How to understand and defuse conflict situations

by Bob Colclough on July 6, 2012



This article introduces a model which describes how conflict situations escalate. It also suggests ways to defuse a conflict.

It should be of interest to anyone involved in helping to avoid or defuse a conflict situation.

The conflict escalation model

Use of the escalation model may help participants in a conflict realise more clearly what is happening and take action to defuse the situation.

It can also help observers intervene constructively in a conflict situation.

There are typically six stages in this escalation model:

Stages in conlict escalation

Enter the conflict zone

– The trigger is often everyday events and minor annoyances.

  • These can be resolved at this stage with a willingness to be careful of one another’s feelings and to be empathetic. The problem is that often we don’t recognise the initial trigger or causal factor soon enough.
  • If we are going to recognise the problem sooner rather than later we need to be self aware about the things that ‘press our buttons’. Then we need to acknowledge that just because this is important to us it may not be viewed in the same way by the other person. In other words what is significant to me may not be to someone else.

Different personal goals

This stage is where it appears that the individuals want different things. The stage is often characterised by people fluctuating between trying to see things from the others point of view and not being able to let go of what is important to them

  • Conflict can be resolved at this stage only if there is logical and objective thinking and a willingness to really listen and process the information thoughtfully.
  • What really happens is that often we only apply logical thinking in a negative way – why the other person’s goals can’t be met.
  • Or we don’t think at all. We simply respond emotional (react) to the fact that someone doesn’t have the same goals (or views) as us.

Take a stand

- At this stage people start to harden their position. What becomes most important is what they want. They see no prospect of gaining through compromise so simply see the need to put pressure on to bend the person to their will.

  • At this stage it becomes harder to stop the conflict escalating further as we tend to stop listening to the other person. We also stop being concerned about what they want.
  • We use more and more ‘definite language’ and statements and less questions. “I’m right, I want, I need, I must”

The blame game

– At this stage blame is apportioned and things move from a specific issue to wider issues. Winning (being right) becomes important as a win/lose situation develops. It is no longer necessarily about the original issue but a battle between the two people. One of whom must come out ‘on top’

  • At this stage it is more difficult to break the conflict without an intervention. As both parties see themselves as ‘right’ and the other as ‘wrong’
  • Remarks may get increasingly negative and personal. Body language may be used to convey stronger emotions. Example: banging the table, pointing or wagging a finger and get into someone else’s personal space.

Loss of face

Closely linked to the previous stage but as attack and counter attack occur individuals fear losing face and seek to protect and defend themselves. At this stage fear of loss of face (especially if the conflict is public) makes people start to behave irrationally.

  • People lose a sense of proportion and their behaviour can degenerate to that of an angry child. May use name calling and labelling. “you idiot”, “are you stupid”

Outburst explosion

– Only ultimate domination and control over the other person will be sufficient at this stage. Force is seen as the only option (this may even be physical)

  • Extreme and disproportionate actions may be taken any thing that makes the other person ‘suffer’. This becomes more important than winning itself.

How to defuse a potential conflict

This model is based on the Thomas – Kilmann model and has five approaches to conflict. The way that these five approaches can be used is view both the situation that you are faced with and the individuals that you are dealing with. You should then choose the approach that is the best fit for the circumstances and the people.

You may be able to use any of these approaches at most stages in the escalation model. However intervention is often more effective at stage 2 (“Different goals”)

1. Accommodating:

  1. Situations where you may choose to accommodate: When you have made a mistake. When the issues are more important to others. To build good will for more important matters. To minimize losses when defeat is inevitable. When harmony and stability are particularly important.
  2. Characteristics of behaviour: wanting to help the other person, wanting to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, demonstrating empathy.
  3. Pluses – May demonstrate that you are approachable. May be seen as generous and selfless.
  4. Pitfalls – accommodation may be misinterpreted as weakness. May leave you feeling taken advantage of if your accommodation isn’t appreciated.

2. Avoiding:

  1. Situations where you may choose to avoid: When something is not significant or worth making a fuss over. When the costs outweigh the benefits of resolution. To allow a situation to cool down when others can solve the problem more effectively. When the problem is a symptom rather than a cause.
  2. Characteristics of behaviour: if cornered into an uncomfortable conversation their tactics may be dodge or defer making responses and so frustrate. May deny anything is wrong when it clearly is.
  3. Pluses – May allow you to avoid unnecessary hostility.
  4. Pitfalls – Avoiding may be seen as disinterested, weak or rude.

3. Taking a stand

  1. Situations where you may choose to take a stand: When quick, decisive action is essential, as in emergencies. When critical issues require unpopular action, as in cost cutting. When issues are vital to the welfare of the organization. Against individuals who take unfair advantage of others. Where taking a cooperative approach may be exploited.
  2. Characteristics of behaviour: Makes definite unequivocal statements. Enjoys ‘hard’ bargaining. Good at debating.
  3. Pluses – If done well may be admired and valued by others. Can develop self confidence. Increases your chances of getting your desired outcome.
  4. Pitfalls – May appear dominant and overbearing. May lead to people avoiding or by passing you in order to get things done. May increase your stress…

4. Compromising:

  1. Situations where you may want to compromise: When what you want is important, but not worth the effort or potential disruption likely to result from taking a stand. When two people have strong desires to get mutually exclusive outcomes. To gain temporary settlements to complex problems. To expedite action when time is important. When collaboration or taking a stand fails
  2. Characteristics of behaviour – Willing to negotiate. Able to recognise what is vital to success and what isn’t. Able to balance people’s feelings and hard outcomes. Has the ability to keep dialogue open.
  3. Pluses – May be viewed as someone that is fair. May be respected and trusted.
  4. Pitfalls – Gaining a reputation for always giving in. Seen as someone who never says ‘yes’ without getting something in return.

5. Collaborating:

  1. Situations where you may want to collaborate: When both sets of concerns are so important that only a joint solution is acceptable. When the goal is to learn together. To integrate insights from individuals with different perspectives. To gain commitment through consensus. To break through ill feelings that have hindered relationships
  2. Characteristics of behaviour – Very strong active listening skills. The ability to ask open and probing questions to understand what’s really important to others. The willingness to invest time in others.
  3. Pluses – Win- win outcomes. Strong trusting relationships developed. Personal growth.
  4. Pitfalls – Time consuming. May be viewed with suspicion by those unused to it.
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The Five Stages of Conflict Escalation
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