Conflict escalation to de-escalation

January 28, 2015
Steve Sumsion

Jeffrey Z. Rubin’s brilliant article, “Conflict from a Psychological Perspective”, is a great resource for anyone dealing with disputes, either personally or professionally. In the article, Rubin outlines certain common psychological patterns that appear when individuals get into conflict. Rubin also offers a variety of suggestions for de-escalation that can help to settle those conflicts in efficient and stress-relieving ways. We have summarized some of Rubin’s more interesting points below. Rubin’s essay can be found in full in Negotiation: Strategies for Mutual Gain: the basic seminar of the Harvard Program on Negotiation.

Conflict Escalation

Rubin claims that there are five frequently seen transformations that can occur as a conflict escalates. They are:

(1) a proliferation of the issues (e.g., what began as a conflict over a single issue becomes a conflict over many different, but related issues),

(2) a shift from criticism of the other party’s actions to criticism of the other party’s personality,

(3) a shift from light tactics (such as promises to reward the other party for good behavior) to heavy tactics (such as threats to harm the other party if he will not cooperate),

(4) a shift in motivation towards revenge and making the other party pay, and

(5) an increase in the number of individuals that are involved in the dispute.At Sumsion Business Law, we believe that some conflicts are unavoidable, and that some conflicts should be deliberately escalated. We are here to help our clients handle those conflicts. However, we also want to see our clients move forward in ways that make sense for them. As a result, we suggest that each client pay attention to the speed and manner in which their conflict is escalating, and consider whether the time is ripe for de-escalation.


Rubin provides a variety of recommendations to aid in the de-escalation of conflicts. These include:

1) Spend more time face to face. Increased contact time is the key to removing prejudices that are created throughout the escalation phase.

2) Work on communication skills. Listening and listening between the lines (i.e., trying to understand what the other side really means and really wants) can be tremendously helpful.

3) Build momentum. Seek to work on an easy issue first.

4) Look for ways to cooperate with the other side. If you are willing to work with them, you may find that they are more willing to work with you.

5) Be firm on goals but flexible on means. Few people are willing to accommodate an inflexible opponent.

6) Consider the wisdom of change. If the situation is in a stalemate and things are not working, do something different.

7) Let the other side save face. This can be done through a third party (such as a mediator) or behind-the-scenes communications. Please contact us with any questions that you may have about how we can help you to handle a dispute. Our attorneys have over 30 years of experience in the world of commercial litigation.


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