Unmanaged conflict has a tendency to become more intense and the relationship more conflictive as the conflict develops. As conflict escalates it impacts on our perceptions, behaviours and issues, becoming increasingly complex and difficult to stop.

In an unmanaged conflict, the stakes are raised progressively: ‘Disputes become sinks for resources that the parties never meant to commit… progressively incurring risks and costs that would have seemed intolerable earlier in the dispute’ (Carpenter & Kennedy, 1988).

Conflict theorists view conflict as a process – with predictable elements and a recognisable set of dynamics. As observed by Boulding (1962), conflict is a dynamic process rather than a static event that moves through different, recognisable stages.

The Conflict Spiral

Stage 1: Problem Solving

Conflict is part of our everyday lives, but in a healthy relationship where parties share responsibility in a cooperative manner and have a level of communication and trust, issues are dealt with in a constructive and proactive way. The parties are at ease with each other or have sufficient goodwill (and communication and assertive skills) to be able to address the situation without harming their relationship.

Disputes generally start with a resolvable problem that is not dealt with effectively.

Stage 2: Personal Antagonism

A simple disagreement over a practical problem can be transformed through personalisation of the issue. Party B gets annoyed at what is perceived as a personal attack, and makes a charge against Party A or attributes their behaviour to their character, intentions or motives. Unmanaged, the defensiveness in Party B results in defensiveness in Party A, causing what is known as the “push-pushback phenomenon” (Bolton 1979, p160). This triggers an upward spiral of blaming that can become aggressive and destructive. Typically, the incidents at this stage of a conflict result in one party walking away or storming out.

Stage 3: Issue Proliferation

The breakdown in trust and communication leads to misunderstandings. Motives and intentions are likely to be misperceived, leading to increased incidents. The pattern is one of issue expansion, proliferation and generalisation, leaving a sense of confusion and unmanageability (Lederach, 1986). Issues become increasingly less specific and more general.

Stage 4: Stereotyping

As parties grow further apart there is a breakdown in constructive communication and understanding. Misperceptions, heightened emotional upset and feelings of threat further escalate the conflict, often leading to stereotyping, which is built on ignorance, distorted views and over-generalisation.

Stage 5: Reciprocal Hostility

Left unmanaged, the conflict spirals out of control. There is strong projection and growing distortion of image. Seeing the ‘other’ as ‘utterly unreasonable’, ‘impossible’ or ‘un-redeemably bad’ – allows the other party or group to externalise or displace hostility and maintain their own cohesion.

Stage 6: Polarisation

By this time all direct communication and contact has stopped and there is an extremely complex array of issues. The confirmed images of each side become rigid. Intention turns to driving the other out by destroying their case or undermining them to such a degree that they cannot function in their role. The conflict at this stage is politicised – the level of behaviour and emotion of the primary parties makes it difficult for those not directly involved to remain neutral. Unless they are strong enough to maintain neutral ground, those on the fringes are insidiously forced to align with one or other side.

Left unrestrained, conflict may be catapulted into a vicious cycle of covert or overt violence that creates a state of siege. All objectivity is lost. Parties respond to the politics of the latest ‘atrocity’ rather than addressing the substantive issues, and the conflict becomes stubborn, debilitating and seemingly retractable.

Adapted from Pruitt, Rubin and Kim (2006)
The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice

Now consider the EBPS Levels of Conflict exercise below to see if you can identify the different stages in a personal conflict:

EBPS Levels of Conflict exercise