Stop The Escalation! Stages of Conflict

‘Tis the season to be jolly… and yet, nobody can rule out conflicts that flare up around the holidays.

I thought it might be of use to list and explain a little the typical stages of conflict escalation, to give you a better idea where you’re at, what’s coming and how to check yourselves… 🙂 Hopefully, you won’t need them, but it’s a good tool for looking at the world around us – whether you are managing a group, dining with the in-laws or just wondering about various political developments.

Some of the best known research in the field of conflict management belongs to Friedrich Glasl, an Austrian political scientist, economist and management consultant, with his 9 stages of escalation:

1. HARDENING – Group members become aware of tensions and differences of opinion, but they still hold the conviction that these can be solved through communication and dialog.

2. DEBATE/DISCUSSION/CONTROVERSY – The “polarization” stage; exhausting debating leads to a division into groups and subgroups along the fault lines (different ways of thinking, feeling, doing things, different views become clearer and further apart). People become tempted to think in black/white or in superior/inferior.

3. ACTIONS – Those involved in the conflict are increasingly convinced that talks do not bring anything and that actions are in order. The opposing parties now follow the strategy of placing the other in front of a “fait accompli”.

4. COALITIONS – Rumors are spreading, at the expense of the opponent. People are looking for allies for their point of view and their intended courses of action. Negative clichés about the opponents are circulated, and these become “the enemy”. Coalitions are being built. The parties combat and antagonize each other.

These first four stages still hold the great promise of being resolved amicably, since they still rely on factual argumentation. Up to stage 3, a win-win is still possible. But as things deteriorate further, they move deeper and deeper into the personal realm, intensifying the bitterness and further closing the door on a positive outcome.

5. LOSS OF FACE – Open and direct attacks now take place between the parties. Defamation is rife. The opponent is ruthlessly “exposed” and discredited. The parties are deeply immersed in the win-lose phase.

6. THREATS – The parties threaten each other openly, menaces abound, “red lines” are being drawn. (By the way, for a threat to be even remotely effective, it has to be something that really affects the opponent, something I can carry through and which he knows and believes that I can and intend to carry through in the immediate or very near future.) Such ultimatums accelerate the escalation of the conflict.

7. SKIRMISHES/LIMITED BLOWS – This is the stage where both parties are pretty much pushed into the corners they have built for themselves. Out of these corners they are now launching limited attacks, whereby the enemy is increasingly perceived as an “object”, a “thing”. A small loss is already considered acceptable for the sake of dealing an important blow to the enemy. We are now entering the lose-lose phase.

8. WAR / OPPONENT’S DESTRUCTION / DESTRUCTION OF THE OPPOSING SYSTEM – The enemy has to be destroyed, their system has to be eliminated. The goal is the disintegration of the opponent.

9. TOGETHER INTO THE ABYSS – An all-out war is raging; there is no way back; each party now considers self-destruction a valid alternative, an acceptable price to pay for the opponent’s annihilation.

Scary, right? And yet, it all started with a hardening of attitudes that remained unresolved for too long.


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