Stages of Dispute Escalation

Have you ever been in a dispute that has gotten out of hand? Perhaps you been in a dispute that got so heated that it became a “matter of principle” and the original reason for the dispute has been cast aside. This is a phenomenon in conflict that we practitioners see all the time. It is when conflicts get out of hand and escalates into something bigger then what was intended by each party. These escalations make the dispute harder to resolve, and trap the parties into ridged positions that seem impossible to move from. We become stuck in our disputes with no way of getting out.
Being aware of this phenomenon will help you to recognize where you are in your dispute and help you to contain dispute escalations. This article will look at three stages in dispute escalation in a way that will help you recognize this pattern. These three stages are 1) gaining, 2) over invested, and 3) identify preservation and resentment.
When we are in a dispute, we typically are looking to get some sort of gain from it. We may dispute over things such as limited resources, influence, or power. Very often conflict starts with clear defined goals as to what we want to achieve. Parties will begin to maneuver and use their resources to win the dispute. They may hire an attorney, pour in money, and make strategic moves to outwit and out maneuver the other party. Many times conflicts will end here if one party has an upper hand over the other, but if the conflict escalates, it will move onto the next state of Minimizing. The key is at this stage the parties feel that they have something to gain in engaging in a dispute.
Over Invested:
If a conflict or dispute continues, eventually parties will begin to exhaust all of their resources. Conflict is always costly, and people will begin to run out of money, time, and energy. At this point a shift happens within the parties as their goals that were once clear and defined begin to change.
Typically parties begin to see the high cost of the conflict and begin to minimize the damage and cost that they have incurred. Many parties begin to feel that they have invested a lot of time, and resources into the dispute, and to lose at this point would be at a loss. At this point the only way that the parties can justify the expense of the conflict is to win. They become trapped and feel that they have come too far to lose. They begin to see how much has been exhausted, and this ads value to winning. No one likes to lose especially one they have invested their resources.
Thus they hope that the other party will soon give up, and quit because of the high cost that has occurred. What each party does not realize is that the other party most likely is over invested as well and is secretly sharing the same hope. This begins to create more stress and desperation and resentment towards the other party and the actual reason for the dispute becomes convoluted and cast to the wayside, and the dispute moves to the final stage of escalation.
Identify Preservation and Resentment:
At this stage the dispute has transformed. No longer is the dispute over the disputed resource but rather it is fueled over the resentment over the other. Now the conflict focuses on the other party, and it becomes a battle of wills. The Parties motive for winning becomes more for the principle of it. They may realize that they will expend a lot of energy, but the drive to win over the other is stronger.
Seeing the other party loose becomes the goal. In many ways the dispute is now been associated with ones identity, and winning will strengthen the parties’ perception of self. At this point of escalation, relationships are broken, and both parties begin to mirror each other’s actions as they escalate the dispute. Typically when there is a winner, the cost of the win is outweighed by the loss of expended resources.
How to avoid escalation:
Avoiding escalation can be hard to do, but there are a few self checks that can help you see where you are. Remember conflict is emotional, and taking the time to check your emotional state can help a conflict from escalating. Keeping your goals in mind is another self check. Take time to review your goals. Has these goals changed? If so why? Always know your limits, know how far you are willing to go. Know beforehand when winning becomes too expensive.
Another consideration is the relationship. What kind of relationship do you want with the other party? Is winning worth losing a friend, or a spouse or client? Remember that relationships are always affected by conflict and escalation can do more to damage it.
Finally remember that actions are contagious. How you behave in a conflict generally will dictate how the other behaves. If you reach to escalate a conflict, then more than likely the other party will too. Therefore the more vigilant you are in your words and actions to deescalate the better the other party will too.
Although these questions are not a sure fire way to diffuse escalation, they can help you keep some perspective in a dispute. Escalation happens because of transformations that are triggered within the conflict. Being aware of how a conflict may escalate will give you some insight as to where you are and where you are heading.


Co-Worker Miscommunication

Dear Mediator,

I am having a problem with a co-worker that I have very little contact with and do not know very well. We are working on a project together and we had some problems in our communication with each other. (I mistakenly overlooked a request of a status update in one of his emails.) So it looked like I was ignoring him. He in turn went to the supervisor and complained that I was unresponsive and procrastinating on the project even though he really gave no deadlines about when he needed it done. To make it worse, I saw the co-worker the day before and he said nothing about my progress to me. What should I do?
Signed Tim.

Thanks for writing Tim. From reading your email, it seems that you and your co-worker do not know each other well and do not have much of a working relationship. Perhaps this is the reason for your problem. Do you think that if you two knew each other better and understood how each other worked that this problem would have happened?

When we do not know other’s very well, we tend to make assumptions about the motives of their behavior. For example, not hearing back from you perhaps made your co-worker make assumptions for your lack of behavior. These assumptions are created (correctly or incorrectly) by his past experiences in similar situations or his biases. Thus he may have assumed that you were dogging him and the project. Had he knew you better, he may have assumed that perhaps there was a communication problem and felt more comfortable talking to you and not a supervisor.

My advice to you would be to get to know him better. Sit down and talk about how to communicate with each other. Tell him your preferences. Give him some guidance. Just getting to know him will give him ques as to your personality, and your willingness to work. This will go a long way.

Furthermore, try making a conscience effort not to make assumptions about his behavior. Reserve judgement until you have some time to talk to him and have some experience to make judgements. I think that you will find it easier to get over this dispute if you do so.

Also a reminder about email. Remember email is not a substitute for conversation. At times email is confusing and overwhelming especially if it is full of content. Keep emails short, a sentence or two. Make it direct, and simple. This will help cut miscommunication. Remember if it takes more than a few sentences, then you should really pick up the phone and call.
Perhaps our readers have some good advice to lend?

Please remember if you have a conflict and want some advice to please email me.

How Different Are Our Perceptions?

We use our perception to make since of the world. It gives us direction, forms our values and influences our relationships, decisions and realities. Our lives are so intimately connected to our perception that most of the time, we fail to realize its influence upon us and we begin to see our perceptions as truth and matter of fact. The reality is that our perception is just one of 6 billion in this world, and when it comes to any type of relationship, we have to negotiate our perception with others’ views and understandings. This process at times can be difficult and cause conflict between us and others. So the question is: Just how different are our perceptions with others? Knowing that we all do not see the world the same can help us resolve and prevent some of our conflicts.
How different are our Perceptions:
The answer to this question is that our perceptions are very different from one another. Let’s look at something as basic as our attention. When we see, our eyes bring in mass amounts of information to our brain. Our brain then sifts through the visual information and focuses on images that are important to us. This is done through our short term memory. We call is process our attention. Attention researchers have discovered that if two people are looking out a window together, they are literally seeing something very different. This is because everybody is focusing on some things and suppressing others. Therefore what we physically see is different then what others see, because our attention is selective and individual. In other words, we are literally seeing the world in a different way.
Another perception experiment was with married couples. For a few weeks married couples were to keep a journal of everything that they did. Since married couples tend to spend a lot of time together, the experiment was designed to compare everyday interactions and experiences that both parties shared. After the few weeks were completed, the journals revealed some interesting observations. The conclusion after comparing the notes was that the level of agreement on their accounts was at the level of pure chance. These are people who live, eat and sleep together, yet they do not see the same world. Each person described what they saw and experienced so differently; it would be hard to conclude that they saw and experienced the same events.
Not only do we literally see things differently, but we place meaning onto what we see. Observations and visual data mean little to us if it does not have meaning. It is meaning that dictates our actions and responses as to what we see. For example, if we see danger, we only know that it is danger because of the meaning that we placed on the visual image that we received. Our meanings that we have are created through our culture, knowledge; and our own personal experiences. For example, we may look at a dog and feel comfortable, while someone else may see a dog and be afraid due to a past experience. Thus these tenants of culture, knowledge, and experiences plays a big role and to how we see the world.
The problem for us comes with negotiating our perceptions with others. Many of times, we may share some of our perceptions with people from our own culture, or family. But there are times when our perceptions clash with others and create conflict between ourselves. So being aware of the existence of differences in perception will go a long way in our ability to relate to others. Taking the time to learn and understand other’s perceptions will help you overcome disagreements and conflicts that may arise. Take time to ask open ended questions about how others feel and see the world. Try to be open and nonjudgmental. This does not mean you have to agree with them, but rather understand and respect their perception as a collection of their life experiences. By understanding and being more aware of perceptions, we will be better prepared to improve and strengthen our relationships.

A Simple Conflict Resolution Technique: Focus on Behaviors not Intentions

Here is a simple technique that can make a world of difference in your everyday relationships and interactions. When you find yourself in a conflict, argument, or disagreement, make sure that you focus on the other party’s behaviors and try not to make assumptions about their intent, motives, or reasoning. When we focus on the other’s intent and motives, the other party will bring up a wall that we will need to bring down in order to find a resolution. When we do this, our disagreement quickly transforms and escalates into a conflict about ones character, and moral qualities. The other party will feel that he has to defend her reasoning and intentions rather than address in the behavior or problem. So why create an obstacle for yourself. By focusing on the other party’s behavior we have something tangible to discuss, and focus upon. Behavior is something that we can observe and measure, motives, and intent is not. Behavior is something that all parties can see and address, while motives and intentions are not.
For example, if your “significant other” is messy around the house, the best way to address this is to focus on the behavior. You may say something such as “I notice that you do not put your dirty clothing in the hamper.” The “putting away the dirty clothing” is something that we all can observe, and measure. We can show our partner examples of his/her behavior. This type of statement identifies an observable problem, and does not assign any reason, motive, or label to the situation. This statement gets right to the point and identifies the behavior in question. The statement or observation avoids an attack against the other’s character and creates one less thing that needs to be overcome.
In my practice I have seen many arguments escalate because the parties attempted to assign a motive or intent to the other party’s behavior(s). By doing so they built up obstacles between them and creating a new conflict regarding the others’ character, intent, and moral qualities. If they would have just addressed the behavior which they could quantify, they would have been able to resolve their issues much quicker and efficiently. So the next time you find yourself in an argument, or conflict, try to point our behaviors and stay away from assuming behavior. This technique will help to make you a great conflict resolver in all of your relationships.

Resolving Conflict Through Empathy

“Never judge a person until you have walked a mile in their moccasins.”

 Native American proverb.

How much better would we be if we took the time to look at the world through the eyes of another?  How many arguments and conflicts would we have avoided in our lives if we just looked at life through another’s view point? Empathy is a great tool that can allow us to look at life through another’s perspective to move us past conflict with others.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s situation and share his/hers thoughts and feelings. Empathy is also looking at things from the other’s point of view rather then yours.  When we use empathy, we can begin to turn any conflict situation into a problem solving opportunity. Empathy promotes understanding and allows us to move beyond our positions and begin to explore the others’ interests and needs.  It promotes acknowledgement, respect, and legitimacy of other’s concerns, thus letting the other party know that they are heard.

Having empathy alone will not go far to move a conflict to resolution. One has to publicly show empathy to the other in order for it to change our outcomes. Showing empathy means telling others you understand their feelings and perspective. One way for showing empathy is sharing similar experiences with the other party as a way of relating to their concerns. This will let them know that you can relate to them and their situation. If you have no similar experiences, try to understand their situations and express your feelings for them.  Remember that in showing empathy you must mean what you say. When you express empathy that you do not really feel, you may offend people and do more harm then good. Let’s look at an example:

 Mr. Johnson is upset with Robert’s young children. Robert is Mr. Johnson’s neighbor and his children come into Mr. Johnson’s yard and trample though his garden beds. Mr. Johnson confronts Robert about the problem.

Robert responds to Mr. Johnson by saying, “I understand your frustrated Mr. Johnson. You have put many hours in your garden, and I know it means a lot to you. I will talk to my children and make sure that they respect your property.”

Robert’s showing of empathy allows Mr. Johnson to know that Robert understood his concern about his garden. Robert acknowledged Mr. Johnson’s feelings, and his invested time and value that he placed on his garden. Such showing of empathy brought out Mr. Johnson’s interests and now makes it easier to discuss a solution to the problem. In this example empathy created common ground for both parties to worth from. Robert and Mr. Johnson both understand and acknowledged how frustrating and important the situation is and can now work to solve the problem.

Empathy does not mean that you have to agree or give in to the other side’s demands or perspective. This idea is a myth and generally keeps others from expressing it. One can empathize with another and still disagree with the other parties’ solutions, and perspective. Let’s look at the example above again:

Robert understands that Mr. Johnson is upset about his garden being trampled by his children, but Robert knows that because the garden is located next to the side walk that his children are not the only children that are walking through the garden.  In fact he has stopped other children from walking through Mr. Johnson’s garden before. Robert says to Mr. Johnson, “I understand that you are frustrated about your garden.  I would be too with all the time and money you have put into it. I am sure my children need to be more careful around it, and I will talk to them. However, I also have noticed that other children are also walking through your garden.  Have you noticed that as well?”

In this example Robert shows empathy, and yet does not agree with Mr. Johnson’s perspective that his children are solely responsible for the incident.  Robert was able to show empathy and create a space to resolve the conflict while still holding to his perspective.

Empathy is a tool that can be used to create starting point to resolve conflict.  It is not a declaration of defeat or admission of guilt. Rather it can help bring down the other parties defenses by showing the other party that you are willing to listen and resolve.  Empathy can help bring parties together by creating a little common ground to build from. It allows the parties to acknowledge each others’ humanity and legitimacy.  Once this is established in a conflict, resolution can then be pursued.  If we learn to use empathy in our relationships and conflict, we will find ourselves building stronger and lasting resolutions and associations.

Have a Question?

Do you have a question or need some help with a conflict? Please feel free to ask questions or advise that you do not mind being posted on the blog. As always your name and any identifying details will be protected. Just drop a line or email me at

A Matter of Perception

We all have heard the saying “actions speak louder then words,” yet what is it that the action is saying to us? Do they tell us anything about another’s motives, and intentions? Unfortunately observing another’s actions alone does very little to tell us anything about the other’s internal motives. Thus we are left to interpret the action within a context of our history, and relationship with that person. No matter how well we think we know the situation and the other person, any conclusion that we come too is just an interpretation.
            Many times conflict is rooted in our perception of another’s actions and intentions. How we view and interpret the behavior another, can determine our attitude towards the shaping of the conflict. For many people there are tendencies which we follow that help build this perception. Such tendencies involve assigning internal and external reasons for the behaviors of others and ourselves. When we see another’s action or a behavior that we do not like, we tend to assign an internal reason for the behavior such as a character flaw to explain the other party’s action.  For example, if a co-worker is late to an important meeting, we may say it is because she is unorganized, uncaring, or unprofessional. These types of labels tend to show a character flaw towards the other. However when we are the ones that are late to the meeting, we tend to excuse our behavior with external reasons such as my child was sick, or traffic was heavy. Rarely will we attribute our lateness to our professionalism or laziness.                                                                              
             Such perceptions can promote conflict by creating barriers that can prevent us from understanding each other. They can create perceptions that may not be accurate and make others put up defenses that enable us to see the issues clearly. Just being aware of these tendencies can help us move away from conflict in our lives. We will be more open minded and clearer when we see behaviors that we do not like. Therefore when you address a problematic behavior with another, be aware of your own perception limitations and focus on the behavior itself and not its interpretation. Discuss the behavior with the other party because you can measure and observe the behavior but you cannot measure or observe the motive or intention.  These simple steps of awareness and addressing the behavior itself will do wonders in resolving conflicts in your life.