De-escalation – both “sides” of voc. ed. & training must do it


Disputants themselves as well as the parties must be willing to risk de-escalation at some point, or else the conflict, with all its destructive results, will go on indefinitely.

by Maiese, Michelle. “Limiting Escalation / De-escalation.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2004 <>.

As conflict escalates, adversaries begin to make greater threats and impose harsher negative sanctions. There is often a greater degree of directviolence and both sides suffer heavy losses. In some cases, these conflicts spiral completely out of control. Given the highly destructive role that escalation plays, it is important to develop strategies to limit and reverse this process.

De-escalation involves changes within each of the adversaries as well as new forms of interaction between them. In most cases, de-escalation does not occur until the parties have reached a prolonged stalemate in which both sides are being harmed by continuing the confrontation. Once the parties realize this, they are more likely to be willing to negotiate.

Once initiated, de-escalation tends to proceed slowly and requires much effort. Many small steps must be taken before more significant de-escalation strategies can be initiated. Indeed, full de-escalation from war to cooperation involves a series of successive redefinitions of the parties’ relationship.[1] And because de-escalation typically depends on actions taken by both partisans and intermediaries, these actions must be coordinated if they are to succeed.[2]

This essay will outline various methods intended to limit escalation and promote de-escalation. These include gradual reduction in tension (GRIT), de-escalation negotiations, media management, and various efforts to strengthen relationshipsbetween adversaries.

Slowing Escalation

One way to avoid the dangers associated with escalation is to limit the extent to which a conflict becomes more intense and severe. Relationships that do not escalate easily are said to be high in stability. Various factors contribute to stability and make some conflicts resistant to escalation.

  • First, conflict-limiting norms and institutions can limit the severity of conflict.[3] These norms and institutions typically prohibit the use of harsh tactics and point to problem solving as the appropriate way to respond to conflict. Such expectations act as “ceilings on normal behavior as rules of any competition.”[4]
  • Forums and third-party institutions help members to resolve conflict peacefully rather than appeal to violence.[5] Similarly, legislative bodies, mediationservices, and arbitration services all give people a nonviolent and face-savingway to resolve disputes.
  • Outside actors can also aid in preventive diplomacy, using diplomatic efforts to de-escalate conflicts BEFORE they become violent. Preventive diplomacy measures that aim to prevent conflicts from becoming overly severe include early warning responses and violence prevention options.
  • Democratization can help parties to develop nonviolent and just mechanisms for resolving any disputes that arise.
  • In addition, the fear of escalation can be important in limiting the extent to which conflict escalates out of control. Indeed, conflict is less likely to spiral when people are aware of the potential for such spirals and concerned about the consequences of escalation.[6] At the start of conflict, parties should set limits on how far they will go. They can agree to “cut losses” if the struggle escalates too far, or avoid entering struggles in which entrapment seems likely.[7]
  • In addition, both sides may make efforts to ensure that conflict does not escalate inadvertently. For example, they may establish rumor controlteams or other rapid facts-verification processes to prevent rumors from developing and quickly spreading. They may also utilize escalation-limiting language to ensure that any statements made about their grievances are not unnecessarily provocative.
  • The establishment of social bonds tends to discourage the use of harsh tactics and reduce the likelihood of escalation. Such bonds include positive attitudes, respect, friendship, kinships, perceived similarity and common group membership.[8] These bonds can counteract any antagonism that arises over the course of conflict. The recognition that one’s opponent is a member of a group to which one also belongs produces positive sentiments. And many note that an effective way to combat polarization is to forge sentimental bonds between two groups by making them feel they are a part of the same larger group. Common membership in crosscutting groups produces “bonds of perceived similarity and common group identity between these individuals.”[9] In the most general sense, this is a matter of recognizing the common humanity of one’s opponents and including them in one’s moral scope. This process of humanization makes it much more difficult to justify the use of heavy violence or aggression, and is therefore a powerful tool in limiting escalation.


But what can be done when conflict has already reached a significantly high level of intensity? In these cases, parties must turn to de-escalation strategies to counteract the escalation process and move toward a reconciliation.

Conflict de-escalation refers to a decrease in the severity of the coercive means used and in the number of parties engaged in the struggle.[10] One or more dimensions of the conflict become less intense and the conflict begins to lessen in size. De-escalation can be directed away from intense animosity or toward increased cooperation.[11]

The shift from escalation to de-escalation is not a single event, but rather a process that advances in a broad step-by-step fashion and is produced by pressures that build over time.[12] This process includes trying to get adversaries to the negotiating table, forming agreements about peripheral issues, and moving toward resolution of the basic issues.[13] All of this is typically accompanied by a reduction in hostility and mistrust between the adversaries.

Fortunately, people in an escalated conflict can only do so much damage to each other, and for only so long.[14] De-escalation typically occurs after parties have reached a hurting stalemate. At this point, neither party can escalate the conflict further. The point of maximum conflict intensity and destructiveness has been reached, and neither side anticipates that the balance of forces will change so that it may triumph.[15] Contentious tactics have failed, resources have been exhausted, and both sides have incurred unacceptable costs.[16] At this point, the adversaries are likely to realize that things must change and they begin to develop a new way of thinking about their conflict.[17] Once they realize that their current strategy cannot triumph (at least not with acceptable costs), they are likely to begin to pursue a more conciliatory approach. If they refuse to end the stalemate by yielding or withdrawing, they must work together to find a mutually acceptable way out.[18]

At this point, one side typically makes an important conciliatory gesture. Hostility decreases, the tendency to retaliate lessens, and the level of coerciveness declines.[19] Eventually adversaries may begin to confer benefits on each other and reward each other for cooperating.[20] All of these factors initiate the process of de-escalation.

Conditions that Encourage De-escalation

Some of the same processes that contribute to escalation also contribute, in different circumstances, to de-escalation. The processes of de-escalation occur within each adversary, in the relations between adversaries, and among parties in the social environment.[21] To a large extent, all of these de-escalation processes occur as a result of various changes in conflict conditions. These changed conditions produce a new context in which de-escalation policies are more likely to succeed.

Social-psychological and Organizational Changes

The process of de-escalation that takes place within each adversary includes various social-psychologicalchanges and organizational developments. These processes help people to recognize their own responsibility for the conflict and toreframe the conflict so that a mutually beneficial solution seems possible.[22]

Social-psychological processes that can contribute to de-escalation include cognitive dissonance, entrapment, relationship building, and empathy. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that once people have made conciliatory moves towards an adversary, they tend to justify their actions. In an attempt to make their values consistent with their actual conduct, parties may devalue previously sought goals.[23] If the actions are reciprocated and turn out to be beneficial, de-escalation becomes even more likely.

Like cognitive dissonance, entrapment often fosters escalation but can be controlled to help avoid escalation. Indeed, certain aspects of entrapment can contribute directly to de-escalation. Once adversaries have initiated conciliatory actions, entrapments may help to keep them on course. This is because de-escalatory actions have costs and involve an investment on the part of the adversaries. Parties may therefore find themselves yielding more than they had anticipated in order to behave consistently with past actions. To abandon de-escalation after investing so much would be to admit that their previous actions had been mistaken.[24]

Sympathy and empathy also contribute to de-escalation and help to sustain it. A person sympathizing with another is emotionally moved by that person’s feelings. Empathy, on the other hand, stresses taking the role of the other, accurately perceiving the other’s feelings and thoughts, and experiencing those feelings and thoughts “as if” they were one’s own.[25] Those who sympathize or empathize with their adversaries are far less likely to inflict devastating harm on them. In addition, such feelings help to produce and support further de-escalatory policies.

Several organizational developments within one or more of the parties can also fuel de-escalation. First, the emergence of groups interested in cooperating with the adversary may lend legitimacy to dissent from hard-line policies. Constituencies for de-escalation often arise when parties’ confidence in the justness and morality of their cause begins to wane.[26] As a war drags on, many individuals become impoverished, lose family members, and suffer other heavy losses.[27] Meanwhile, the wealthy and powerful often profit from the conflict, which can lead to a perceived increase in social inequality.[28] If inequality in the distribution of burdens comes to be regarded as unfair, opposition to hard-line policies may begin to grow. Public campaigns and demonstrations opposing the conflict may occur with increasing frequency and contribute to public opposition to the war. If hard-liners try to suppress this opposition, this may simply create further hostility and strengthen the opposition. This public pressure sometimes prompts governments to initiate de-escalation policies.

Also, as the costs of continuing the struggle grow, parties may become doubtful about the value of the goals sought and develop a general sense that the means being used are not achieving what is intended. The evident failure of past militant strategies may lead them to consider an alternate approach.[29] In addition, if the majority regards the severe tactics used by one faction as unacceptable, thisextreme faction may lose its support andlegitimacy.[30] Alternative leadership that supports de-escalation and opposes hard-line policies may emerge, leading to changes in government policy that create new opportunities for de-escalation. If more moderate representatives are involved in decision-making, there is likely to be more free discussion and a genuine consideration of alternatives.[31]

A depletion of resources can further contribute to de-escalation. Adversaries have limited amounts of manpower and strategic materials that they can invest in waging conflict. As these limited resources begin to diminish, a party’s ability to engage in coercive action decreases.[32] This depletion of resources may eventually hinder aggressive action. Furthermore, parties may decide that accommodation is better than continuing the struggle and risking total destruction.

Once de-escalation has begun, various organizational developments can make it difficult to turn back. Leaders who have undertaken the first de-escalatory steps do not want to appear as if they’ve made a mistake. If large, public steps have been taken to de-escalate conflict, this new course may seem irreversible.[33]

Interactions Between Adversaries

The second broad class of de-escalation processes pertains to the interaction between adversaries. Just as the destructive ways in which adversaries interact can foster conflict escalation, other modes of interaction can contribute to de-escalation. Parties’ willingness to participate in de-escalation negotiations often results from their recognition that they are interdependent and that their goals can be integrated.[34]

To begin the process of de-escalation, each side must first recognize and respect the other’s right to collective existence. Parties can work to reduce inaccurate perceptions, stereotypes and enemy images through training in workshops, personal therapy and reflection.[35] And through varioushumanization processes, the adversaries can come to recognize each other’s legitimacy and demonstrate mutual acceptance. Changes in relationships can be fostered through reciprocity, issue containment and developing ties between adversaries.

  • First, reciprocity in interaction can help conflicts to mutually de-escalate.
    • If each side reacts at an equivalent level to the other, both sides can avoid acting in ways they think may provoke or invite harsher actions from the other side.[36]
    • In addition, learning from experiences with the adversary can help parties to estimate how the other side will react. This reduces the likelihood of unintentional conflict escalation.
    • Finally, adversaries who develop shared norms of interaction may be constrained in the degree to which they escalate conflict.
  • Second, issue containment can help conflict from becoming all encompassing. This can occur in a variety of ways.
    • In some cases, an adversary may intentionally concentrate all of its energy on a specific goal.
    • Also, parties who fail to attain their grand goals may find settling for what they can get to be the best option.
    • Once the matters in contention can be broken down into sub-issues, some of these issues may appear easier to settle and trade-offs among them may seem possible.[37]
    • Finally, inflammatory issues may be contained by the development of shared goals. For example, adversaries who believe that continued escalation poses the risk of mutual destruction may decide to work together to avoid such a result. In addition, the increasingly integrated global economy and the shared goal of economic expansion encourage cooperation and motivate parties to findwin-win outcomes.[38]
  • Lastly, as members from each side develop ties and establish communication, they may facilitate de-escalation. These individuals serve as “quasi-mediators,” conveying important information to the opposing sides and helping both groups to find a way to de-escalate conflict. They may also develop bonds with each other and form shared expectations about how future confrontations will be handled.[39]

Third Party Roles

The final broad class of de-escalation processes concerns the roles played by outside parties and the ways in which they relate to the adversaries to foster de-escalation.

  • First, the presence and intensity of associated conflicts often has an impact on the possible de-escalation of the primary struggle.[40] As the Cold War began to subside, for example, these changes had an impact on many conflicts throughout the world. Likewise, the changing dynamics of regional conflicts can help to create an atmosphere conducive to de-escalation.
  • Second, outside parties can provide models of the way de-escalation may occur. For example, they can establish procedures for implementingceasefires or for transitioning to legitimate new governments.
  • Third, they can set limits on conflict escalation and intervene to enforce those limits.[41] International governmental organizations, for example, can help to ensure that adversaries do not use overly destructive means to achieve their goals. And allies who feel threatened by a conflict may pressure the disputing nations to de-escalate.
  • Fourth, outside parties can serve as intermediaries to help the adversaries reframe the conflict and discover a mutually beneficial way to de-escalate it. In most cases, the parties are more likely to accept proposals suggested by a mediator rather than by an enemy. Thus, when outside actors take an active and positive role in conflict management, they increase the likelihood that de-escalation policies will prove successful.
  • Fifth, regional mechanisms for dispute resolution, specialized international organizations and NGOs likewise play a role in preventing deadly conflict and fostering de-escalation.[42] The United Nations, IGOs, and NGOs can pressure governments to de-escalate with sanctions. Intermediaries sometimes work to organize dialogue groups, problem-solving workshops, orassistance programs to help develop institutions for managing conflict.[43]

Educational Institutions and the Media

Finally, social education and the media play a significant role in the de-escalation of conflicts. Currently, education is highly ethnocentric and influenced by propaganda and inflammatory media. However, schools, communities and the media also have the potential to promote cooperation and foster pro-social behavior. For example, schools can design activities to increase children’s ability to identify others’ emotional responses and to take the perspective of another. Such empathy training fosters cooperation and mutual understanding. Education about non-violent modes of conflict resolution is also crucial. This would include leadership seminars that focus on problems of ethnocentrism, prejudice, violence, economic development, and the proliferation of weapons. Escalation training that exposes disputants to the dangers of violence and escalation and outlines de-escalation strategies might also be helpful.

The media, including radio and television, also plays an important role. Emphasizing the voices of political demagogues in the media can inflame feelings of fear andanger and contribute to invidious distinctions between in-groups and out-groups. Such inflammatory reporting often fuels the escalation spiral and adds to the destructiveness of conflict.

However, the media also has great potential to reduce tensions between countries and can be used to promote understanding between adversaries. Both radio and television can help to clarify important issues and promote public understanding of the conflict. It can also highlight the terrible costsassociated with war and violence and help people to recognize that they are on a disastrous course. In addition, mass media communication about possibilities for conflict resolution, including documentaries about successful resolution efforts, might prove highly valuable. In general, these sorts of peace media strategies can help to balance out the voices ofextremists.

De-escalation Strategies

There are many policies and strategies that various parties can pursue in order to de-escalate intractable conflicts. In selecting a policy, an analysis of the prevailing conditions and trends relating to the struggle should be made. No single kind of de-escalating effort will work for every conflict in every situation. Instead, a wide range of alternative policies should be reviewed to ascertain which policies are likely to attain particular goals under various circumstances.[44] Which policies of de-escalation will prove to be most effective will depend in large part on the level of escalation that has been reached.

While conflict that has reached only a low level of escalation is usually the easiest and least costly to resolve, the political will is often low.[45] Because the seriousness of these conflicts typically goes unrecognized, intermediaries often do not act.

To avoid further escalation, parties should use non-provocative methods, such as protest or nonviolent resistance, as opposed to violence. They should keep the issues in contention narrowly focused and isolated from other issues, and limit participation. One way of doing this is to reduce or counter inflammatory rumors and establish rumor control mechanisms. For example, in periods of rioting or other racial disturbances, the Community Relations Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, sometimes establishes rumor control centers to provide accurate information about what is going on. On call all of the time, they provide a phone number citizens can call to seek verification of stories they have heard.[46]

Intermediaries can attempt to limit the sale of weapons in the country where conflict is underway. Non-proliferation strategies, arms embargoes, and arms limitation agreements are all ways to block the flow of weapons into unstable areas. In addition, intermediaries help to prevent the spread of conflict by providingpeacekeeping forces, as well as provide mediation, information gathering and consultation services.[47] Long-term de-escalation policies include the development of crosscutting group ties, institutionalized conflict resolution procedures, and the creation ofshared identities. They also involve efforts aimed at improving the social, economic, and cultural way of life of the disadvantaged and marginalized members of society. This includes establishing a legitimate electoral system, educational system, and procedures for protecting fundamental human rights.

Such measures not only limit inadvertent escalation, but also aid in de-escalation. Gradual Reduction in Tension (GRIT), a term coined by Charles Osgood, refers to those strategies whereby mutual tension and fear can be interrupted and the de-escalation process begun through conciliatory moves. One of the parties announces and initiates a series of small cooperative moves, and invites the other side to reciprocate. These moves are continued whether or not there is immediate reciprocity.[48] If the opponent does respond positively, the first party can make a second concession, which sets a “peace spiral” in motion.

If the first initiative is ignored, on the other hand, it can be followed by a second or even a third attempt. These concessions should be designed to build trust and indicate a willingness to cooperate, but should not be terribly costly. These disarming moves help to break down parties’ negative perceptions of each other and allow a step-by-step process of conflict de-escalation to begin.

Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in 1977 is an example of confidence building through GRIT. Before his trip, hostility and suspicion between Egypt and Israel was very high, and several wars had already occurred. Sadat announced that he wanted to visit Jerusalem to increase trust and to diminish tensions between the two nations. While this conciliatory move cost him very little, it greatly improved his image and helped to reduce tensions between the two countries. It also helped pave the way for the historic Camp David Accords a year later.[49]

Problem solving is another de-escalation strategy. When they are ready, the adversaries can engage in joint, problem-solving workshops facilitated by intermediaries. Various techniques contribute to problem solving success.

  • First, breaking down the immediate dispute into a series of more manageable sub-disputes can help adversaries to deal with the complexity associated with interlocking issues. Parties can reach agreements about peripheral issues first before they move on more central issues.[50] This sequencing of issues allows them to develop an ability to work together before they tackle the most difficult problems.
  • Second, the direct contact and communication involved in joint discussions allows the adversaries to explain their actions so that they do not elicit defensive reactions. It also allows parties to further understand each other’s motives and sensitivities and enables them to act in ways that will not upset each other.[51] This facilitates problem-solving discussions, allowing adversaries to communicate needs and priorities and resolve various issues.
  • Interaction may also contribute to the establishment of positive personal bonds between adversaries. To strengthen cooperation and prevent violence, it is important to create conditions under which many different identity groups can coexist and work together. For example, parties can develop groups, networks or organizations including persons from opposing sides. This allows them to get to know each other and engage in dialogue.[52]
  • Another way to bring groups together for de-escalation is through the development of shared goals and joint projects. This involves the development of an objective that is common to both parties and requires their joint effort and cooperation. While contact that occurs under unfavorable conditions of suspicion and unequal power can stir up tensions and reinforce stereotypes, friendly contact in the context of equal status and cooperation can improve attitudes.[53] Working together on these shared goals can override group differences and enhance the bonds between adversaries. As they work together, they are likely to focus on commonalities rather than differences and develop positive attitudes towards each other.[54]
  • To strengthen shared identities, parties should also foster crosscutting or overlapping group memberships.[55] These crosscutting relations connect subgroups of society in ways that overcome in-group/out-group distinctions and prejudicial stereotypes.[56] As members of different groups work together or play together, they gain a sense of shared humanity. Educational, cultural and scientific exchanges, for example, can expand favorable contact between people of different groups and nations and promote mutual respect. Building such bridges helps to reduce conflict intensity.

The Importance of Timing

Timing is a critical factor in de-escalation efforts. William Zartman coined the term “ripeness,” to indicate when a conflict was ready for de-escalation and resolution.

Parties may try to de-escalate when the time is wrong or fail to try when the time isright. If de-escalation is attempted at the wrong time, it is likely to fail. Once made and rejected, a de-escalation proposal might become tainted. While it may have succeeded, had it been implemented at a more suitable time, it becomes less credible once rejected.

In addition, failed attempts to de-escalate conflict may contribute to parties’ view of the conflict as intractable.[57] Any other de-escalation efforts may come to be regarded as hopeless.

In addition, parties may fail to initiate de-escalation policies when the time is ripe. A chance to reach a beneficial outcome has been lost, and it is possible that conditions may not be right for that settlement again.[58] Furthermore, if parties have only limited time to reach an agreement, the failure to take full advantage of an opportunity may lead to a lengthy delay. This allows the conflict to persist and possibly escalate. Hostilities may become institutionalized, making de-escalation more difficult in the future.

Finally, parties can initiate de-escalation when the time is right, and yet still fail to achieve the full range of desired results. That has many reasons, which can be summarized by saying that intractable conflicts are entrenched, complex, and somewhat unpredictable.

What will work to de-escalate one may not work for another. Yet disputants themselves as well as the parties must be willing to risk de-escalation at some point, or else the conflict, with all its destructive results, will go on indefinitely.



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