a website of resources for peace is a documentary website whose purpose is to promote an exchange of knowledge and know-how at the service of the construction of an Art of peace.
This website is coordinated by
Modus Operandi


Conflict Stages and Dynamics

How conflict escalates and de-escalates, including the impact of nonviolent action.

Conflicts may be either latent or manifest, and tend to escalate if not dealt with in time. Usually escalation means that communication between the parties breaks down, and the readiness to use violence (first usually verbal, then physical) grows. Many social scientists have attempted to define this development by describing typical stages of conflict escalation.

Friedrich Glasl deals mainly with conflict in business, but his set of nine stages can easily be used for political large-scale conflicts.

Glasl shows how parties in conflict loose the ability to co-operate in a constructive manner as their successive and mutual experiences are break down. He identifies several “points of no return” which contribute decisively to the escalation(1). In stage 1 (2), there is a hardening of the positions. It is the content of the conflict that is the centre of attention, and the parties trust that it will be possible to solve the problem. In the second stage, polarisation and debate take place. The conflicted parties unite within themselves (cohesion), and stereotypes develop. When they reach the point where they feel that talking to one another is not productive, they “create facts” (stage 3: “deeds instead of words”). From there the relationship to the opposing party becomes a central part of the content of the conflict itself. “There’s no use in talking to them,” is the experience, “now we have to act!” From now on behaviour towards one another becomes more clearly negative, as do the notions the opponents have of each other. As the conflict constellation deteriorates, the parties slide into a situation where each feels threatened and endangered by the actions of the other (stages 4-6). In stage 4 the relationship becomes the problem. Stereotypes, and “win-lose” situations arise. In stage 5 direct attacks on the position of the opponent begin, and each party seeks to “expose” the “true character” of its opponent causing him to loose face. In stage 6 the threatening begins, and isolated violent acts might happen.

The next decisive threshold is crossed when threats and ultimatums are superseded by (still limited) actions directed against the power base of the organisation or group concerned (stage 7). From this moment on the parties no longer see each other in human terms but see only objects that they want to be rid of (stages 7-9). From now on the violence directed toward each other becomes the predominant issue of the conflict. In stage 8 the basis of power and existence of the opponent are targets, and mutual destruction takes place. In the 9th and final stage there is total confrontation even at the price of one’s own destruction. The only goal is to eliminate the opponent.

Ronald J. Fisher (3) has transferred Glasl’s model from its original context of social conflicts, mostly in or between organisations, to the context of political conflicts. He simplifies Glasl’s nine stages to four: stage 1: communication, stage 2: polarisation, stage 3: segregation, stage 4: destruction (4).

All models of conflict that describe stages are of course a gross simplification of any given real-life conflict, as Leatherman et al (5). point out. Conflict processes are usually multidimensional, and unfold in a disjunctive manner. There are usually multiple levels in each conflict (e.g. the individual, the intra-societal, the international), as well as multiple issues. Escalation may take place, both vertically (behaviours, choice of means) and horizontally (expansion of issues, goals, actors, geographical scope)(6).

Nonviolent conflict escalation

The model developed by Glasl and Fisher does not recognise the possibility of a nonviolent conflict escalation. In fact, this aspect is missing in almost all studies on conflict and conflict resolution except for a few (7) which deal specifically with nonviolent resistance and/or nonviolent action.

One exception is John Paul Lederach who has created the term “conflict transformation”. Conflict transformation is the development from a static situation with very unequal distribution of political power, and a problem that hasn’t yet become a conflict issue, to a dynamic situation with better balance of power and the possibility of dealing with the problem. This includes the conflict stages from the latency stage to the articulation of protest. To end the static situation, protest needs to be organised and articulated. When this has happens, counter power may develop. A new distribution of power is both a condition for clarifying the conflict issues, and an expression of a new relationship between the conflict parties in conflict. Lederach emphasises that conflict transformation is a long-term process taking 20 years or more, and must not be confused with short-term crisis intervention alone, which is the most immediate activity in the process of transformation(8).

The contribution of nonviolent action to this transformation is obvious: it makes the conflict visible, and tries to change the balance of power by using nonviolent means of protest and resistance.

Theodor Ebert has defined three stages of escalation in nonviolent action; each stage has both subversive and constructive elements:

  • 1. Protest as subversive action and ‘functional demonstrations’ as constructive action;

  • 2. Legal non-cooperation and legal innovation of roles;

  • 3. Civil disobedience and civil usurpation(9);

Generally speaking, escalation is achieved by(10):

  • Broadening the scope of the activities (geographically or time-wise);

  • Growth of the number of the activists;

  • Increased actions of civil disobedience and other direct actions.

Hildegard Goss-Mayr (11)puts the analysis of the conflict at the beginning of her discussion. Then groups are formed and trained in nonviolence. As they come in contact with each other they start to cooperate, chose tactics and begin their activities to weaken and eventually neutralise the pillars that support the injustice. The more pillars of injustice are uprooted, and the more institutions and other important actors change sides, the closer the moment comes when the status quo can no longer be maintained. This is the moment to develop alternatives and to create a new distribution of power. Everyone, including the former opponents, is part of this process.


  • (1) : Glasl 1990:211 pp.

  • (2) : Glasl misses the factor of latency in his model.

  • (3) : Fisher 1993: 253 pp.

  • (4) : For a comparison of different authors, see also Müller/Büttner 1998:16f

  • (5) : Leatherman et al 1999:43 pp.

  • (6) : Leatherman et al 1999:75

  • (7) : The number is further reduced because a major part of these studies deal with civilian-based or social defence. Since their considerations start already at the highest possible stage of conflict - war - they usually make only passing reference on what to do before a war starts, or deal with it only in terms of deterrence (see Sharp 1985:85 pp. for example).

  • (8) : Lederach 1997

  • (9) : Ebert 1981b:37

  • (10) : Müller/Schweitzer 2000:91

  • (11) : Hildegard Goss-Mayr, Der Mensch vor dem Unrecht - Spiritualität und Praxis gewaltloser Befreiung, Wien 1981:88f, quoted