Conflicts go through a series of stages, each stage more serious and more difficult to resolve than the one before it.
Everyday concerns and disputes: the issue is the issue, not the personalities, and communication is still working. Normal coping strategies such as toleration, assertive communication, compromise etc. may well work here. However, those involved may remember what has happened and become more cautious and less trusting in their dealings with others. The more of these events there are, the more likely it is that they will escalate.
More significant, persistent and major disputes where the consequences are longer term and the emotional involvement is at a higher level: collaboration disappears and each party is seeking an advantage over the other. People start to generalize, exaggerate and keep ‘score’. The actual issue becomes submerged under fixed negative views of each other and the important thing is to win the fight. The parties are unlikely to resolve things without outside intervention.
Managing Stage 2 conflict means you have to manage the people issues irst. It is important to create a safe atmosphere so that you can spend time allowing each party to say as much as they want. Any generalizations should be clarified and possible exaggerations checked out. Feelings should be acknowledged before moving away from the personalities back to the issues. It needs to be stressed that it is the responsibility of the parties themselves to find a solution. It is important now to look for points of agreement and take time to move the parties towards the middle ground without forcing issues or concessions.
Serious, pathological, harmful battles: the desire to win is replaced by the desire to hurt or punish. Language and behavior become quite extreme in the desire to destroy the other. The parties become de-personalized in the eyes of each other so it is OK to do whatever they need to destroy the other. Individuals may even damage themselves in order to engineer the downfall of the other.
Logic and reason are not effective by the time things have reached Stage 3 and you may need to prepare to minimize losses. A neutral intervention team will be necessary here whose role may be negotiation, mediation or arbitration. Once a decision is made, those remaining will need help in refocusing and the losers will have to be dealt with, possibly by replacement or at least a cooling off period. The most important thing is to prevent a Stage 2 conflict escalating to Stage 3 in the first place.
An awareness of the type of conflict and the stage it has reached can therefore be helpful in deciding the most appropriate way of managing it.