A Conflict Resolution Expert Wants To Challenge You
Peter Coleman is a conflict resolution expert and the author of The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization. He’s also a Starts With Us Movement Partner and our polarization expert-in-residence.
Recently, we released the Polarization Detox Challenge, which was created by Peter and his colleagues at Columbia University. The Challenge sends you an email every weekday for four weeks. The emails contain short exercises and activities that will help you examine how us vs. them polarization and bias might be impacting your views of the world and the people around you.
We recently talked to Peter about The Challenge — we asked him about success stories he’s seen, about objections people might have to taking it, and about what led to its creation.
Q: What would you say to people who might object to doing this challenge, who might say, “But our us vs. them anger is necessary and important; don’t take that away from us”?
Peter: I understand that response. I am often angry and outraged myself. But this is toxic for me and my relationships, and I am trying my best to find ways to keep fighting for the principles I believe in — but in a way that doesn’t make me sick or set the stage for political violence. We need to be able to hold on to what seem like contradictory virtues: justice and peace.
Q: Could you share a success story from someone who’s completed the Polarization Detox Challenge?
Peter: I invited a conservative-leaning colleague of mine, Pearce Godwin (founder of the Listen First Project), to join me in trying out some of the exercises in The Challenge. We wrote about our experiences in a series of articles for Time magazine. Here are some of Pearce’s reflections:
I was disturbed, frankly embarrassed, to realize how susceptible to tribalism I have been these days. I have a strong need to belong. Yet like so many Americans today, I feel politically homeless, lonely outside the us vs. them binary. Lonely but still in the line of fire. I often feel ostracized and repelled by demonization of conservatives and Christians. I understand the temptation to latch onto a tribe, to come in from the cold, to find belonging in battle.
The exercise got me thinking about individuality, the fact that our opposing groups are made up of unique and complex individuals, each of whom has the capacity to choose their own path. The toxicity comes in when we fear “them” all as a threat. I reflected on why I feel threatened by people unlike me, and if I might be the one who needs to change.
Tense political conversations create an edgy internal struggle for me. I fight to maintain a posture of curiosity against my inclination to judgment and intellectual critique. I try my best to embrace the stress as a personal challenge, a test to pass. When I succeed, the insights gained from curious questions and the deepened connection with another person are a fantastic reward. When I fail, I miss out on that reward, continue to sit in heightened anxiety, and feel more estranged from people I care about.
Another participant, Jeremy Williams, who was on my team helping create this project, wrote a piece about his experience with The Challenge and his shifted views. Here are some things he wrote:
As a Black man coming up in America, I have always been suspicious of calls for “bridge-building” across political differences. I harbor strong, left-leaning political beliefs, and so I have seen most efforts to bridge political divides between Americans as unconvincing. […]
However, I have recently come to see political polarization as one of the greatest threats facing our nation. […]
What drew me to The Challenge was how it actually encourages us to disagree with one another, but to do so with decency. […]
Having taken the full four-week Challenge myself with a group of friends, I will say that it’s not perfect, nor is it going to be the sole thing that ends political polarization, but I found it incredibly worthwhile. It is also easy to do and recognizes that, for most of us, patching together American democracy is not our full-time job.
(See more quotes from people who’ve done The Challenge.)
Can you tell us a little bit about how The Challenge was created?
Peter: I published The Way Out in 2021 and a year later was disheartened by the lack of resonance it seemed to be having with the general public — in a time of escalating divisiveness. So, I asked myself, “If I were to actually live according to the five scientific principles outlined in the book (stop and reset, find what is already working, complicate my life, move together with people I disagree with, and see this as a long-term problem), how would I do that? I mean, really, how would I go about my day and practice these principles?”
So, I started to generate a series of micro-exercises, small nudges that I could incorporate into my day that would allow me to live these five principles — one a day for a few weeks. Because toxic polarization is a complex problem that’s driven by things in different aspects of my life, I ended up developing exercises that I could apply at different levels or layers in my life: 1) my own inclinations and tendencies, 2) how I interact with members of my own political tribe, 3) how I might go about reaching out and engaging with others across political differences today, and 4) how I might find and join groups that are bringing people together across our divisions to take on shared community concerns.
I wanted The Challenge to be easy to do, to last long enough to begin to reshape key habits, to be able to do with groups of people, and to offer flexible options so people can do as much or little as possible. So, the theory is that toxic polarization today is a highly complex, addictive problem (a set of reinforcing problems, really) and that escaping it will take time, repetition, and some persistence.