The Austrian organizational consultant and conflict researcher Friedrich Glasl has developed a model for conflict escalation and resolution. Accordingly, conflicts that have reached a certain point on the nine-step scale of conflict escalation can no longer be resolved without outside help.
If the parties are aware of the stage they are at, they have the opportunity to analyse their conflict and to react better during the course of the conflict. The conflict escalation model according to Glasl is suitable for disputes between students or between spouses or divorces, disagreements in business life up to full-blown conflicts between states.
3 levels and 9 stages of conflict escalation
Glasl divides the nine stages of conflict escalation into three levels. On the first three levels it is still possible for both parties to drop out without damage or even with profit (win-win). On the second level one of the two must be the loser (win-lose) and on the third level there are only losses on both sides until mutual annihilation (lose-lose).
The deeper you go towards the last level, the more primitive and inhuman the methods become by which the opponents try to win. Therefore, Glasl does not present his model as an ascent to the higher levels of escalation, but as a descending staircase that literally leads further and further into the depths of human morality.
AT A CERTAIN LEVEL, CONFLICTS CAN NO LONGER BE RESOLVED WITHOUT OUTSIDE HELP
Level 1: Win-Win
Stage 1: Tension
First tensions are noticeable and become conscious, different opinions collide, the fronts can harden and cramp. The situation is still harmless, differences of opinion are commonplace and can be resolved through discussion. No camp or party formation yet.
Stage 2: Debate
The disagreement becomes more fundamental, the opponents try to convince the other through rational arguments and put under pressure. Everybody insists on his point of view, uncompromising black-and-white thinking and verbal violence.
Stage 3: Actions instead of words!
The pressure on the conflict partner is increased, talking no longer helps, actions are necessary! The verbal communication steps into the background, possible conversations are frustrated and broken off without result. The opponent is confronted with accomplished facts. The empathy for each other gives way to distrust and negative expectations, which intensifies the conflict even more.
Level 2: Lose-Win
Stage 4: Coalitions
The first stage, where there can only be one winner left. The opponents search for supporters and allies, parties are formed and maneuvered against each other. Image campaigns are released and bad rumours about the other party are spread. It is no longer about the original thing, but about winning the conflict.
Stage 5: Loss of face
The mutual attacks will begin directly and personally, immoral „blows below the belt“. Wherever you can, you want to expose your opponent. The loss of morality and mutual trust goes hand in hand with the loss of face. The sight of the opponent alone creates negative feelings, even disgust.
Stage 6: Threat Strategies
Through threats and counter threats, the conflict parties try to win the upper water. A demand is intensified with a punishment and supported with the proof of the punishment possibility (Example: A kidnapper demands money and threatens with the murder of the daughter, as proof he sends a video message that he actually has her in his power). The more credible the possibility of punishment, the more effective the threat and the sooner the demand will be met. This is about who has more power and can enforce the worst punishments. The disgusting threats on both sides gape like scissors, the conflict continues to get worse and worse.
Level 3: Loose Lots
Stage 7: Limited destruction
The first stage, where one’s own damage is accepted if only the other’s damage is greater. Humanity is over now, all tricks are used to harm the opponent. The opponent is no longer perceived as a human being, but as a thing without feelings. Values and virtues take a back seat.
Stage 8: Total annhiliation
The ultimate goal is the collapse of the enemy system. The front fighters are cut off from their allies and supplies, vital functions are attacked to the point of physical-material, mental-social or spiritual destruction.
Stage 9: Together into the abyss
There is no going back, there is a total confrontation between the two parties. If you can drag your opponent into the abyss with you, then you jump. Self-destruction is accepted. Damage to the environment or to descendants no longer prevents the opponents from destroying each other.
Model of de-escalation
The conflicts of levels 1-3 are still to be solved peacefully among each other, possibly someone intervenes mediating (e.g.: the parents ask their children to reconcile again).
At level 4, the affected parties need outside help to solve their conflict. Glasl envisages the following model to de-escalate the conflict:
- Stage 1-3: Self-help is still possible
- Stage 2-3: Help through friends, family or professional moderation
- Stage 3-5: Help through external professional process support
- Stage 4-6: Help through external socio-therapeutic process support
- Stage 5-7: Help through external professional mediation
- Stage 6-8: Assistance through voluntary or mandatory arbitration
- Stage 7-9: Help only possible through a power intervention from above
Leaders in particular should be aware of the 9 stages of conflict escalation. Conflicts can thus be viewed from a neutral point of view and, if necessary, external help can be requested in good time. Also with conflicts, in which one is not involved, the value-free recognition of the conflict stages can lead to a faster solution of the conflict.
Conflict escalation from Hollywood
The perfect, almost textbook example of how to go through all the stages is the American film „The War of the Roses“ by director Danny DeVito starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.
In this dramatic comedy Barbara Rose wants to divorce her husband Oliver. An amicable settlement is strived for, but this is the first time that she encounters difficulties with the house she shares.
The conflict escalates deeper and deeper into absurd acts such as the deliberate destruction of the facility and downright mutual hatred. At the end of the total escalation, the ex-husbands lie dying in the entrance hall after having fallen down with their chandelier after a preceding fight. The absolute lose-lose is reached.