Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Recognising Escalating Conflict

Differences, opposites and incompatibilities are necessary - in nature, in society, in life. The existence of differences is not the problem, and the fact that differences exist does not constitute conflict. Conflict arises when there is an imbalance in the system or when we do not handle our differences well.

Recognising Escalating ConflictConflict is, in essence, resistance to consensus building

Most conflict in organisations resides in the process of achieving consensus and then using that to cement the subsequent commitment to any proposed agreement (and its effective implementation). This process is both tortuous and time consuming. But knowing why conflict exists is not enough, we also need to identify its characteristics. For this, I draw heavily on the approach to conflict resolution outlined in Confronting Conflict by Friedrich Glasl. In it he outlines 9 levels of escalation:
  • Escalation level 1 - Hardening
  • Escalation level 2 - Debate and politics
  • Escalation level 3 - Actions, not words
  • Escalation level 4 - Images and coalitions
  • Escalation level 5 - Loss of face
  • Escalation level 6 - Strategies of threat
  • Escalation level 7 - Limited destructive blows
  • Escalation level 8 - Fragmentation of the enemy
  • Escalation level 9 - Together into the abyss
Below, you will find outlined the characteristics of each escalation level but consider this: before each level of escalation we can experience a threshold, a point of no return. If we can recognise these as they occur, we can ask ourselves...
  • Do I really want to go that far?
  • Do I still have control of myself?
  • Can I see the effects of my actions? Can I imagine the unintentional side-effects of my actions, as well?
  • Am I really prepared to take on the consequences of my actions and omissions? Do I want to take responsibility for them?
As you will see, catching these thresholds can be of enormous importance...
The escalation levels in more detail.


This is the first level of escalation in which stances taken crystallise and clash. Communication suffers as the opponents are no longer open with each other and see and hear things through filters - they listen and see selectively. You will see an oscillation between co-operation and competitiveness and discussions can come to a temporary halt.
Importantly, even though the people occasionally become paralysed in their competitive attitudes, there is a willingness to get things going again. But, paradoxically, even though people are aware that there are glitches, this awareness increasingly causes a new spasm.

Debate and politics

At this stage of conflict, the opponents cease to listen to each other's arguments. Being right and presenting one's own facts in a positive light has already become as important as the discussion of facts. Style takes over from substance...
Selective listening exposes the weaknesses and mistakes in the opponent's arguments which can then be quickly refuted and each side is now trapped in its own language. Symptoms to watch for include...
  • the discussion is diverted to areas where people feel superior
  • arguments are used to make people feel insecure psychologically
  • causal connections are claimed when, in fact, the only link is chronological
The relationship is reduced to a game of intellectual ping-pong.

Actions, not words

The debates thus far have resulted in deadlock and the parties no longer believe that they can reach and convince each other through words - in fact, they only irritate each other more by talking! Action in the form of fait accompli is the rule and a gradual forming of groups, us and them, with the concomitant loss of empathy for the "other" develops.

Images and coalitions

Self-image and enemy-image are firmly fixed at this stage with a special condition: the enemy image consists only of judgements about the knowledge and abilities of the other party, moral judgements are still consciously avoided, for the moment...
Every observation, however, serves only to strengthen the "correctness" of the judgement as perceptiveness is already severely restricted. We are in the phase of the "self-fulfilling prophecy".

Loss of face

Moral credibility exists no longer. Now we are at the point at which, in a blinding realisation, one of the parties sees the true, destructive intentions of the enemy. Belief in the moral integrity of the opposing party is lost.
Once this happens, we are free to use radical, ruthless language. We are no longer obliged to consider the enemy party as human...

Strategies of threat

Demands are presented in a new way: in order to have a demand met, a punishment or damaging consequence is announced together with "proof" that the sanction can be carried out.
Ultimatum and counter-ultimatum show that both parties are now purely reactive and, worse, neither party can retreat without losing credibility.

Limited destructive blows

Threats are enacted, the opposing party is now considered inanimate objects with any sense of humanity, lost.
First only objects are destroyed, in particular the objects necessary to carry out the threat. Afterwards, people may be involved. Neither party believes there is a victory to be won, the deciding factor is whether the loss to the enemy is greater than the damaged sustained at home. "Benefit" takes on a new meaning...

Fragmentation of the enemy

Crossing the threshold to the eighth level of escalation leads us into an "all or nothing" fight, the enemy is to be destroyed. The opposing party is to be systematically broken up by purposefully weakening its internal cohesion and paralysing its functions. We often see this in organisational restructures...

Together into the abyss

There is no way back and even self-destruction can be experienced as a triumph insofar as the enemy is pulled down into the abyss.
In our day-to-day lives, we can see this being acted out in the courts when two parties, at great personal expense, continue the fight through the legal system, intent on the destruction of the other...

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