Conflict Dynamics

Russian atrocities in Ukraine horrify us all, particularly knowing many Russians consider Ukrainians family.

How did it come to this?

Having worked in war zones, I have wondered if that violence could happen again here. One way to prevent it is to understand how conflict escalates.

Let’s look at dynamics of two conflicts, one interpersonal and the other political.

One: John is late meeting Tim for coffee. Tim texts John: “Where are you? I have to leave soon.” No response. Ten minutes later, John arrives and launches into a story about his morning. He doesn’t apologize or explain his tardiness.

Tim fumes quietly. John is often late, and hasn’t picked up a check in a while. John’s downright disrespectful, Tim concludes, and decides to tell their mutual friend Mary that it is time to stop seeing “Slacker John” so much. John, for his part, is embarrassed he was late. He feels silly describing his morning, but doesn’t want to talk about real stuff like his fear he might get laid off.

Two: Protesters gather in a city square the day after a local police officer shot an unarmed man. They’re angry, carrying signs and shouting slogans – even some very anti-police slogans – but remain nonviolent. The crowd grows. Police form a tight line across the street. Protesters feel the police are constricting their space. “Pigs!” they yell. The police call for backup.

As in both of these scenarios, conflicts often start about one thing, but expand in issues and actors. Identifying the stages of an escalating conflict can help us stop it.

* Entrenched perceptions. As conflict grows, we become convinced we are absolutely right, interpreting everything through the lens of our righteousness.

* Emotions take over. We lose the ability to think rationally. We fall back on default stress behaviors we learned as children – usually not constructive.

* Communication decreases. We refuse to think, let alone converse, about the other’s perception of the situation — even though that is key to de-escalating and possibly resolving the situation.

* Bones of contention and parties proliferate. Dispute around one issue metastasizes to include others. We pull in allies, involving more people.

* Parties start to change. As one side introduces stronger tactics, the other side may change structurally in response — altering how they think, communicate, or organize — in ways that intensify the conflict.

This last dynamic is particularly worrisome, as we see in Ukraine. Russia’s initial narrative was around ridding Ukraine of “Nazis” in their midst. When Ukrainians resisted more fiercely than expected, Russia changed its narrative to one claiming that the strong resistance meant Nazis had completely taken over and all must be eliminated. Worse, some Russian forces changed not only their narrative, but also their tactics — now committing atrocities.

If we understand how conflict escalates, we’re better able to spot it, and ideally stop it. In our own country, we can be alert for its signs: overly emotional and self-righteous language, especially likening the “other side” to animals or something evil; ending communication across a divide; forcing legal changes without even attempting to find agreement.

Then we can de-escalate. We can pause, consider the impact of our words and actions, ask questions about how the other party sees the situation and what they need to de-escalate.

I’m encouraged by positive structural changes in our country. Dozens of groups now promote cross-divide conversations. City councils are launching “kindness campaigns.” Polls show most of us want the sniping to end. We each can choose to be part of positive change.

Melinda Burrell, PhD is a humanitarian aid worker who studies polarization and trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources on cross-divide engagement.