Conflict is caused by actual or perceived differences (goals, approaches, personalities, etc.) or misunderstandings. Escalation occurs when one person responds to a conflict in a manner which (intentionally or unintentionally) threatens or angers the another. This could be by being disrespectful, dismissive or rude; making it personal; causing embarrassment; being aggressive; or confrontational. As soon as a situation escalates it has more than one point of conflict: 1) the original issue and 2) what those involved did or said to escalate. These additional points of conflict may become more important that the original issue.
Here’s an example – one man accidentally knocks another man’s drink out of his hand in a busy bar. The response is aggressive which angers the first man. He then retaliates and an argument starts. The drink is now irrelevant as both men are angry about the disrespectful way the other is talking to them. The cycle of escalation is allowed to continue as both men up the ante up to the point where anger turns into violence.
Conflict escalation does not just refer to situations which descend into aggression or violence. It is possible for a conflict, which appears on the surface to be amicable, to escalate in a similar way. For example a dispute between neighbours, where one neighbour is unaware that their actions are angering the other, or un-mentioned conflict between two departments of the same company. It may be possible to recognise conflict through the behaviours of those involved. As conflicts escalate:
- More issues are raised and they may become more general and exaggerated (“well, you always say things like that…”)
- Tactics become bigger and more impactful (aggression, threats, blackmail)
- More people become involved (getting support from others to justify a point of view – sometimes even strangers are dragged in)
- Relationships deteriorate (respect for the other person is reduced and effective communicate becomes difficult)
- The desire to win, and win at all costs becomes stronger (thinking only of self and how personal wants can be achieved, even if it is not reasonable or logical)
- If winning appears to be unlikely then the desire for the other person to lose, even if it means losing too, can take over (violence, damage to property, walking away from a good deal)