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.


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