Conflicts start small. Words are exchanged. Feelings are hurt. If handled quickly, such fights prove to be nothing but speed bumps in the road of life. If left to fester, they can quickly escalate into something monstrous. Lawsuits are filed. Blows are traded. Relationships are destroyed.
Most would agree it’s best to resolve conflict as soon as possible. The quicker a conflict is resolved, the less it will cost (in lawyer’s fees, court settlements, or simple good feelings).
Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Oftentimes it’s not until the stakes are high and the consequences enormous that we resort to dispute resolution. Anything short of total war and the general response is, “Meh. What is there to worry about?” Indeed, mediators know it’s difficult to convene the parties to a conflict if neither feels there is much as stake.
So what do we do if we or someone we know is hurdling toward disaster without realizing it?
The first step is to understand how conflicts start and how they explode. If we can recognize common patterns of escalation, then we can begin to nip the problem in the bud before it spirals out of control.
Four Initial Conflict Escalation Patterns
Understanding the first stages of conflict escalation is particularly important. To help us pinpoint where we are in a conflict so that we can learn how to resolve a conflict before it spirals out of control, we’ve borrowed from Friedrich Glasl’s nine-stage model of conflict escalation. Here are the first four of those first stages:
1. Hearts have hardened
What started out as a difference of opinion or interest has become a battle of wills. At this stage our position becomes fixed. Our minds are made up. We may even have forgotten what our interests were in the first place. A story begins to form in our mind. The other party has wronged us. We start to catalog the ways in which they’ve hurt us. Thus, the conflict narrative begins.
2. Words have been exchanged
The relationship becomes more and more confrontational. Attempts at reconciliation typically end in verbal shouting matches or tense silence. Reasoned argument and rational behavior go out the window, replaced by anger and manipulation. Blame and shame become the norm. We now begin to see the other party as the villain. We become either the victim or the hero of our developing narrative.
3. Actions have been taken
We’ve become tired of talking. Words have gotten us nowhere. We begin to take action. Oftentimes communication completely shuts down at this stage, replaced by legal or other measures designed to block the other party’s interests. Lawsuits are filed. Blows are traded.
4. Coalitions have formed and images have been created
At this stage, it’s not enough to take action against the other party; it’s time to involve other parties. It’s time to spread the word about the opposing side’s behavior. This stage often involves slander and gossip – attempts to garner support and build coalitions against the “enemy.”
At this point, it’s still possible to resolve the conflict without major damage to either party. At this point, a win-win solution is not only possible, but also likely if handled correctly. If left to escalate even further, however, the stakes grow even larger, and chances for an easy settlement disappear. Ideally, it would be best to try and resolve the dispute before step 3, but as soon as other people are involved (and therefore public reputation is at stake) things can get bogged down very quickly.