Summary of "Anatomy of a Crisis"

Summary of

Anatomy of a Crisis

By William Ury and Richard Smoke

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff 

William Ury and Richard Smoke, "Anatomy of a Crisis," in Negotiation Theory and Practice, eds. J. William Breslin and Jeffery Z. Rubin, (Cambridge: The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, 1991), pp.47-54.

Ury and Smoke describe the basic elements of a crisis. They explore crisis escalation, and ways to defuse crises.

Structure of a Crisis

Crisis situations share four basic elements. First, in a crisis the stakes are high. In many cases a party unintentionally raises the stakes to crisis levels by their failure to appreciate the broader consequences of their actions. Stakes may also increase rapidly through the process of mutual reinforcement of hostile expectations. Each party's defensive actions are perceived as offensive, prompting further defensive actions and starting a vicious spiral of escalation. The second element of a crisis situation is that there is little time available to deliberate. Ultimatums can provoke crisis situations.

Third, crises are also characterized by great uncertainty. Parties may lack information about the situation and the other actors. They may me uncertain of the other sides' motives and intentions. And parties are usually uncertain as to the effects that particular actions will have within the crisis context and the ways in which the situation might escalate. Fourth, crises involve a sense of narrowed options. Options may become polarized and extreme. Creative or moderate options are lacking. Sometimes parties purposefully narrow options by making irrevocable commitments. Such shows of commitment are intended to make the other side back down, but can escalate situations when the other side uses a similar strategy.

Crisis Escalation

As a crisis intensifies, each of these elements also intensifies. Time runs out. The stakes go up and this increases uncertainty. Options become further polarized in the face of increasing uncertainty and not enough time to deliberate effectively. These factors also contribute to a growing sense of hostility. "Short time, the uncertainties, the difficult value tradeoffs, and the sense of constricting possibilities exacerbate the hostility felt and expected."[p. 52]

Some crises are unintentional. However, many are the result of intentional pursuit of other interests. Where interests are important, people are often willing to risk precipitating a crisis. Unfortunately, even crises that are anticipated or foreseen have the potential to escalate out of control, as the distinctive elements of a crisis situation come into play.

Defusing Crises

The key to defusing a crisis is to enable high-quality decision-making. Enabling better decision-making during a crisis requires control of the four basic crisis elements. First, the parties must seek to control the perceived stakes. Second, they must slow the rate of action and reaction to allow sufficient time for the sides to consult with each other, and to deliberate. Third, accurate and trustworthy information must be made available about the other side's intentions and the situation. Fourth, the parties must remain flexible and generate a range of options.