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How to Overcome Toxic Polarizations

Jude LaClaire, Ph.D.


Our nation is stuck in a fifty-year trajectory of increasingly toxic polarization that is highly addictive. And you are in the middle of it. From 83%-90% of the population feels worn out by this state of affairs. For those looking for a way out, Peter T. Coleman, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, holding a joint appointment at Teachers College and the Earth Institute, and directing two research centers, has found time to write, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization, on the topic of working with difficult conflict.


As I made my way through Coleman’s insightful and complex journey, I found myself questioning my own stuckness. He reminds us of what Mary Parker Follett, a pioneer in conflict resolution, taught us. She tells us that power-over is different from power-with, a jointly developed power. “Coercive power is the curse of the universe; co-active power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul.”


Coleman suggests that to make a change, we look at two different kinds of problem-solving. One is called a ‘clock’ problem which is more mechanical, knowable, controllable, and predictable in nature. This would be more like Newtonian physics; more linear, logical, and rational. The other is a ‘cloud’ problem, that is of a highly irregular, disorderly, uncontrollable, and unpredictable nature. This would be based on Quantum Theory, more about randomness and the ‘uncertainty principle.’ ‘Today’s conflicts require cloud thinking.


He urges us to re-think our ideas about how to solve problems. This requires radical relandscaping, looking more holistically at the many factors perpetuating the conflict as well as looking at the less obvious avenues for change.


He suggests five practices that will help us do this:       



Catalysts are often the beginning of great change. Think about a loss; death, health issues, job changes, relationship issues, etc. Now think about what that awakened for you. Some may make changes in their life direction, gain new skills or attitudes, create new neural pathways, replace old destructive habits with positive ones.  


What can you now do to use this catalyst of today’s toxicity to grow individually, as a family, or a community in response to this challenge? Think about the things you and others have done in response to COVID, environmental issues, racial inequity? Do you see growth, a resetting, a new beginning?



Find ways to weaken our worst tendencies by strengthening our latent, positive energy, overcoming our resistance to change. Coleman uses the example of Norman Cousins (Anatomy of an Illness) who was struck with a mysterious, crippling illness that was not helped by medical practitioners. Ten minutes of laughter gave him two hours of pain-free rest. He checked himself out of the hospital and into a hotel, watched funny films, rested, took high doses of Vitamin C, and slowly recovered. Coleman tells us this is finding the hidden latent bubbles of ‘positive deviance’ hidden in the problems.

He encourages the approaches suggested by John Gottman, a well-known relationship expert, of couples focusing on positive qualities about each other, positive experiences with each other, to give better energy to solving their conflicts. Finding positive aspects in conflictual situations can be challenging.



Embrace contradictory complexity. Here Coleman uses the example of Megan-Phelps Roeper (Westboro Baptist Church) and her journey discovering scriptural contradictions to what she had been taught her entire life. Her story illustrates the extraordinary power of certainty, dichotomous thinking, and oversimplification that influences our understanding of the world and the power of contradiction and complexity for correcting it.


In this practice, he challenges us to map our own social identity complex. When we have fewer contradictory aspects of our lives, we are less complex and may find it hard to understand those people, beliefs, or behaviors different than us. Think about your identity complex and look at what might be more harmonious or contradictory.



Moving physically, doing something different, breaking routines, learning new things helps us to activate more novel pathways and change course. Moving in sync with others can help us forge deeper bonds. Move out of the office, take a walk, go eat a meal with someone and see if ‘moving’ doesn’t help reset the conversation, the experience, the way of looking at something or someone.



Here we ‘seek ‘evolution through revolution.’ This means setting in for a long journey that will require considerable adaptation. Expect problems and setbacks. The problems are complex. Focus on learning to respond adaptively to dynamic problems, learn in the face of new problems.


For great summaries of the book’s chapters and exercises go to May the force be with you in this challenge!


Evolving Magazine

Kansas City


Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC is a counselor and educator. She is the author of the Life Weaving Education Curriculum that teaches creative, effective holistic problem-solving. For counseling appointments (confidential video or in-person sessions), seminars, speaking engagements or information on Neurobehavioral Programs or Imago Relationship Therapy call

816-509-9277 or;

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