This terrible cycle of provoking and counter-provoking or action and reaction is a sure sign of dispute escalation. Depending on the nature of the provocation will determine how quickly the dispute escalates. There is plenty of psychology in disputes, particularly during the escalation process. I’m not a psychologist, but it does help to understand this aspect a little. Here’s my attempt to help.
Not surprisingly during this process, parties develop negative attitudes towards each other. These exist because people tend to have selective perceptions which have the effect of confirming their views about others whilst ignoring or brushing aside any information which does not confirm their existing attitude. How many times have you heard a client say, ‘see what I mean, that confirms their attitude’ or ‘what’s the catch, there must be a reason they are saying that’ or the classic ‘see now they understand they have a problem so they are trying to get out of it’.
Then there is the self-fulfilling prophecy, basic assumptions about character, by provoking and getting an ‘expected’ response. This then confirms the opinion – ‘see what did I say, what did I tell you’ and the cycle continues. Sometimes people break off communication, and go silent, which does nothing more than create hostility. People tend to lose sight of where they are and invest in or try to call their bluff, in the hope capitulation will ensue. When it does not yield this result, more energy is thrown at the problem. This is the vicious cycle of dispute escalation. This may lead to a point where the outcome is, ‘well if I go down, they will go down with me in a big way’. I see this all the time with businesses that seek court intervention to resolve disputes – ‘well, if I can’t have the company, then they sure as hell won’t either’.
The outcome – stalemate – yield, withdraw or resolve, there are no other options.
Here is what the research tells us about conflict escalation (Pruitt & Rubin). I bet this resonates with your experience:
- When escalation is apparent the approach taken by parties changes from arguments and attempts to please, to threats or power plays.
- Next the issues under dispute grow, so the pie gets larger, and the parties invest more time and resources into the argument.
- Then the issues grow from specific to general. There is a tendency by the parties to throw everything that has troubled them into their position. You will recall the latent conflict where we harbour concerns and then the trigger event happens. Well now all the issues are lumped together and because of this the other side are simply bad people.
- The number of parties involved in the dispute grows. More people are drawn into the conflict.
- Then the outcome moves from taking an acceptable outcome to winning and then it moves to ‘if I can’t have it then they can’t either’ simply hurting the other.
Sometimes escalation is a good thing – it may be needed to pressure parties into action. This is usually after due consideration of strategy and tactics. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. The concern lies with those who escalate without giving thought or consideration to the outcome.
Some of the basics of why disputes escalate include:
- Incompatible goals
- We are just different
- Identity and moral issues
- Past grievances and injustices
As the dispute develops, attitudes change from anger and fear to negative attitudes, perceptions, and stereotypes – a blame game. Then there is the sacrifice trap. You just keep investing regardless, of whether you are right or wrong to start with.
Selective perception is where the other party is viewed to fit into a perception or expectations. This then ingrains your perception.
Lastly, you develop this tendency to misinterpret the behaviour or doubt any goodwill expressed.
There’s a lot going on. It is not lineal. Disputes move and manifest. They escalate and de-escalate. You get to a stalemate, a possible solution to a stalemate again and even a hurting stalemate. When you are working with people in a dispute take your time. Listen. Bring some calm to the situation and talk about what’s next. There are ways to bring about peace.