Respectful Polarization

Peter Coleman

Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

I don't know if intractable has solvability, again it depends. You can have a relationship like, this Boston you know about the Public Dialogue Group (referring to the Public Conversations) in Boston about the leadership of the abortion rights group and the pro-life group? That's a great example of working a conflict where the parties — which were 6 women, 3 from each side — came together and they created these relationship that were important to them, there was a deep respect for the other side and they helped protect each other from violent members of their communities and supported each other. But ultimately became more polarized on that issue.

So again, is that a solved conflict? It is a relationship that is in a better place than it was, there isn't autistic hostilities and they're not trying to kill each other, they're in fact trying to protect one another, and they have a sense of community about women who care about women's issues and there are super-ordinate goals. And they're more polarized on that issue. So in that interactional space, there's actually a fair amount of room for positive interactions. On that dimension, there is no change. And there's not an acceptance of it either, there's not like a "OK, they just differ from me," no there's a "now it's even more important that the other side see the truth." So it's a very interesting paradox that they find themselves trapped in.

So will that issue be resolved? I don't think so, not in our lifetime. But does the nature of the relationships need to stay in this primarily destructive place? No. So there is potential in those kinds of relationships to work the multitude of issues in the relationship and find a fair amount of common ground and support, even though some of the issues remain polarized.