Destructive Conflict escalation [Glasl]
The way that conflict escalates, determines how it should be managed.

1. The most respected Stages of escalation model was published by Friedrich Glasl: Although the model is presented as a progression, conflict is never stagnant. Even when latent, it flows back and forth through diversions, meetings, holidays, appointments, family issues, priorities, reshuffling, seminars, resignations, or the influence of friends and colleagues. Glasl’s model should be explored in that context:

Stage 1:
Hardening
The dispute is the centre of attention, but there is confidence that there will be resolution.

Stage 2:
Debates and polemics
Discussions cease as parties see the other as unreasonable, stubborn, stupid, etc.

Stage 3:
Actions, not words
Tactics are implemented to scare, intimidate or force.

Stage 4:
Images and coalitions
The interpersonal relationship becomes central, and winning, the primary focus.

Stage 5:
Loss of face
Parties use personal attacks to protect their own reputations, and build support.

Stage 6:
Strategies of threats
Threatening starts, becomes more concrete and there may even be some violence.

Stage 7:
Limited destructive blows
Concentration is on getting rid of the opposition as the dispute itself gets forgotten.

Stage 8:
Fragmentation of the enemy
The counterpart is targeted for annihilation. Mutual destruction reigns.

Stage 9:
Together into the abyss
Obliteration of the enemy is the only goal at any price – even that of self-destruction

2. Types of Escalation

Developed by Dean Pruitt – Yale University, Jeffrey Z. Rubin – director of the Harvard Program on Negotiation, and Sung Hee Kim – Associate Professor at Tufts University

2.1 Aggressor-Defender
The aggressor’s goal conflicts with that of the defender [win – lose]. The aggressor invokes, and the defender retaliates and raises the ante. The cycle continues, and as responses get heavier and heavier, escalation accelerates. All escalation results from a vicious cycle of action, reaction, stronger action, stronger reaction… and so on.

The more ominous version of the Aggressor-Defender Model is driven by the progressive increase in the number of issues, and the number of parties involved.

2.2 Conflict Spiral
Escalation goes from being linear, to one that spirals:
An elaborate mix of new grievances, old grievances, new actors and old actors, overshadows the core conflict. Actions and reactions are invented to punish, or to teach the other a lesson. As the dispute becomes more and more convoluted, so does it touch the lives of more and more individuals, issues proliferate, and a sense of crisis prevails. Groups may form, and polarisation may drag everyone in to spaces that nobody wanted to be in at the outset. Conflict Spirals are either rooted in fear [Defensive Spirals] or anger/blame [Retaliatory Spirals].

2.3 Structural Change
The players’ experience of the conflict and the tactics used, generate a residual effect, which changes the ways that the fight is fought. The original, principal issues are almost forgotten as a new layer of escalation is added.

Although these three models are presented separately, it is not difficult to see how one model’s characteristics will move in to the next. An Aggressor-Defender Mode evolves in to a Conflict Spiral Model. And that in turn evolves, and undergoes structural change that feels like war.

3 Provocations contributing to destructive escalation
Incompatible goals, resources, power and a myriad of other causes of conflict can inflame escalation. Most of these events are, or are perceived to be attacks on identity. Identity Attacks arouse anger because people fear harm to themselves, or to their collective selves. Threats, bullying, coercion and violence of all types, are attacks on the identity. They instil fear – which causes overreaction, and consequently, quick escalation. Actions that contradict principles, ideologies, values, ethics or morals, are often considered to be Identity Attacks.

3.1 Entrapment
Entrapment occurs when a party’s past actions turn out to have been baseless or inappropriate. Time and energy has been openly spent on winning, so it becomes increasingly difficult to back off. To save face, more oppressive behaviour is needed to eliminate outside examination of past events, so the spiral accelerates.

3.2 Multiple Issues
The more issues and grievances there are, the greater the chances of escalation.

3.3 Intensity
The more intense the issues and grievances there are, the greater the chances of escalation.

3.4 Past grievances
Frustrations from recent and distant past grievances, particularly from perceptions of unjust treatment, lead to destructive escalation’s occurring very early in the process.

3.5 Selective Perception
Perceptions drive assumptions and expectations. The other side’s behaviour may or may not fit expectations. Selective perception is illustrated as follows:

Let’s say Party A expects Party B to lie. When it is clear that B is not lying, then A will either ignore, or attribute that to some other reason or deception. When it is clear that B is lying, then A will zone in on that as reinforcement of her assessment of B’s character, and prediction of his behaviour. A is selecting what matches her perception: Selective Perception. A is more focused on B’s lying than on anything else, so the preconception is reinforced.

3.6 Negative Attribution
We attribute the other’s behaviour to whatever suits our positions at that time. Behaviour that does not strengthen one’s perception of the other is attributed to something else. This intensifies a self-fulfilling prophecy, and builds on itself to explode in caustic escalation.

3.7 Partialisation
The splitting of all information into boxes, which is then emphasised or ignored, gives bias or attention to.

3.8 Stereotyping
Labels and stereotypes make it easy to package a counterpart. Typecasting the other as stupid, malicious, evasive and so on, expedites escalation. These are personal attacks.

3.9 Victimhood
Victimhood, as a status that one confers on oneself, comes with rights of redress. Without protocols for restitution or remedy, increased violence may ensue and push the dispute further down towards the abyss.

4 Deliberate escalation of conflict
Both negotiation and mediation techniques include conscious escalation as an instrument to prepare for exploration of solutions.

Purposeful escalation stimulates venting. Venting is essential for problem solving options to be explored. And without that exploration, sustainable agreements don’t happen. Venting can get highly intractable parties ready to explore, generate ideas and consider options.

The conflict mountain:

Catharsis is often filled with new and valuable information that bolsters the quality of the challenge. It can shift a conflict from a you-vs.-me mode to an us-against-the-problem mode. It ideally separates interests and needs from rights and power.