Dr. Peter Coleman knows a lot about conflict. A self-described natural peacemaker, Coleman got his first experiences resolving conflict as a mental health counselor at a psychiatric hospital in the 1980s — a time when riots were not uncommon.
But the conflicts he discusses in his new book, The Five Percent, are not those routinely found in a psychiatric hospital. Dr. Coleman, a psychology professor at Columbia University, has made a career of studying intractable conflicts.
Intractable conflicts are those that are highly escalated, with repeated acts of violence. They often involve high stakes (take for example the territorial dispute between Pakistan and India over the Kashmir region) and are win-lose scenarios — upon resolution, only one side will gain. Participants often see no way out, as any resolution would require them to give up too much.
The perception that a conflict is intractable is important. For example, some might view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as intractable, while others would see the cost of the ongoing conflict as higher than the cost of coming to an agreement.
A conflict that is perceived as intractable is more likely to involve desperate measures. It is very often those desperate measures that increase the conflict’s intractability.
Dr. Coleman suggests that these sorts of conflicts do not just happen in international situations. He contends that they can also occur in families and local communities.
But intractable conflicts don’t respond to traditional conflict resolution. If both sides feel there is no way out, negotiation has little effect. Coleman suggests that mediation of intractable conflicts can actually make them worse.
Instead of mediation, Coleman and his colleagues suggest the necessity of finding new strategies for interrupting patterns of violence. He suggests that some sort of major shock can do the trick.
Such an event occurred during an intractable conflict in Boston in the 1990s between the anti-abortion and pro-choice communities. After years of hostile and vitriolic interactions the two groups came together, shocked by the shooting of two women outside of a health clinic. Coleman suggests the shock of this shooting changed the dynamic of the conflict.
Louis Kriesburg, author of “Intractable Conflicts and Their Transformation” suggests that intractable conflicts are more likely to be resolved when people believe they are bound to uphold the decisions of their leaders.
For example, a Supreme Court decision clarifying affirmative action programs or a ceasefire between warring regions can allow emotions to settle. These measures may not solve the underlying problem, but they do allow for more constructive discussion.
Avoiding intractable conflict may be the best way of ensuring that one doesn’t go unresolved. Whether it is a conflict between countries or one that occurs in your local community or even your family, the perception that a conflict is unresolvable and that the stakes are too high to lose has an impact on behavior. Desperate behavior can raise the stakes and emotions.
It seems that we still have a lot to learn about intractable conflicts. But examples such as the Cold War and apartheid teach us that they can and do change.