Summary of "Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution"

Summary of

Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution

By Louis Kriesberg

Summary written by Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998).

Kriesberg seeks ways to limit the destruction associated with conflicts. To do this he develops a comprehensive theory of conflict, focusing on the ways in which conflicts may become destructive or constructive. Kriesberg draws both on empirical studies of how people have in fact waged conflicts constructively or destructively. He also draws on much contemporary conflict theory.

Types and Origins of Conflict

Chapters One and Two describe the varieties, stages and the bases of social conflicts. "A social conflict exists when two or more persons or groups manifest the belief that they have incompatible objectives."[p. 2] Conflicts vary in the nature of the issues involved, the character of and relationship between the adversaries, the context, the means used to wage the struggle, and the outcome. These elements affect the degree to which a conflict will be destructive or constructive. Conflicts tend toward destructiveness when the means used are severe and harmful. Destructive conflicts increase in scale and tend to become self-perpetuating. Conflict outcomes tend to be destructive when they are applied unilaterally, without regard to the other party's interests. Constructive conflicts tend to make greater use of persuasion and positive inducements. Constructive outcomes are those which are mutually acceptable and which support an ongoing relationship between the parties. Most conflicts involve a complex mix of constructive and destructive elements, and this mix can vary over the course of a conflict.

Kriesberg sketches four different approaches to understanding the origins of social conflicts. Theoretical approaches focus on finding the actual or objective conditions which produce the participants' feelings of being in conflict. Other approaches emphasize the role of internal factors, such as human nature or the basic nature of social interactions or systems, in producing conflicts. The systems theory approach examines how features of the social system produce conflict. Systems theory considers the influence of such features as culture, values, institutions, power balance, and social change on the production of conflicts. Finally, some theorists view conflict as a product of the relations between adversaries. On this view, conflicts arise primarily from the parties' treatment of each other, and from differences and inequalities between the parties.

Kriesberg sees important insights in each approach. He argues that these approaches are largely compatible, and suggests a synthesis of these approaches. They may be combined by approaching any particular conflict as part of a larger system of interlocking conflicts. Conflicts are connected over time, and through shared issues and parties. Because conflicts are complex and varied, one approach may be more helpful in understanding one particular aspect of conflict. However, all will be needed to understand conflict completely.

Emerging Conflicts

Chapter Three examines how potential conflicts become overt. Kriesberg argues that "a conflict emerges when members of one or more potential conflict parties develop a shared identity, generate a sense of grievance, form a goal that another party, being responsible for the grievance, be changed, and come to believe that they can bring about that change."[p. 91] These elements of identity, grievance, goal and belief in redress are each necessary for a conflict to emerge (though none is sufficient alone). Development of a shared identity is facilitated by member homogeneity within the group, by the presence of easy communications among group members, by the existence of clear and stable group boundaries, and by the group's organizational potential. Development of a shared identity is also facilitated by the presence of a contrasting adversary group.

Grievances can arise from different sources. They may arise from a sense of deprivation, or from a sense of deprivation relative to some other group. The deprivation must be seen as illegitimate or unfair. Changes in the character of an existing relationship, or being harmed by another's actions can both give rise to grievances. When another party is seen as the cause of the grievance, conflict is ripe to emerge. The aggrieved party forms a goal directed at the other party, generally demanding that the other party redress the grievance in some way. Such contentious goals may take any number of different forms, some more constructive than others. Kriesberg points out, however, that in order for a contentious goal to form, the aggrieved party must not only believe the other is the cause of their grievance, they must also believe that the other has the ability to somehow redress the grievance. Kriesberg's analysis of conflict emergence has important policy implications for conflict prevention. Since each of these factors must be present for a conflict to emerge, intervention at any one point may be effective in preventing the conflict.

Conflict Strategies

Chapters Four and Five discuss different strategies for waging conflicts, and explore the factors influencing strategy choice. Conflict strategies are "ways for adversaries to reach a joint decision about matters in contention between them."[p. 118] Different conflict strategies employ different mixtures of inducements. There are three basic types of inducement: coercion, persuasion, and reward. Conflicts may also be waged in regulated, institutionalized forms, or may be relatively uncontrolled. Terrorism is an example of a highly coercive, unregulated conflict strategy. Nonviolent action is a strategy which relies on persuasion with some coercion, and is generally pursued in well-regulated, institutionalized forms such as the strike.

Conflict participants generally use a variety of strategies over the course of a conflict. Kriesberg notes that although each party tries to impose its preferred strategy on the conflict, neither party can dictate their joint conflict strategy. The parties' individual strategic choices combine over the course of the struggle to produce a joint strategy. Choice of conflict strategy also contributes to the constructiveness or destructiveness of a conflict. The broad use of coercion tends to be destructive. Illegitimate or unregulated ways of waging conflict also tend to be more destructive.

Kriesberg identifies four basic factors which influence the parties' choice of conflict strategies. These factors are the parties' goals, each party's character, the relationship between the parties, and the broader social context of the conflict. The nature of the goal has a major influence on the means used to pursue it. Many people feel that their means should be consistent with their goals; justice should not be pursued in an unjust manner. Persuasion is usually used when the goal is to change the other party's beliefs, or to improve the relationship between the parties. Rewards are typically used when the goal is to induce the other party to perform some new action, whereas threats (coercion) are used when the goal is to compel the other party to stop some action. Characteristics internal to each party also influence strategy choice. For instance, studies have shown that people with low socio-economic status are less likely to use institutionalized conflict strategies. Strategy choice may be influenced by both broad cultural differences and by specific group ideologies. The structure of the group and the resources available also shape strategy choice. The nature of the parties' relationship shapes strategy choice. Parties with highly integrated relationships are less likely to employ violence and coercion. Perceptions and expectations regarding the other party affect strategy choice. The balance of power seems to be a factor in strategy choice, although its effect is not always consistent.

Finally, the larger social context shapes the parties' choices. Influencing factors include the availability of legitimate social institutions for conflict regulation, and the presence of shared norms regarding appropriate behavior for each group and appropriate ways to wage conflict. The presence of actual or potential allies can be an influencing factor, as is the degree of integration in the larger social system.


The process of conflict escalation is examined in Chapter Six. "Conflict escalation generally refers to increases in the severity of the coercive inducements used and increases in the scope of participation within a conflict."[p. 151] Escalation is often destructive. Kriesberg's analysis focuses on escalations in the severity of conflicts. He begins by examining the aspects of escalation which are internal to each party. Psychological features which contribute to escalation include selective perception, entrapment by prior commitment, crisis-impaired thinking, and a tendency to justify past actions by revising one's goals. Certain organizational dynamics can also encourage escalation. For example, the competition for leadership within a group favors the rise of extremist leaders. Similarly, as the conflict wears on, the less committed members are more likely to drop out, leaving a constituency of members who are strongly committed to the group's position. Features of the parties' relationship can contribute to escalation. The presence of contentious behavior creates the self-fulfilling expectation of further contentious behavior. As the conflict continues, the adversaries' relationship tends to become increasingly polarized. New issues also tend to emerge, escalating the scope of the conflict. Finally, third parties may view the conflict as an opportunity to benefit themselves, and so may join or fuel the conflict.

Escalation can prolong a conflict and can produce intractable conflicts, although escalation does not always lead to protracted intractable conflict. Conflicts which do become prolonged or intractable tend to be destructive. Kriesberg explores the factors which encourage destructive types of escalation. Violent conflict strategies which dehumanize the adversary tend to produce protracted or intractable conflict, as do strategies which use the presence of the adversary as justification for some otherwise desired course of action, and strategies designed to provoke the adversary. Conflicts over vital interests are more likely to produce destructive escalation. Multiparty disputes are more likely to escalate destructively, as are multi-issue disputes. Homogenous groups are better able to sustain escalated conflict than are internally diverse groups. The adversary's response to contentious behavior is an important factor in destructive conflict escalation. However, whether a particular response is escalatory or not depends very much on its context.


De-escalation, the topic of chapter seven, refers to a decrease in the severity or scope of a conflict. De-escalation does not always lead to the resolution of a conflict, but always precedes conflict resolutions. As with escalation, the de-escalation process involves a number of factors. Some of the psychological features which contribute to escalation can also contribute to de-escalation. If a party can be brought to make conciliatory gestures, then the tendency to justify past actions by revising one's goals will support de-escalation. Sympathy and empathy contribute as well. Being alert to and controlling the psychological tendencies toward escalation can facilitate de-escalation. Similarly, some of the organizational dynamics which contribute to conflict escalation can also be contributing factors. Increased costs of conflict can favor alternative leadership in the competition for group leadership. Attempts by the leadership to stifle dissent within the group can actually spark greater dissent. De-escalation may create new interests, which in turn support further de-escalation. Some relationship dynamics encourage escalation, while others support de-escalation. The tendency toward reciprocity in relationships can be used to support de-escalation. It can also be promoted by learning from experience with the adversary. Finally, shared norms may arise over the course of a conflict. Such norms often serve to constrain further conflict. The parties can prevent escalation and encourage de-escalation by remaining focused on the initial issues, and by fostering ties and interaction with the other party. Finally, third parties may act to de-escalate conflicts by modeling strategies to do so. They may act by enforcing limits on the severity of conflict means, or by serving as mediators.

While psychological and organizational factors play a role, changes in the conditions which underlay a conflict are often the most significant factor in bringing about de-escalation. A loss of faith in the justice or legitimacy of their goal can move a party toward de-escalation, as can the failure of past severe coercive measures. Growing economic or social interdependence between the adversary groups can prompt de-escalation. The rise of other conflicts may serve to decrease the relative importance of the present conflict, and so promote de-escalation of the lesser dispute.

De-escalation processes are complex and context-sensitive. Kriesberg argues that there is no simple rule for de-escalating conflicts. Rather, policies must be carefully matched to particular sets of conditions. When developing de-escalation policies, one important factor to consider is at what point in the course of the conflict is the de-escalation effort being made. Another is the degree of de-escalation desired. Kriesberg describes three such policies which are appropriate (respectively) to conflicts in low escalation, in crisis, and in protracted stalemate. Possible goals of de-escalation include the short term goals of preventing further escalation and stopping violence, and the longer term goals of reducing mutual antagonism and adopting a problem-solving conflict strategy.

The easiest time to de-escalate a conflict is early, when the escalation level is low. Unfortunately it is often difficult to muster the political will needed to deal with conflicts at this stage. Effective short-term de-escalation policies for low intensity conflicts include using nonviolent action, de-linking issues and isolating the conflict, using measured reciprocity, and mediation. Longer term goals should be addressed by promoting shared identities between the parties, reducing inequalities, diffusing the conflict by introducing more stakeholders, and by developing institutions to regulate such conflicts. De-escalation becomes more urgent when conflicts escalate sharply into a crises. However, this sense of urgency can lead to poor thinking, and can hinder effective actions. Allowing the parties time to consider the situation is one effective short term de-escalation policy. Using a mediator and creating face-saving opportunities are also effective. In the long term, reframing the dispute, engaging in confidence building, and cultivating ties between the parties will all promote de-escalation.

In the case of protracted conflicts, effective short term de-escalation policies include the use of Track Two diplomacy, isolating the conflict, making conciliatory gestures designed to reassure the adversary, and accepting responsibility for one's past actions. Mediation may be helpful. Strategies such as graduated reciprocation in tension-reduction (GRIT), or tit-for-tat can lead to longer term de-escalation. Other long term de-escalation policies include confidence building, conflict resolution training, fostering improved communication, and developing shared identities and superordinate goals.

Intermediaries and third parties can play important roles in promoting de-escalation. In chapter eight, Kriesberg explores the use of intermediaries in conflict de-escalation. Intermediaries are often most helpful when they act as mediators. Mediators can provide any of a number of services. They can supply a neutral place for the parties to meet. They can carry information between the parties, thus limiting misunderstanding and hostile posturing. Mediators may also bring new information and resources to the negotiations. The presence of a mediator is sometimes the catalyst needed to begin negotiations. Mediators can help the parties handle intense emotions and overcome hostility. They can help the parties develop new settlement possibilities and, when needed, new negotiation procedures. Often, mediator pressure plays a key role in keeping parties at the table and working toward an agreement. Kriesberg notes that these mediation activities are not only complementary, they are synergistic.

The nature of the mediator's role, that is, which of the above service they provide, depends upon four main factors. The cultural setting of the conflict is influential, since there are usually cultural norms which delimit the appropriate role of a mediator. The institutional setting may be similarly influential. The nature of the conflict itself is an important factor in determining which services a mediator will be called upon to provide. Finally, the mediators' own abilities and resources shape the role they can play.

Research shows that mediators make substantial contributions toward achieving constructive conflict de-escalation. Mediated conflicts are much less likely to be settled by violence, and more likely to reach negotiated settlements. Mediated settlements tend to be fairer than non-mediated or adjudicated conflicts. Mediated settlements also tend to be more durable and to have high compliance.

Conflict Outcomes

Chapters Nine and Ten describe possible conflict outcomes, and explore the consequences of various outcomes. There are various ways to measure conflict outcomes. Outcomes may be evaluated in terms of the distribution of gains and losses between the parties. This a common way to evaluate win/lose disputes. Integrative outcomes are better measured in terms of the parties' joint gains and losses. Outcomes may also be evaluated in terms of the degree of engagement or separation left in the parties' relationship. Generally, constructive outcomes produce more benefits (joint or separate) than damages, and leave the parties in a more engaged relationship, whereas destructive outcomes produce more damages and separation.

There are a number of ways for conflicts to come to an end. Negotiations may produce a mutually acceptable settlement. The parties may agree to accept an imposed settlement, as in the case of adjudication or arbitration. One side may compel the other to settle by force. A conflict may be ended by the fundamental conversion of one or both parties. Parties may reach a tacit agreement after a process of implicit bargaining. Or, the challenging party may abandon the conflict. Finally, a conflict can be ended by the destruction or expulsion of one of the parties, as with ethnic cleansing. Kriesberg focuses on negotiation as a means to end conflict because negotiated outcomes are more likely to be constructive.

Negotiations do not necessarily yield constructive outcomes, and so Kriesberg examines how various negotiation strategies influence the likelihood of a constructive outcome. Negotiation strategies range from traditional strategies which see to maximize one's own gain, to problem-solving approaches which seek to produce a mutually beneficial solution. Kriesberg argues that these strategies are not opposed, as some claim, but are in fact complementary. Different elements of each strategy are appropriate to different forms and stages of negotiation, but both strategies tend to be present in effective negotiations.

There are various forms of negotiation, but all negotiations go through several basic stages. Negotiations vary in form depending on the degree to which they are institutionalized, on whether they are public or private, on how isolated the negotiation sessions are, and on the size and scope of the negotiations. The nature of the issues, importance of the interests, and timing within the conflict also affect the negotiation's form. Whatever their form, however, negotiations proceed through generally recognized stages. In the prenegotiation phase, the parties signal their interest in negotiation, and develop a structure for the negotiations. A planning phase precedes the opening of negotiations. In this phase the parties formulate their goals and strategies. With the initial meetings the parties lay the groundwork for further interaction, and begin to analyze the conflict. This beginning stage gives way to the extended negotiation phase. During this time, the parties seek to invent options and formulas for resolving the conflict. If successful, the parties move to the drafting stage, where an initial agreement is written down and refined. The product of that stage must then be formally signed, and often ratified by the negotiators' constituencies. Finally the formal agreement must be implemented.

In addition to the various ways in which a conflict may be brought to an end, both the nature of the conflict itself and external forces shape the character of the outcome. Conflicts which involve issues of high magnitude or widely divergent goals are less likely to be settled by negotiation and are more likely to give rise to protracted struggles. Conflicts waged by non- violent and non-coercive means are more likely to produce constructive, integrative outcomes. Broader social factors, such as economic status or cultural prejudice, may favor or disfavor one of the parties. When a conflict is ended by a non-negotiated means, the outcome is likely to reflect the power balance between the parties, rather than to address their underlying interests. Negotiated outcomes tend to be more fair.

Long Term Consequences

Kriesberg examines the long term consequences of different conflict modes and outcomes in terms of stability and equity. "Stability refers to the duration and degree of order and the prevention of renewed struggle. Equity refers to the degree of mutual acceptance of the outcome, particularly acceptance based on fulfillment of fundamental preferences of the membership on each side."[p. 306]

Different modes and outcomes have consequences for the internal life of the parties. Conflicts which are waged constructively tend to yield a higher degree of equity and to further unify the parties. When the cost or benefits of the struggle are unevenly shared, conflict can produce dissent within the adversary groups. Publicly negotiated agreements tend to be more stable than the products of secret negotiations. Outcomes which leave a group with diminished resources can also be disruptive. A sense of having "won" the conflict, or of having participated in mutual gains, can have a unifying effect. However, if the benefits of any outcome are unequally distributed, this can cause dissent within the group. In general, Kriesberg concludes that "moderate external challenges often foster internal equity and stability; on the other hand, destructive, protracted struggles result not only in heavy burdens at the time, but in internal changes perpetuating inequities and restrictions."[p. 318]

Different modes and outcomes also have consequences for the relationship between the parties. Problem-solving negotiations and outcomes tend to produce a strong sense of equity between the parties, while unilaterally imposed settlements yield low equity. Use of violence in conflict tends to leave the victims resentful and wanting revenge, and so has damaging consequences on the parties' relationship. The more mutually beneficial a conflict outcome is, the more accepting the parties are likely to be of each other and the better and more stable their relationship. Enforcing and implementing an agreement also contribute to maintaining good relations between the parties.

Finally, the social context itself is affected by differing conflict modes and outcomes. One group's struggle for justice may inspire others to rise up. Violently waged conflicts may spill over to harm uninvolved parties, creating new grievances and sparking further violence in self-defense. Generally, participants tend to continue their style of conflict behavior after or outside of the conflict. Witnessing destructive conflict, however, often encourages people to take measures to avoid its recurrence. Kriesberg notes that "the application of a problem-solving approach in a struggle contributes to the chances of sustaining stable relations in the larger system."[p. 327] While all national conflict involves some short-term reduction in national production, destructive conflicts are more likely to depress long term production also, while constructive conflicts tend to be followed by a return to or increase over earlier production levels.

Kriesberg concludes that since the consequences of the various types of conflict are both significant, wide-ranging, and beyond our control, it is particularly important to attempt to exercise control where we can, namely in the ways in which we wage and resolve conflict. Destructive conflicts tend to have inequitable and destabilizing consequences, which can in turn give rise to further conflicts. Waging conflict constructively produces more stable, equitable consequences, and so tends to break the cycle.


In his final chapter, Kriesberg reviews his general model of conflict and suggests some policy implications of his approach. Kriesberg describes conflicts as passing through the stages of the underlying conditions which cause the conflict, the emergence stage, the stages of escalation and de-escalation, and the termination stage. In any particular conflict the nature of each stage is affected by internal and external conditions, by anticipation of the next phase, and by feedback from previous stages. Conflicts can often go through spirals of escalation and de-escalation, so that what seems to be the end of a conflict is merely a lull period in the cycle.

How any particular conflict manifests itself through this process depends on the specific character of that conflict. Significant elements in the character of a conflict include the nature of the issues in contention, the characteristics of the adversaries and their relationship, and the broader systems context in which the conflict occurs. Generally people pursue a better understanding of conflict in the hope that "such knowledge could be effectively applied to avoid conflicts, or to advance good causes, such as freedom, equity, or peace."[p. 365] These hopes face two problems. First is the difficulty in applying general understandings to particular conflicts. Kriesberg cautions that there is no single formula for resolving conflict. To be effective, practitioners must analyze particular conflicts carefully, being sensitive to the different stages and elements at play in any individual conflict. Second are the moral issues involved in which values guide conflict mitigation attempts, in which identities are prioritized, and in the potential for intervention in one conflict to produce consequences for both other conflicts and the broader society. The moral consequences of conflict intervention are likely to be mixed. Nevertheless, while perfect resolutions may not be within human reach, better ones are. Given Kriesberg's analysis of conflict, people at all levels of society can make a contribution to alleviating destructive conflicts, and moving toward more constructively waged and resolved conflicts.