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I am looking for guidelines or sources of information regarding behavior patterns that prevent the escalation of conflict. It would be nice also to see some differentiation and analysis of conflict stages and recommended priorities in each stage.

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Stages of Conflict

Prior to any discussion of conflict, we need to examine what the conflict is and at what stage we're entering into it. The stages below represent levels of escalation (delineated clearly only for illustrative purposes; they are never quite so clear), and your entry into a conflict may occur at any stage (that is, you can be trained to recognize conflict signs when you are not directly involved in the conflict).

  1. No Conflict – In this stage, no conflict yet exists. Given human nature, it's probably incorrect to call it a "no conflict" stage, but rather "pre-conflict", since conflict is an inevitability.1

  2. Latent Conflict – This is the stage at which there is a conflict of ideas. This could be as simple as political or philosophical ideologies, or the split second in which one person attempts to occupy the same space as another unintentionally (that is, bumping into someone).

  3. Emergence – At this point, one or both parties have made it clear that there is a difference between them that requires a resolution. Signs of tension become clear, discord will start to emerge.

  4. Escalation – The escalation stage is marked by direct and heated exchange. In business, we may see this in terms of a negotiation (marked typically by the phrase, "And that's my final offer." This is, of course, not the final offer, but an escalation bluff.), or in a fight we may see this in the form of shoving.

  5. Stalemate – I choose this term carefully; at this point, the conflict reaches crescendo, and the conflict is at its worst. In this stage, if we consider a fight as a form of conflict, then it's at this point the worst violence will occur.

  6. De-escalation – At this point, someone gives up; one party is worn down by the other, and it's clear to one party that they are not likely to reach a favorable resolution.

  7. Settlement – At this point, the conflict is settled. In a negotiation, this would be both parties walking away or coming to an agreement; in a fight, this is usually someone fleeing or someone dropping.

  8. Reconciliation – This might be considered "the aftermath". If we're talking about a fight, this may be a prolonged arrest, trial, and sentencing; in a failed negotiation, it might be a peace offering to rebuild relations between two companies. Even mutually beneficially resolved conflicts have a reconciliation stage.

NB: There are numerous variations on the stages of conflict, ranging on average from 6 to 9 steps. These are the 8 I use in conflict examination.

Conflict Indicators

Recognizing signs of emerging conflict can be extremely difficult. I've been studying and employing the examination of micro-expressions and body language for over a decade now and I still have difficulties. The keys to recognizing emerging conflict lies in your ability to rapidly and correctly identify the circumstances around you. At any given point, in the absence of any other evidence, consider yourself in the pre-conflict state. Before entering into conflict as an outsider, or when you find yourself entering into a conflict, examine and evaluate these criteria:

  • What is the conflict at hand?
    If you find yourself in a conflict, know what the subject is. At the first indication, make note of the content of the conflict – Is someone demanding your wallet? Do they disagree with your ideological views? Did you bump into them?

  • At what stage in the conflict are you finding yourself?
    You now know the eight stages of conflict; do you recognize where you currently are?

  • What body language is being exhibited?
    Here's where my specialty lies, so let me throw a few out there:

    • Blading – Blading is the act of turning the body at an angle to a perceived threat. It's a natural behavior that is adopted and trained in shooting for the same reason that it occurs naturally: the creation of a smaller target. A person feeling defensive will blade in an effort to protect the ventral side (which is the most vulnerable).2

    • Pushing – Pushing, shoving, etc. are distancing behaviors. You're seeing someone who is giving you a chance to keep your distance, so take it. Instead of charging back in like a picked on kid in a school yard, step back further. This is your chance for de-escalation, and the pushing can be the stalemate.2

    • Crossed arms – First, determine if it's cold. Obviously, if it's cold, cross-arms may indicate simply that they're cold. Were they cross-armed before? This is a baseline posture for them then (and likely indicative of a nervous personality, since this is also known as a self-hugging gesture), and it has nothing to do with you. If they crossed their arms while dealing with you, then this is likely a defensive posture; they're feeling attacked, and may be open to ending the conflict. Context is key, and knowing how to end the conflict at this point can save you a lot of discomfort.2

    • Shedding – The removal of clothing (also symbolized in the loosening of a tie during a meeting) can indicate an increase in body temperature, which may be tied to an increase in stress (and thus adrenaline) in the body. Like self-hugging gestures, context is incredibly important (Sometimes, it's just about making oneself more comfortable – Swallowing while performing this action may indicate strong emotion, which leans more toward [non-sexual] arousal).2

    • Emotional leakage – In complicated terms, I'm looking for indications of AU combinations of 1+2+4+5+20+26, 4+5+7+23, 9+15+16, or 12+14 [unilaterally]. In more simple terms, I'm looking for indications of Fear, Anger, Disgust, or Contempt. These are universal emotions that leak through in varying intensities in the faces of otherwise mentally healthy individuals when stress is increased despite attempts to suppress them. In psychopaths, there may be indications of arousal (through pupil dilation) or joy. Again, context is everything.3

    These are by no means exhaustive illustrations. They are meant as potential indicators of internal processes in others.

Priorities in Conflict Resolution

Despite the stage, your priority is simple: get to stage 6 quickly. The earlier you can push through 4 and 5, the better the resolution will likely be. In other words, @Trevoke is right to an extent: the sooner you give up your willingness to pursue the conflict, the sooner the de-escalation stage is reached, the sooner you can reach a resolution, and you can begin to unwind or repair the damage.

In training, I use conditioning to aid conflict resolution; at the end of each and every technique, run. You're training yourself in this way that when the opponent is no longer a threat, you create distance to force de-escalation. Running away is not the best solution for every conflict (for example, running away from arguing with your wife will lead to emotional leakage of first anger, then disgust, then contempt. If your wife is showing you contempt, hire a lawyer – you're going to be divorced soon).4

Directly Related Answer: When Should I Run Away?

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You can find all your answers in Rory Miller's books Meditation on Violence and Facing Violence. There is no point for me to quote all what he is saying. Have a good read.

Added. Both of these books giving grate foundation of what is violence in particular: Types of violence How violence occurs Deescalation Recognizing Stress management in particular freeze management Lots of good examples

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But can you give reason why someone should read those books? –  Matt Chan Apr 14 '13 at 12:31
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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

I don't have personal experience of any books on the broader topic of conflict resolution, but a few different texts I've read touch on different specific sub-topics.

My old karate school uses Joan M. Nelson's Self-Defense: Steps to Success for a reference manual on the topics of assertiveness and de-escalation, which are key concepts in conflict resolution. She gives good advice that is simple, reasonable, and actionable.

Books about the sociology of criminality and the psychology of crime and ape dominance games might be useful in your search. In that vein I've read Fight Time: The Normative Rules and Routines of Interpersonal Violence by Terance D. Miethe and Gini R. Deibert. It's not terribly specific in its recommendations, and is a good but not great overview of some of the high-level studies on the issue.

Much better in my mind were two books by Richard T. Wright and Scott Decker: Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups and Street Culture and Burglars on the Job: Streetlife and Residential Break-ins. These are fascinating and enormously detailed works on the tactics, inner mental states, and social lives of criminals. The authors conducted in-depth interviews with hundreds of currently active armed robbers and burglers, and included gobs of quotes. They took substantial time to gain the trust of these people, in order to really examine how they implemented these crimes, as well as how they thought of those acts. I highly recommend these books if "conflict resolution" in the context of those crimes is part of your study.

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Rory Miller and Marc MacYoung do a "Conflict Communication" course. They are available for seminars, and I beleive will have a book coming out soon on the topic. I've been through the seminar with Rory and it was a great learning experience.


Rory's book "Facing Violence" is also a great resource on this topic.

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From my experience as a bouncer, I can unequivocally state that you are making two very big assumptions here:

  1. escalations can be avoided
  2. escalations should be avoided

The best way to avoid an escalation is to walk away. However there are many times where you can't or shouldn't avoid the escalation, and there will be times where you need to join the escalation (you could be intervening in someone else's situation). This can be rephrased more succinctly as:

Don't avoid the escalation, take control of the escalation.

This is what you train for, to know when and how to fix a situation, and by how much. Training teaches you to read an opponent and to know whether walking away or an on-the-spot-counselling-session is an option. Some subtle body language changes may assist with your situation, but this has to be natural (i.e. instinctive) rather than acted. Two people exhibiting the same behaviour pattern can have totally different outcomes.

You cannot learn this stuff from a textbook - knowing some theory is fantastic but it isn't going to get you very far when you face a real situation.

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I would like to read some theory in order to get some things to think about. To know what questions to ask myself and answer now, not at a moment that something dangerous is happening. –  Vorac Jun 1 '12 at 7:48
Do you happen to know of any training courses for things like this? –  Trevoke Jun 1 '12 at 11:38
You need to be careful with this attitude (I'm not saying it's wrong, just that it's easily to apply poorly). I've had to intervene in two separate situations where I've seen bouncers escalating a situation which didn't need to lead to physical conflict at all. In both cases, I defused a situation the bouncer was pushing towards violence. –  Rophuine Jun 26 '12 at 3:26
Let me phrase that differently. Your goal, in taking control of the escalation, has to be de-escalation. I've had to intervene in two separate situations where the bouncer was more interested in getting to the smack-in-the-mouth stage of escalation than he was in proceeding quickly (and preferably without violence) to the de-escalation stage. –  Rophuine Jun 26 '12 at 3:31
@Rophuine Your second statement is totally correct, that was what I was implicitly meaning, especially with the phrase and by how much. The key thing is that no two situations are exactly alike, each one needs to be judged on its merits (or lack thereof). And I agree about bouncers - there are a lot of them out there who do the job for entirely the wrong reason. –  slugster Jun 26 '12 at 6:57
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I'm going to answer this question by pointing my finger at the moon.

Conflict comes from ego. Your ego. Other people's ego. And two or more egos suddenly wanting really hard to "win".

If YOU don't want to win, then where is the conflict? Well, unfortunately, sometimes egos make up big long stories and they don't need another ego.

So now you know: once you've disengaged YOUR ego, you just need to stay aware of the other egos.

Of course, how do you do that? Oh yeah... Meditate.

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-1 This does not answer the question, even under MA's broad criteria. Conflict resolution is an entire field that cannot be reduced to "lose your ego". That, plus the lack of sources or references, makes this an unproductive answer. –  Dave Liepmann Jun 1 '12 at 2:54
@DaveLiepmann Let's agree to disagree. From past experience, I believe I shall not be able to explain my argument to you. Should you be open to a conversation, it shall be my pleasure. –  Trevoke Jun 1 '12 at 3:32
@DaveLiepmann Would you be kind enough to go check meta.martialarts.stackexchange.com/questions/211/… and let us know your thoughts? –  Trevoke Jun 1 '12 at 14:18
You only need that one taste. Even a memory of a memory is often enough :-D –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Jun 2 '12 at 2:29
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