The Five Stages of Conflict Escalation

Conflict escalation is a gradual regression from a mature to immature level of emotional development. The psychological process develops step by step in a strikingly reciprocal way to the way we grow up. In other words, as conflicts escalate through various stages, the parties show behaviors indicating movement backward through their stages of emotional development.

Escalation is charted in five phases, each having its own characteristics and triggers.   Stage One is part of normal, everyday life. Even good relationships have moments of conflict. These can only be resolved with great care and mutual empathy. In this stage, people look for objective solutions in a cooperative manner. If a solution is not found, especially because one of the parties sticks obstinately to his or her point of view, the conflict escalates.

In Stage Two, the parties fluctuate between cooperation and competition. They know they have common interests, but their own wishes become more important. Dealing with information becomes limited to favoring one’s own arguments. Logic and understanding are used to convince or win over the opposing side. At this stage, each party does everything possible to not show weakness. The temptation to leave the field of argument increases until the conflict escalates because of some action taken by one of the parties.

By entering Stage Three, the field of concrete actions, the parties each fear that grounds for a common solution is lost. In other words, they lose hope for a reasonable outcome. Interaction becomes hostile. All logic is focused on action, replacing fruitless and nerve-wracking discussions. The parties each believe that through pressure they will change the other party. At the same time neither is prepared to yield. At this level, stereotyping is applied as a negative identification of the opponent. Power becomes important as empathy disappears.

At Stage Four, the parties’ cognitive functioning regresses. One is aware of the other’s perspectives, but is no longer capable of considering the other’s thoughts, feelings and situation. How often have we remarked that parties in conflict are acting like children?  In fact, they are because of the escalation. Both sides feel forced into roles from which they see no escape. If the conflict cannot be halted at this stage, the escalation undergoes a dramatic increase in intensity. Escalation results when one side commits some action that is felt by the opposite side as a loss of face.

At Stage Five, progressive regression appears in the form of a comprehensive ideology and totalizing of antagonistic perspectives. Sacred values, convictions, and superior moral obligations are at stake. The conflict assumes mythical dimensions. Sometimes the parties have fantasies of omnipotence, seeing no way that they can lose in court. In psychological terms, the escalation has reached a hallucinatory-narcissistic sphere. The entire self-conception is drawn into the conflict such that individual perceptions and evaluations disappear. By threatening and creating fear, both parties strive towards total control of the situation and thereby escalate the conflict further. To remain credible and to restrain the enemy from an act of force, the threatened party feels compelled to commit acts of force itself. This process continues until the parties reach financial or physical exhaustion, or the matter is decided in the courtroom.

At some point along the way, the parties may seek mediation. The difficulty of an escalated case is that the parties must be walked back through the stages of escalation.  If a mediator is not aware of the escalation cycle and assumes that the parties are at Stage One, the mediation is doomed to failure. Furthermore, working back through the escalation stages takes time and infinite patience. The parties may backslide and regress.  Oftentimes, the parties resist the mediator’s efforts to move them into more mature levels of escalation. This behavior is very similar to parents working with children who have temporarily regressed. Sometimes, one party will move to an earlier stage of escalation faster than the other, creating more complexity. Thus, the mediator’s function is to act as a guide for the parties, assisting them in finding their way to the common ground of Stage One. Only when the parties have reached Stage One will they be ready to find a common ground for resolving the conflict.

Douglas E. Noll, Lawyer to Peacemaker

Creator of Negotiation Mastery for the Legal Pro

California Lawyer Magazine, California Attorney of the Year 2012