Is Arbinger Institute’s The Anatomy of Peace worth reading? What do you think is the main reason people get into conflict?
The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute builds upon the concepts of self-deception and justification laid out in its previous bestseller Leadership and Self-Deception. However, this time these principles are considered in the broader context of interpersonal, family, social, and political dynamics.
Learn about the book’s authors, publication context, and critical reception.
The Arbinger Institute: What Causes Conflict?
Conflicts, the Institute explains, arise when a lifetime of self-deception—of mentally re-framing events until they justify our actions—leads to a twisted worldview in which we see others as obstacles, rather than people. When we divorce those around us of their personhood, we no longer consider their needs, burdens, hopes, and fears, instead focusing only on our own. The authors argue that this leads to conflicts in which we’re so sure we’re in the right that we refuse to listen or negotiate. Because being mistreated “justifies” mistreating others in return, we behave in ways that incite further mistreatment from those we conflict with.
To resolve our ongoing conflicts and prevent a cycle of increasing hostility, The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute teaches us to re-examine our perspectives, challenge our biases, and return to seeing others as people. In doing this, we develop a cooperative mindset, enabling us to pursue inclusive, unifying solutions and to encourage those around us to follow suit.
About the Author
The Arbinger Institute is a leadership training and consulting firm. It hosts workshops for individuals, teams, and organizations, focusing on mindset change. Specifically, its purpose is to teach an “outward-focused” view that prioritizes seeing others as people and focusing on cooperative, goal-oriented strategies. Arbinger’s headquarters is in Utah, but it boasts partner institutions in 26 countries around the world, including Germany, the U.K., Israel, China, and Sweden.
C. Terry Warner, who founded the Arbinger Institute in 1979, holds a Ph.D. from Yale University and served as chair of the Brigham Young University Philosophy Department. He is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served as the first director of the Institute of Religion at Yale.
Arbinger itself is composed of professionals trained in business, law, economics, philosophy, education, coaching, and psychology. The Institute has worked with multiple organizations, such as defense corporation Raytheon, the Kansas City Police Department, Staples, and CenturyLink.
The Arbinger Institute’s books predominantly cover the topics it’s become an institutional leader in teaching: self-awareness, conflict management, team building, and goal-oriented performance improvement in larger-scale organizations. Leadership and Self-Deception, The Outward Mindset, and The Anatomy of Peace bring its philosophy to the consumer market for layman-accessibility.
Arbinger’s books have been a staple on their publisher Berrett-Koehler’s bestseller list; by 2017, Leadership and Self-Deception had sold over 1.9 million copies.
Each of the Institute’s books is written by a team of multiple authors with differing responsibilities and degrees of input. On Arbinger’s website, it’s explained that none of its books are attributed to particular authors because it prefers its audience to focus on the books’ ideas and principles, rather than the personalities presenting them. Further, Arbinger’s expressed view is that writing is one of many tasks an Arbinger employee performs, and that it shouldn’t be considered any more or less important than the rest of each writer’s work. Writing for Arbinger is a cooperative process, the Institute says, and the pitfalls of ego are avoided by attributing each work to the Institute as a whole.
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The Book’s Publication
The first edition of The Anatomy of Peace was published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. in 2006. Since then, the book has been expanded, revised, and republished twice; this third edition was published in 2020. The third edition includes appendices with additional diagrams and discussion to aid the reader in understanding the book’s concepts, as well as an explanation of the Arbinger philosophy.
The Anatomy of Peace delves more deeply into the principles laid out by Arbinger Institute’s previous bestseller, Leadership and Self-Deception, which was first published by Berrett-Koehler in 2000. Leadership and Self-Deception describes how managers and employees misunderstand the causes of workplace conflict, leading to misattributed blame and inappropriate punishment. The Institute explains how to foster a culture that’s respectful of the humanity and needs of each employee, enabling open-minded, cooperative problem-solving. The Anatomy of Peace expands that scope, applying the concepts of self-deception and justification more specifically to interpersonal, family, social, and political dynamics.
The Book’s Context
The first edition of The Anatomy of Peace sold over 300,000 copies and has been translated to almost 30 languages. By the time the third edition was released in 2020, the second edition (released in 2015) had sold over 225,000 copies.
The Anatomy of Peace is credited by the United Methodist Church (UMC) for playing a key part in helping its assembly determine a way forward for an organization that had become fractured in its interpretation of contemporary social issues. The UMC council recommended its members read the book before meeting, and after the fact many of the attending bishops credited it for their ability to keep in mind the personhood of those they disagreed with.
It could be argued that the impact of The Anatomy of Peace is also visible in the results of Arbinger’s training program, since the program teaches broadly similar principles to those in the book. The program has led to a host of high-profile success stories among corporations, non-profits, and civil services.
For instance, by implementing the philosophy detailed in The Anatomy of Peace, as presented by Institute trainers, employees of Raytheon learned to prioritize the humanity of their coworkers, and to pay more attention to each others’ needs. As a result, they say, everything from union negotiations to supplier connections were handled more easily, more quickly, and more equitably than ever before. Discussions which were once deadlocked for weeks were resolved in an hour. At a time when a 5% growth in profits looked impossible, the value of the company doubled.
The Anatomy of Peace has enjoyed a broadly positive reception, with many reviewers praising the book for the strength of its principles. Those who praise The Anatomy of Peace highlight the life-changing effect of its principles on their personal relationships, their perspectives, and their view of themselves. Some readers also laud the book’s narrative, saying that it humanizes the principles and makes them easier to connect to.
Common complaints about the book are that the narrative feels contrived and that the book takes too long to get to the point. Many have claimed that the principles are buried under the narrative, and that they’d prefer principles to be presented more directly. Some readers, especially women, describe feeling put off by some concepts in the self-deception and collusion sections of the book, saying that the principles espoused feel uncomfortably similar to the kind of gaslighting and victim-blaming perpetrated by sexual and emotional abusers.
While the United Methodist Church, as an organization, has embraced and promoted the book, one member of the UMC clergy, Reverend Hannah Bonner, has accused the Institute of performing what she terms ‘literary blackface.’ Bonner argues that the authors, white Mormon men, inappropriately speak through Black and Middle-Eastern characters in an attempt to make potentially controversial views on racial justice protests and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more palatable and credible to a wide audience. They speak through these characters so often that some readers reported forgetting that the book was actually authored by white men.
For instance, at one point, the book’s principles are attributed to a fictional African-American scholar, Ben Arrig. Arrig’s contribution to the narrative occurs toward the end of the book, in a segment about the 1967 race riots in New Haven, CT. In the book, Arrig explains that the protestors want to be tear-gassed as much as the cops want to gas them, because being gassed validates their false narrative of one-sided oppression. Furthermore, according to Arrig (and thus, the Institute), by seeing their oppressors as obstacles instead of as people with their own needs, hopes, and dreams, the protestors become oppressors themselves. Bonner states that in using a Black mouthpiece to voice this perspective, the Institute weaponizes fictional Black voices against real Black protestors.
Commentary on the Book’s Approach
The Anatomy of Peace is written in narrative form. It follows a fictional group of parents attending a seminar for parents of “problem children.” The seminar is led by Avi Rosen and Yusuf Al-Falah, a fictional pair who forged an unlikely alliance from opposing sides of the Jewish-Muslim conflict over the establishment of Israel. If these two men can form a partnership, the book suggests, the same should be possible for anyone.
The book is presented as a third-person view of one character’s experience at an Arbinger seminar. It occasionally meanders as Lou, the main character and father of a “problem child,” introspects. Throughout the book, we see him resisting the idea that he needs to change, while trying to understand what to do about his conflicts at work or at home. While this approach adds a degree of relatability, Lou’s perspective is very specific: He’s the founder of a large, successful business who doesn’t spend enough time with his wife and child, leaving them largely to fend for themselves and occasionally stepping in as disciplinarian. Thus, not all readers will see themselves in Lou.
As a whole, the narrative framework makes the book easy to read and digest; principles are presented in a conversational style that’s easy to follow. Characters often offer common-sense resistance to those principles—especially in cases where it’s suggested that the reader needs to take responsibility or change—allowing for deeper explanations and exploration of side-points and niche cases.
As the narrative progresses, the book introduces its principles and connects them to illustrative examples that drive home the point in relatable ways. To explain what it means to have a cooperative mindset, for example, the Institute uses several parables: A flashback in which main character Lou confronts his father after sinking the family truck in the local river, a story from Lou’s wife about his gentle support as she recovered from an eating disorder, and a few smaller one-off examples.
Commentary on the Book’s Organization
The book’s seminar-style organization has its positives and drawbacks. As some critics have noted, the lengthy narrative, which includes character backstories, adds bulk and fluff to a book which could otherwise be much shorter and more focused. On the other hand, the seminar style creates natural breakpoints for readers to pause, walk away, and consider how the principles apply to their own lives, as the characters do the same. Such pauses generally come at times when a reader might find themselves with much to ponder.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Anatomy of Peace summary:
- How we perpetuate conflict by misunderstanding its cause and acting inappropriately as a result
- What causes conflict, how we make it worse, and how we invite mistreatment
- The steps we can take to escape the combative mindset and set aside our biases