Peter T. Coleman ’97TC, a professor of psychology and education, is the founding director of both the Difficult Conversations Lab at Teachers College and the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute. His research focuses on helping people with opposing viewpoints learn to talk about sensitive topics. 

Tell us about your work.

Practitioners in the field of conflict resolution have long recognized that some types of conflict resist almost any attempts to address them. Whether between family members, ethnic or religious groups, communities, or countries, some conflicts endure for years or decades, worsening over time, exhausting the participants and locking them into patterns of destructive behavior. 

In 2004, I began to lead interdisciplinary teams of researchers — including social psychologists, political scientists, physicists, and complexity scientists — who study the internal dynamics of these situations. At Columbia’s Difficult Conversations Lab, we investigate the circumstances under which dialogue can help promote mutual respect and empathy in people with opposing political viewpoints or, depending on how their conversations are managed, drive them further apart. This work, together with our analysis of real-world conflicts, has led us to identify several key qualities that the worst conflicts share. And by analyzing how seemingly intractable conflicts occasionally do get resolved, we’ve developed guidelines and principles for addressing them.