A Short Story of My Life’s Work

Peter T. Coleman
6 min readMar 27, 2023

Peter T. Coleman

(Earlier this year, I was asked to describe my work in order to be considered for a prize I was nominated for. I did not get it, but thought I’d share this summary with you.)

I am a university-based social entrepreneur for peace and justice — and I pride myself on breaking things. By departing from convention and innovating in various aspects of my work — how I problematize, theorize, study, educate, communicate, practice and activate, I aspire to have a profound and lasting impact on the promotion of just peace throughout our world.

Building on the legacies of brilliant, practical scientists like Kurt Lewin and Morton Deutsch, I came to believe in the extraordinary power of big ideas to better our world, and in the critical roles science and technology can play in refining and advancing those ideas. Growing up in the 1960s in Chicago and experiencing a tumultuous homelife, school desegregation, a violent anti-war movement, and a non-violent civil rights movement first hand, instilled in me a deep sense of macro worry: concern over the state of our society and our world. After working with violent, drug-addicted youth in New York City in the 1980s, I returned to school to learn how to bring the power of ideas and science to bear on addressing some of our most difficult, recalcitrant societal ills. This continues to be the core of my intellectual and professional life.

For over 30 years, I have studied, educated, practiced and innovated around matters related to peace, conflict and justice through three tracks of work: 1) understanding and addressing more complex, entrenched, intractable conflict systems, 2) developing and applying a new scientific paradigm (combining models from peace and conflict studies, social psychology and complexity science) to address the limitations of more standard approaches to conflict resolution, and 3) understanding and promoting more sustainably peaceful societies.

Recognizing that our science has limitations such as incomplete metaphors, models and methods, I work from a transdisciplinary perspective; from the more precise to the more holistic, often in multidisciplinary teams, and employ a wide-variety of methods. Trained as a social psychologist by Morton Deutsch but influenced by complexity science, I have worked to expand the orientation of the field of peace, conflict and justice studies from a reliance on more micro, short-term, linear models and methods to the inclusion of more complex, holistic, dynamical-systems approaches. I have also strived to avoid the insular jargon of academic language, and to communicate our research findings and their practical implications in an accessible and engaging manner (see here, here and here for examples). More recently, I have begun to leverage emerging technologies such as “just-in-time” apps, free online assessments, complexity visualization models and games, virtual dialogue interfaces, machine learning methods, and social media impact campaigns to enhance the reach, dissemination and impact of our work.

My current research focuses on a variety of projects related to 1) intractable conflict (our difficult conversations capture lab where we study the conditions conducive to constructive encounters over moral conflicts; research on the effects of framing and motivation on community bridge building over political and racial differences; and applied research on organizational activism and leveraging multicultural conflict for institutional DEIA reform), 2) new dynamical models of conflict resolution (such as adaptive negotiation across power differences; adaptive mediation in extreme situations; and adaptive forms of cross-cultural conflict engagement), and on 3) sustaining peace (comparative studies of ethnographic accounts of “peace systems” vs. “non-peace systems”; ground-truthing field projects on sustaining peace in Mauritius and Costa Rica; and applying machine learning and natural language processing to the study of peace speech — linguistic differences in news accounts from 20 high versus low peace nations).

In addition to serving as a full professor with tenure on three different faculties at Columbia University (Teachers College, The Climate School and the School of Professional Studies) where I have worked with thousands of MA and PhD students (emerging leaders) and supported scores of dissertations, I direct or have cofounded three institutes at Columbia, The Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (focused primarily on the science-practice nexus and research and development in conflict resolution), The Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (focused on transdisciplinary research on sustainably peaceful societies, and where I also co-founded the Women, Peace and Security program with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee), and the Institute for Psychological Science and Practice (where we focus on evidence-based breakthroughs in psychological practice). I also provide educational instruction for leaders such as the Obama Scholars at Columbia, the Leading Woman Executives program, and our Executive Change Management Leadership program at Columbia. In addition, in 2013 I helped establish the United Nations Mediation Support Unit’s Academic Advisory Council, was a founding board member of the Gbowee Peace Foundation USA, and am a New York State Certified mediator and experienced consultant.

I have also published widely and extensively. To date, I have published a dozen books, including the best-selling, award-winning Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (2000, 2006, 2014 — translated by local Arabic-speaking peacebuilders into Arabic in 2015), The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts (2011); Conflict, Justice, and Interdependence: The Legacy of Morton Deutsch (2011), Psychological Components of Sustainable Peace (2012), Attracted to Conflict: Dynamic Foundations of Destructive Social Relations (2013), Making Conflict Work: Navigating Disagreement Up and Down Your Organization (2014 — which won the 2016 Outstanding Book Award from the International Association of Conflict Management), and most recently The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization (2021). I have also published well over 100 academic papers, which have been cited almost 8000 times in peer reviewed journals. My work has also been featured in numerous media outlets such as The New York Times, PBS Newshour, The Guardian, BBC, The Chicago Tribute, Nature, Science, Scientific American, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Wired, This American Life, Time Magazine, Fox Business, CBS, Fast Company, Chicago Public Radio, as well as various international outlets including in Israel, Brazil, Columbia, Mauritius and Japan. I have also been invited to speak at scores of meetings around the globe, have presented hundreds of papers at academic conferences, and serve as a reviewer for multiple academic journals. In recognition of my achievements, I have been the recipient of several awards, including both the 2003 Ed Cairns Early Career Award and the 2015 Morton Deutsch Conflict Resolution Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. I also founded and edit the MD-ICCCR Science-Practice Blog (with 100s of posts), the WKCR (89.9 FM) radio program Peace and Conflict at Columbia: Conversations from the Leading Edge, and am a frequent blogger on Psychology Today and in The Hill.

Today, I also serve as a scientific advisor to dozens of nonprofit peacebuilding groups, including Starts with Us, Fix US, Constructive Dialogue Institute, Search for Common Ground USA, Listen First, Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, Unite, Generations for Peace, One Small Step (Story Corps), Cascade Institute, Essential Partners, Civic Health Project, Horizons Project, Partners Global, Braver Angels, UJA-Federation, One Million Truths, and American Exchange Project. In 2020, I was asked through my affiliation with Tim Shriver’s Unite to advise the Joe Biden presidential transition team on depolarization in the U.S.

In closing, I must acknowledge that in addition to standing on the shoulders of giants like Lewin, Deutsch, Mary Parker Follet, John Paul Lederach, Louis Kreisberg, Dean Pruitt, Ron Fisher, William Zartman, Herb Kelman, Kenneth and Elise Boulding, Danny Bar-Tal and many others, my level of productivity and impact would have been impossible without the generous ongoing support of my colleagues, students, study participants, conflict stakeholders and, most of all, my family — Leah, Hannah and Adlai. Together, we have bolstered and helped advance a movement to keep science in conversation with the practice of conflict resolution and peacebuilding — forging new pathways toward more sustainable, just peace. This is our work.



Peter T. Coleman

Peter T Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace