no urgency towards saying we need to solve these problems. It's all geared toward the fear that we're going to -- either side is going to kind of lose out their version of America.

  • 13:50:59

    NNAMDIGlad you brought up the either side argument. Peter Coleman, what do you think, because one thinks that if Kennedy said that to Congress today, each side would simply blame the other.

  • 13:51:10

    COLEMANWell, you know, I think one of the things that is helpful is to try to move away from a sense of leadership in these times located in one person or one individual. I do think that Kennedy, Mandela, and Obama can play a role. As you say, one of moral authority, one of vision, one of attempting to unite, but peace or constructive solutions to these critical problems that we face is not located in one person. It is not conducted only by one person. It really has -- we have to understand it as having responsibility throughout.

  • 13:51:48

    COLEMANEarlier on when we talked about Washington being polarized, I suggested that each of us reflect on our own responsibility for supporting a process in Washington, whether intentionally or unintentionally that's shut down and polarized. Well, I think that kind of responsibility and the vision of a constructive, problem-solving process, or a peace process that is shared by all of us, including our leaders, and including Obama, but Obama just plays one role in this.

  • 13:52:20

    COLEMANIt's not something that he alone can do and that we can look to he alone in. And I think that JFK's reflection on our -- the need for us to examine our assumptions, the need for us to have some sense of what we could call realistic empathy for our enemy. In other words, have some realistic sense of what's important to them and what's operating for them, and start to speak to that and find common ground in that. Those are all I think important insights for how we can as a country move forward.

  • 13:52:46

    NNAMDIBeth, thank you very much for your call. Here is Jenny in Crystal Spring, Pa. Jenny, thank you for waiting. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:52:55

    JENNYThank you. I just wanted to give an A plus to the VA system. I go to the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg, W. Va., and we have groups down there where we sit around and we talk about, and we learn about conflict resolution, and cognitive behavioral therapy, and our leaders down there, they may be groups, but we think of them as classes and they operate kind of like classes.

  • 13:53:24

    JENNYAnd PTSD people, you know, we all have things that have happened in our lives, and they teach us to question our thinking and to question what we're feeling, and to look behind the things that happened in our lives. Maybe what we're experiencing is just the tip of an iceberg that we haven't even examined, and I've learned so much from them, and we all have learned so much. And I just wanted to give a real royal pat on the back for the VA down in Martinsburg.

  • 13:53:56

    NNAMDIOkay, Jenny. Thank you very much for your call. But you call as a veteran, but I also happen to notice that you are a woman, and one of the issues that I wanted to discuss with Peter Coleman, recently two women won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to Liberia. What kind of lessons are we gleaning from women's work in peacemaking?

  • 13:54:17

    COLEMANWell, I'm glad you asked that. I happen to have nominated Leymah Gbowee for the Nobel Prize this year. I know Leymah, and I know of her work because of a context through a colleague who made a film of her called "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," which has been showing on PBS recently. And I think there's much we can learn from women everywhere, but particularly the case in Liberia. I write about it a little bit in the book because I think it's a tremendous example of what we call either weak power or soft power, that the women's movement that took place in Liberia, was really a bottom up emergent movement.

  • 13:55:00

    COLEMANThere was initially just, you know, basically mothers and aunts and grandmothers who came together, had been fed up with the long-term suffering that affected them and their children in the Civil War, and really just simply started to stand up, wear white t-shirts and white head scarves, and really encourage Charles Taylor to speak to the rebels. And it was that process, that sort of bottom-up process, and the fact that they had no formal authority, they had no money, they had no arms, they had no way to sort of threaten the rebels or threaten the administration.

  • 13:55:39

    COLEMANBut because of their persistence, because of their creativity, their adaptivity, they were able to basically mobilize in this very dangerous environment, and encourage people to think and work a different way. It is an extraordinary story that came out of Liberia that everyone should know about. I would encourage you to see the film, but it's also -- it is emblematic of the role that women do play and can play in different types of environments around the world.

  • 13:56:08

    COLEMANOne thing I just want to mention is that the producer of the film, Abi Disney, and Leymah Gbowee have been using that film around the world, and showing it to women who live in war zones, and then fostering conversations with them there as to what might be possible in those spaces that could either be similar to or even very different from what took place in Liberia, but just to give some sense of alternative in these environments, and it's I think a very promising movement that's taking place, and I applaud the Nobel committee for recognizing the power of women.

  • 13:56:43

    NNAMDIWe got this post on our website from Lynda. "On an international level, I worked in video production and documentary filmmaking for a number of years, and had an idea about negotiations between countries. What if you filmed the negotiations, with everyone's permission, of course, and then each night during the negotiation process required the negotiators to watch the video of themselves and see their reactions to the other people's comments. I know it sounds naive, but I thought it people could see themselves from the other person's perspective, it might really help in that process."

  • 13:57:16

    NNAMDIApart from if you release this video, we'll have to kill you, how would that in your view work, Peter Coleman? We only have about a minute left.

  • 13:57:24

    COLEMANI think it's a very innovative idea. I welcome ideas that are sort of out of the mainstream, because I do think those types of techniques can offer a different perspective. As you say, if these films were shown publically, then that really adds just additional constraints to the negotiators, but if was used as a way for them to reflect on what's happening here and what's not happening here, and are there ways to make adjustments, it could be a very creative way to try to shepherd the process in a more constructive direction.

  • 13:57:54

    NNAMDIThe way coaches in sports use film after a game is played, especially after it's lost, I guess is comparable. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Peter Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University where he's also director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University's Teachers College. He's author of "The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts." Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:23

    COLEMANSuch a pleasure. Thank you.

  • 13:58:24

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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