The best books on navigating seemingly impossible conflicts

Peter T. Coleman Author Of The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization
By Peter T. Coleman

Who am I?

I have spent more than 30 years in my lab at Columbia University studying how seemingly intractable conflicts develop and the conditions under which they change. I'm a professor at Columbia, a social psychologist who has studied, taught, and written about conflict for decades. I'm also a mediator, facilitator, and consultant who has worked with divided groups and communities around the world. I direct the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia, where we run the Difficult Conversations Lab, an audio/video/physio “capture lab” where we systematically study the dynamics of divisive moral conflicts to try to understand when encounters over them go well and when they go terribly wrong. 

I wrote...

The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization

By Peter T. Coleman,

Book cover of The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization

What is my book about?

The way out of our current culture of contempt can be hard to see unless you know where to look.

This book will show you. It offers insights from leading research on how deeply divided societies can and do change. It will suggest what you can do – the actions, skills, and competencies that will help you navigate these times most effectively – as well as what to look for in groups and organizations in your community that are already at work making America more functional again.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out

Why did I love this book?

Amanda Ripley is a smart journalist and exquisite writer who knows how to weave a compelling tale. She spent several years studying mediation and conflict resolution, and visiting conflict research labs like mine at Columbia and Jon Haidt’s at NYU, in order to offer this informed, accessible book. Amanda is able to easily communicate the problem of what she calls “high conflict”, the opposite of “good conflict”, and steps we all can take to decrease the worst forms of these in our life. An excellent and useful book.

By Amanda Ripley,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked High Conflict as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When we are baffled by the insanity of the "other side"-in our politics, at work, or at home-it's because we aren't seeing how the conflict itself has taken over.

That's what "high conflict" does. It's the invisible hand of our time. And it's different from the useful friction of healthy conflict. That's good conflict, and it's a necessary force that pushes us to be better people.

High conflict, by contrast, is what happens when discord distills into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them. In this state, the normal rules of engagement no longer…

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

By Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen

Book cover of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

Why did I love this book?

I am one of the world’s most renowned conflict resolution scholars. But when some particularly challenging interpersonal troubles bubbled up between members of the staff at my Center at Columbia, I reached for this book. Why? Because my spouse, who is a clinical psychologist and works with couples, had years before insisted that I read it carefully. I did and found it immensely practical and helpful. So, when tensions arose at our Center, I asked all the staff to read it and started our process of resolution and healing with this shared understanding of what was going on and what to do about it.

By Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Difficult Conversations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The 10th-anniversary edition of the New York Times business bestseller-now updated with "Answers to Ten Questions People Ask"

We attempt or avoid difficult conversations every day-whether dealing with an underperforming employee, disagreeing with a spouse, or negotiating with a client. From the Harvard Negotiation Project, the organization that brought you Getting to Yes, Difficult Conversations provides a step-by-step approach to having those tough conversations with less stress and more success. you'll learn how to:

· Decipher the underlying structure of every difficult conversation 
· Start a conversation without defensiveness 
· Listen for the meaning of what is not said 

Book cover of The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations

Why did I love this book?

Originally written in German and published in English in the mid-1990s, this book has been out of print for a while. Nevertheless, find it and buy it. It is based on the provocative but accurate premise that more harm is done in this world by do-gooders who are unaware of the unintended consequences of what they are doing – than by people actually trying to cause harm! Dorner is a German psychologist who set up a lab to study how people make decisions in highly complex, dynamic, challenging environments (mayors of towns or humanitarian organizations in crisis situations), and what he found is both highly compelling and critically important. Buy and read this very accessible book.

By Dietrich Dorner,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Logic of Failure as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why do we make mistakes? Are there certain errors common to failure, whether in a complex enterprise or daily life? In this truly indispensable book, Dietrich Doerner identifies what he calls the logic of failure",certain tendencies in our patterns of thought that, while appropriate to an older, simpler world, prove disastrous for the complex world we live in now. Working with imaginative and often hilarious computer simulations, he analyzes the roots of catastrophe, showing city planners in the very act of creating gridlock and disaster, or public health authorities setting the scene for starvation. The Logic of Failure is a…

Book cover of States of Disorder: Complexity Theory and UN State-building in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan

Why did I love this book?

If you are interested in gaining a better understanding of why the UN fails so miserably at building and sustaining peace – read this new book. Adam Day works at the UN and uses ideas from complexity science to both explain why the UN is so challenged in its ultimate mission to sustain peace, and what it should do to move in the right direction. Day uses two current case studies on some of the most challenging situations faced by the international community and applies new ideas in useful and practical ways. This is the state-of-the-art of complexity-informed peacebuilding.

By Adam Day,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked States of Disorder as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Today's vision of world order is founded upon the concept of strong, well-functioning states, in contrast to the destabilizing potential of failed or fragile states. This worldview has dominated international interventions over the past 30 years as enormous resources have been devoted to developing and extending the governance capacity of weak or failing states, hoping to transform them into reliable nodes in the global order. But with very few exceptions, this
project has not delivered on its promise: countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) remain mired in conflict despite decades of international…

Book cover of Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

Why did I love this book?

Philip Tetlock is a top psychologist and political scientist who studies, among other things, effective decision-making and forecasting in highly volatile environments. This book describes a research project he has been leading with the CIA (yes, that CIA), called the Good Judgement Project, to identify the best forecasters in the world today, and offers insights into how we all might be better able to make accurate decisions of our lives and our world. This is superb science and offers practical insights into how we can all better navigate the increasing complexity of our time.

By Philip E. Tetlock, Dan Gardner,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Superforecasting as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The international bestseller

'A manual for thinking clearly in an uncertain world. Read it.' Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow
What if we could improve our ability to predict the future?

Everything we do involves forecasts about how the future will unfold. Whether buying a new house or changing job, designing a new product or getting married, our decisions are governed by implicit predictions of how things are likely to turn out. The problem is, we're not very good at it.

In a landmark, twenty-year study, Wharton professor Philip Tetlock showed that the average expert was only…

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