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Bar News - October 19, 2012

Alternative Dispute Resolution: The Conflict Continuum and the Professional’s Response


How do you define conflict? Suffice to say we all probably know it when we see it, so providing a definition is something we don’t spend much conscious time doing. However, knowing what it is by definition can help us as alternative dispute resolution (ADR) professionals to better respond to the conflict and, hopefully, reduce it to some manageable level or end it in some way.

"Conflict" includes these definitions: two people or "sides" coming into collision or disagreement; being contradictory, at variance, or in opposition to one another; clashing, fighting, or contending; doing battle; struggling with another; experiencing discord in action, feeling, or effect; having opposing interests or principles with another. And the list goes on.

As ADR professionals, we typically enter the arena of our clients’ conflict somewhere during its duration, not at its inception. Where we enter the conflict can have major implications as to how we resolve it.

It’s helpful to look at conflict as a continuum with five points or stages: (1) initiation or inception; (2) escalation; (3) entrapment; (4) de-escalation; and (5) termination. Recognizing at what point along this continuum a particular conflict is can be very helpful in identifying the resolution strategy we might apply.

In the accompanying graphic (Figure 1) Ho-Won Jeong (see full citation at the end of the article) suggests a simple bell curve for visualizing this conflict continuum, which he terms a conflict progression model.

Responding to the different stages of conflict

There is no cookie-cutter approach to conflict resolution. Not only is each client and each circumstance different, requiring adapting one’s style and strategy from case to case, but, and more importantly, the different stages of conflict require additional fine-tuning of the conflict resolution approach to maximize effectiveness at each stage. Let’s look at conflict along the continuum and the approach/strategy the ADR professional might take at each.


Conflict arises from what seems to be an infinite number of justifications, although the underlying causes are limited and more easily identified. Some of the more readily recognized causes including competition (such as competition for resources or things); injustice (having been wronged, cheated, betrayed); distrust; power (the need to control others); miscommunication; personality (simply disliking another); identity preservation (a basic instinct along with security and self-preservation); greed; cultural differences; physical or psychological need; ideology; and mental disorders. Seldom – if ever – do we as conflict resolution professionals have the opportunity to stop conflict before it begins, although we may be able to head off a behavior or a decision that would otherwise escalate conflict. It’s after this stage, and usually well into the escalation stage and beyond, that we find ourselves entering the fray.


The escalation of conflict is characterized by rising levels of hostility, the more acute polarization of relationships, and increased distrust. Individual confrontations become more severe. Communication between the parties becomes strained and is eventually impeded. Paradoxically, one or both adversaries may de-humanize the other while personalizing the conflict. The need to win becomes the primary, if not the only, motivation, often combined with a self-justified desire to do harm to the other party.

Intervention at this stage should first focus on stabilizing the conflict lest it continue to escalate. Stabilization requires applying one or more techniques. Maintaining and improving communication is a necessary first step. Emotions are rising and logic is sinking. Cut through the emotion, defuse the anger and distrust, help the parties to overcome pride and damaged self-esteem – and re-introduce logical thinking (no easy matter) to stabilize the situation. Defuse the tendency toward a tit-for-tat exchange of threats and intimidation, and bring power more into balance through lowering the expectations of a successful fight, and bring the sides back to reality. Promote conciliation – irrevocable gestures without conditions – and emphasize the disadvantages of uncontrolled, emotion-fueled conflict.


At this stage on the continuum conflict has escalated and leveled off, although not at a healthy place. The parties are trapped in the conflict and the conflict, which is now accepted as normal and natural, continues unabated like a perpetual motion machine. The parties don’t want their efforts in the fight to be in vain, so the conflict is perpetuated, even though they may have lost sight of the original cause of the conflict. The goal may become, at this stage, less about winning and more about not losing.

Although the conflict has, for all intents and purposes, self-stabilized, it is at an unacceptable level. Focus on establishing, improving and/or maintaining communication, again as the first step in intervention. Cut through and defuse the emotion, including the anger and distrust and the fear anchored in distrust, to turn the situation away from entrapment to de-escalation. Improved communication whittles away at distrust. Offering alternatives to confrontation will begin to melt the fear. This is a good time to present a cost-benefit analysis – assessing the costs of continuing the conflict compared to the benefits of not doing so. Re-focus the adversaries from irrational perspectives as combatants to the existence of mutual goals to help rationalize moving to de-escalation. Again, promote conciliation.


De-escalation means the parties want to lower or end the conflict. It is characterized by the expression of cautious optimism that the conflict can be resolved through negotiation. Necessary to de-escalation is the offering of conciliatory gestures by both or all parties to the conflict. The parties demonstrate a willingness to reassess their individual goals and winning is accepted as unrealistic.

At the de-escalation stage the conflict resolver’s role becomes the most creative: probing the parties for common interests and values and identifying mutually shared goals; replacing the "enemy" image(s) by bringing about a reduction in adversarial activity and "humanizing" the situation. Discourage the parties from re-visiting the escalation of the conflict and lead them down a new path paved with mutually shared goals and common needs where denunciations, accusations and rebuffs are replaced by requests and proposals. Conciliation is much more difficult if threats continue. The cost-benefit analysis regarding continuing versus ending the conflict is again appropriate, but should include emotional costs along with financial costs as well as the possible advantages of co-existence versus the disadvantages of prolonged conflict. Success in de-escalation requires reciprocal gestures by both sides: conciliation and de-escalation go hand-in-hand. Without conciliation there is less motivation for resolution.

Termination of conflict

The final stage on our conflict continuum is the termination of the conflict, although termination may in fact be a "resolution" that does not equate to an absolute end of the conflict: termination may not be feasible, and sustainable conflict may be practical and necessary. Conflict can end in one of three ways: unilateral destruction or mutual annihilation (generally an unacceptable extreme); impasse, so both sides withdraw; and negotiated settlement.

The strategies used in de-escalating conflict will also be applicable in terminating conflict. Be aware of when the conditions for de-escalation and termination are present ("ripeness") and introduce the motivation to reduce, limit or end the conflict. These conditions can include: one or both parties fearing a destructive outcome,;acknowledging the benefits of an interdependent relationship; becoming aware of a mutual needs and interests; and recognizing that the costs of pepetuating the conflict are no longer acceptable. Additionally, at some point during the process of conflict resolution, the basis of conflict may have been removed.

At each of the five stages of the conflict continuum, the ADR professional can be a meaningful force of change for the control and resolution of the conflict. Understanding the characteristics of the conflict and what motivates and supports it at each stage can provide the insight and tools needed to facilitate resolution.

John D. Cameron is a Certified Family Mediator (Advanced Practitioner) and an attorney with a practice in Laconia. His practice is limited to collaborative law, unbundled legal services, parenting coordination and mediation.

Source: Ho-Won Jeong,
Understanding Conflict and Conflict Analysis, Sage, Los Angeles, 2008. See also The Handbook of Conflict Resolution – Theory and Practice, Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco (2000)

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