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More Ways to Turn Down the Heat
Newsletter 124 - Thursday June 15, 2023
This is the third in a series of posts we have recently done on escalation. The first one, posted on May 22, 2023 as Newsletter 117, focused on the causes and consequences of destructive escalation. The second, published on June 8, 2023 as Newsletter 122, focused on ways of avoiding or reversing destructive escalation. We continue that discussion here, by focusing on ways to de-escalate an already highly escalated conflict, or as we say below, ways to "turn down the heat."
Turning Down the Heat
The first thing to do to "turn down the heat," which we have talked about frequently before is to "complexify your narrative" away from simple us-versus-them, win-lose framing. Beyond that, however, you can also do the following:
Let things go when you can. Not every provocation needs to be responded to in kind. If the issue isn't important to you, don't turn it into a tit-for-tat driver of escalation Ignore it; oftentimes it will just go away. And if it doesn't, try cooperation, or simple listening, first. Sometimes having someone empathically listen is enough to get people to calm down a lot. It might not resolve the entire conflict, but it often changes the tone, and the willingness of the other side to listen to your views and negotiate a mutually-acceptable outcome may well increase..
It is also important to remember that the time, energy, and resources we each have available to participate in civic debate is limited. We, therefore, ought to concentrate our efforts on places where we can really help make things better and not get caught up in the amplification of destructive escalation spirals (something that is all too easy to do on social media).
Reframing the Problem
As I said above, it is very helpful to reframe the problem so that you no longer define the problem as being the other side, but rather the destructive conflict dynamics, such as escalation and polarization, that are causing you and people on the other side to behave in ways that are preventing problem-solving, rather than enhancing it. Once you define the problem as conflict escalation (or "hyper-polarization" with respect to U.S. politics these days), then you realize that there are much more effective strategies for solving the problem than just pushing harder and harder against the other side. It even suggests that collaborating with the other side to change conflict interaction patterns and to push back against bad-faith actors who intentionally drive escalation is helpful. Increasing numbers of scholars and pundits seem to be making such arguments, one example being Peter Coleman, in his book The Way Out.
A closely-related way to reframe the problem is to stop framing the problem as created by "the other," and acknowledging that the problem is likely created, to varying degrees, by everyone, including oneself. Typically, in intractable conflicts, people on all sides assert (and believe) that the other side is evil, greedy, stupid, or wrong, and that they are right, good, and generous. Even if that is true, it seldom helps resolve the conflict—it just leads to an escalating conflict spiral.
A better approach is that suggested by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, in their book Difficult Conversations. They make the distinction between "blame" and "contribution," where blame judges the other side and looks backwards. Contribution looks for understanding how everyone contributed to creating the present situation. It goes both backwards to see how the situation got to be and forward to figure out how to fix it. Focusing on contribution thus enables learning and problem solving, while blame causes conflicts to become more escalated and intractable.
When a "triggering incident" happens, rumors, often false and exaggerated, spread quickly. This can turn a relatively minor incident into a significant event, even a major crisis. To prevent inaccurate and inflammatory rumors from spreading, community leaders need to set up communication systems to monitor rumor transmission, check veracity, and disseminate credible contrary information when warranted. For example, one technique the Community Relations Service has used to prevent civil rights conflicts to escalate out of control is to set up rumor-control teams composed of trusted community leaders. These leaders agree to be available by phone 24/7 and when called, quickly check to see if rumors are accurate or not. They then report what they learn (from credible sources) about what has been going on, and if mistakes were made, what steps are being taken to address the situation. This not only defuses dangerous rumors, it sets up a process that encourages officials to do the right thing.
Cooling-off periods are common tools used in some circumstances to try to give people time to calm down and think before they do something in anger that that they are likely to regret. Cooling-off periods are often legally required, for example, before a union can strike, before someone can buy a gun, or before someone can obtain an abortion. But they are useful in many more circumstances than those legally required. Whenever you become angry at another person, it helps to do what William Ury described, in his book Getting Past No, as "going to the balcony." Step back, and (metaphorically, from above), look down at the situation. Look at what just happened and why. How did you contribute to the situation? How did they? What are you really looking for in this exchange? Are you looking for further fighting—or are you looking at a solution to the problem? How much does the relationship mean to you? Is it worth working to save it? Is there another way to pursue your interests and needs that will not be as confrontational? Most often when one "goes to the balcony," one is able to see a better way forward than continued conflict escalation.
William Ury and Joshua Weiss have developed the notion of "Third Siders." These are people—both disputants (insiders) and third parties (outsiders) who want to de-escalate a conflict and make it more constructive. Ury and Weiss say that there are ten different "third side roles" that are arranged in three categories: prevention, resolution, and containment.
(Diagram from “Third Siders” on Beyond Intractability)
The first line of defense, they assert, is prevention, which includes three roles. Providers can reduce underlying tensions by helping assure that the parties are able to meet their fundamental human needs, which often drive conflicts when they are absent. Teachers give people better conflict resolution skills, so they understand how to solve problems collaboratively and know that such approaches are usually better than coercive power-based strategies. Bridge-builders work to bring people together, so they can break down their us-versus-them, overly simplified stereotypes, and come to understand the validity of everyone's point of view.
But, Ury and Weiss admit, sometimes prevention doesn't work or doesn't happen in time, so the next line of defense is resolution. Of course, intractable conflicts are ones that have resisted resolution for quite some time, but nevertheless, there often are roles for mediators who can help work through some of the negotiable disputes within the context of wider intractable conflicts. Arbiters (often called arbitrators) can, like judges, make decisions for the parties about right and wrong and who must do what. Again, they probably will not have the authority or legitimacy to settle the entire conflict, but there might be some disputes within the broader conflict context that could successfully be arbitrated or adjudicated. (Ury and Weiss include adjudication in this category.) For example, abortion has been an intractable conflict within the United States for a long time. Yet there have been a long series of court cases that have adjudicated various aspects of this conflict, and have established limits of what people can and cannot do in pursuit of their overall goals with respect to this issue. Another resolution role is the equalizer. Equalizers work to empower low-power groups so that they can advocate for themselves more effectively (and without further escalating the conflict). And, finally, healers can help to heal past wounds and address grievances, so they don't build up and continue to strengthen the escalation spiral.
When resolution doesn't work, three more third-side roles, which Ury and Weiss label as "containment roles," can be brought into play. First are peacekeepers, who simply separate the parties and keep them from fighting (meaning using violence), thereby stopping continued escalation. Second are referees, who keep the fighting that happens contained within norms of legitimate fighting. Third are witnesses who accurately report on what happens to the larger society to stop rumors and to make sure that people who are inclined to take illegitimate actions know they are being watched. (This, in theory, increases the costs to them for violating community norms or breaking agreements, and thereby discourages such behavior.)
In ways that are similar to our call for "massively parallel peacebuilding" to transform intractable conflicts, Ury and Weiss argue that if all ten third-side roles are widely deployed at the same time in a conflict, that conflict will most certainly become less destructive, and may even be transformed or resolved. The problem is, they assert, that it is very unusual for all ten roles to be used at once, and at a scale necessary to really have widespread impact.
We have seven more ways to “turn down the heat,” but in an effort to keep these newsletters readable, we will save those last seven for a later newsletter, to be published in a week or two.
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