The Five Stages of Conflict

All conflicts seem to go through a series of stages, the exact number and nature of these stages vary depending on the expert making the distinctions. In the book, "Essentials of Organizational Behavior," Stephen P. Robbins describes five stages of conflict, starting with the potential opposition and ending with the outcome. Eric Brahm and Louis Kriesberg of the University of Colorado's Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base Project view conflict in a series of seven stages that somewhat overlap with Robbins' five.


Emergence is when the conditions for conflict arise and a potential conflict becomes one. In Robbins' organizational context, this is divided into two sequential stages. It starts with "potential opposition or incompatibility," what Brahm and Kriesberg call "latent conflict," when the opportunity for conflict is ripe, due to schisms in communication, action or personal issues. If one party is negatively affected by these conditions enough to respond to them, the conflict actualizes into what Robbins calls the "cognition and personalization" stage.


In this stage, the conflict escalates as both parties perceive the other's intentions, either correctly or, as is often the case, erroneously. This is the stage where the parties involved begin exhibiting behaviors in direct opposition to the opponent's perceived intentions, such as competitive statements and avoidance tactics. At this point, a conflict can become "institutionalized" if the parties continue to view each other as adversaries and perpetuate their perceptions of the other person's identity based on that person's position in the conflict.


At a certain point in a conflict, the adversaries become so polarized in their opposition that neither party wants to concede even though neither is poised to win the conflict. This crisis or emergency stage may be reached after strategies for domination have failed, support has fled, resources have dissolved or the cost of perpetuating the conflict has become too great. Often this is when a stalemate occurs.


Once both parties in a conflict recognize that they have reached a stalemate, their tenacity for their position loosens, their emotional intensity and attachments soften and their willingness grows to hear the other party out. At this point, the situation reaches the "de-escalation" stage and the possibility for some sort of settlement emerges. Strategies such as compromise and bargaining take place in this stage.


What Robbins refers to as the "outcomes" stage, Brahm and Kriesberg divide into two stages: "Settlement/Resolution" and "Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and Reconciliation." Whatever name you give it, this fifth and final stage is when the conflict is in some way resolved, peaceably if possible. Robbins notes that outcomes may be either functional or dysfunctional.