BOOK REVIEW: 'The Five Percent': Resolving the Small Percentage of Seemingly Intractable Conflicts

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Five Percent': Resolving the Small Percentage of Seemingly Intractable Conflicts
I'm resisting the impulse to dub Peter Coleman's new book on resolving conflicts, "The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts" (PublicAffairs, 288 pages, charts and graphs, index,  $27.99) "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Conflict Resolution" for the simple reason that resolving conflicts is a job best done by specialists.

Too many idiots have been involved in the resolution of past conflicts and we're seeing the results daily. One of my favorite examples is the divvying up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I by the leading colonial powers of the day, France and England. (Link: We're living -- and dying -- with their arbitrary lines on the map of the Middle East. Maybe it would have been better to let the Ottoman Empire -- and Austria-Hungary, for that matter -- to stumble along and resolve their ethnic conflicts themselves, rather than have solutions imposed upon them.

Coleman, on the faculty at Columbia University and a specialist in conflict resolution, points out in a book that should serve as a landmark reference work something we all know: Conflicts abound especially in today's climate. Most conflicts are resolved calmly, through discussion, compromise, and, occasionally, mediation. Fully 5 percent of conflicts end up grinding to a halt, with both sides locked in opposing views, unwilling to budge. giving the book its title. Once pulled into one of these self-perpetuating conflicts it is near impossible to escape.

This five percent includes some of the most heated and crucial issues of our day, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the standoff over abortion in America. Such conflicts can and often do generate violence and can threaten the stability of our society. We must resolve them — but how? Coleman has extensively researched the essence of conflict in his "Intractable Conflict Lab," the first research facility devoted to the study of polarizing conversations and seemingly unresolveable disagreements. Informed by lessons drawn from practical expereince, advances in complexity theory, and the psychological and social currents that drive conflicts both international and domestic, Coleman offers innovative new strategies for dealing with disputes of all types.

Coleman moves past the visible symptoms of conflict and gets down to invisible causes and conditions. His insights might remind some readers of Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" and others of Joseph Nye's "The Future of Power" (reviewed on this site, link:
In "The Five Percent", Coleman applies proven, practical lessons and analyses drawn from complexity theory to create the first systematic, integrated, evidence-based model for understanding the 5 percent, and offers a coherent set of principles and practices for resolving them. The result is an innovative new strategy for dealing with intractable disputes of all types.

About the Author   
Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teacher's College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York. For more information please visit, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter
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