Divided We Fall: Thanks for joining us today, Professor Coleman. We are excited to discuss your new book, “The Way Out”. To start, we’d love to hear about what led you to write this book as well as your work at the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University.
Professor Coleman: I got the idea to write the book in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Because I run the Difficult Conversations Lab, I was approached by various media organizations mostly looking for help on how people can go to Thanksgiving with people in the family who they feel alienated from and things like that. But I also started to talk to some organizations that were getting involved in bridge-building work, that were encouraging people to go on a website and fill out a form and then get together with somebody on the other side and have a conversation, which is an intervention based on something called Contact Theory, which makes a lot of sense most of the time. But when I pushed these organizations, what I started to hear were the stories that they don’t tell, which is when these things blow up because people are so passionate and ideologically ensconced in their point of view; when they just sit down with somebody who is on the other side and they can’t just talk it out. And that is because the problem is bigger than just them and their conversation. So, my sense was that even though there was a lot of good faith work going on trying to build bridges, I did have a sense that it wasn’t informed sufficiently by the science; that they’d go off a superficial understanding of something like Contact Theory, which has been studied for decades. Those studies have narrowed the conditions under which it’s effective or ineffective, so an insufficient awareness of the science concerned me. That’s when I just decided to write the book.
I’ve been studying what we call intractable conflicts, which are long-term, deeply embedded, cultural conflicts. Israel-Palestine or Kashmir or The Troubles in Northern Ireland are all examples. These are long-term conflicts that seem to outlive the main players and changes in policy and society. I’ve been studying these things for about 25 years in different ways. One way is through the Difficult Conversations Lab, where we put together a multidisciplinary team of researchers to study these problems in new ways. These are the kinds of conflicts — these long-term, stuck conflicts — that don’t respond to negotiation or mediation or just talking it out. People, groups, societies don’t respond the way you think that they would. And so we wanted to try to understand them through a different lens, so we put together a team of complexity scientists, physicists, political scientists, and peace-builders, to try to understand why and how they organize into systems that are so change resistant, and then the conditions under which they change.