Diagnosing Escalation

As a conflict resolver, be it as a mediator, peacemaker, negotiation or facilitator, posessing the ability to diagnose a situation which has been escalated is important if you are to attempt to de-escalate and hopefully resolve it.

There are many different methods to identify the transformation that has taken place in order to properly explain how escalation has taken place. Rubin, Pruitt and Kim* list 5 types of transformation in social conflicts that can assist you in this process. The five are:

Light -> Heavy
The exchange starts off ‘light’ by trying to influence the other party with such tactics of verbal protest, making the other feel guilty and persuasion attempts. It becomes‘Heavy’ when physical threats and even actual physical violence become present. (A little obvious I might add)

Small -> Large
This refers to situations which started off with minimal resources being used to many being depleted. Resources can include personnel, money, and time.

Specific -> General
In this type of transformation, the situation is escalating from one or a few issues to what can be considered the relationship itself.

Doing well-> Winning -> Hurting Others
Initially, many times one party just wants things to work out in their favor. When a situation escalates, it changes from just doing well to now a competitive nature and wanting to not only win, but also to see the other side lose. The last stage of this transformation manifests when the party is possibly feeling hurt or incurring costs and wants to see the other party’s hurt and costs exceed theirs. Winning is no longer enough, and as the passage on page 21 says, it is “competition in the extreme”.

Few -> Many
What began as just one versus one or a few against a few snowballs into many on each side. When a party feels the situation is turning against them, many people tend to search for others on the outside to join with them.

As a mediator, diagnosing the cause of the escalation is important as it will help you understand the ‘big picture’ of the situation that brought the parties to you. You can also say this allows you to see the interests behind the positions. Rubin, Pruitt and Kim add a list of conditions that encourages conflict.

The list includes:
* Periods of rapidly expanding achievement
* Ambiguity about relative power
* Invidious comparison
* Status inconsistency
* Weakening normative consensus
* Zero-sum thinking
* Communication among group members
* The availability of leadership
Learn more about them from the book [here]

As conflict resolvers, knowing this list helps as after identifying the condition(s), we can help the parties see what has not worked in the past (the conditions listed) and brainstorm ideas on how to possibly do things differently in the future. Note, as a mediator, you do not have to ‘call out’ the condition to the parties. Simply knowing them can help you then help the parties.

An example is Zero-sum Thinking. This win-lose thinking of the me-versus-you mentality results in at least one party not being happy and relationships being strained, potentially beyond the point of repair. Assisting parties to consider options not including this zero-sum mentality (expanding the pie) not only promotes an atmosphere of collaboration and empathy, but also the possibility of a win-win resolution.

If you are interested in learning more about this, I suggest you click the link listed above or see below for the full information.

* J. Rubin, D. Pruitt, and S.H. Kim, Social Conflict (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994)

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