What do we do when conflict escalates?
For most people, conflict will mean escalated conflict where people have become polarised and have strong negative attitudes towards each other or may have progressed to verbal attacks or even violence. Escalation can be of two types which need to be considered separately – the intensity or seriousness of behaviours between antagonists (see Glasl escalation diagram) and the scale and scope of the conflict as reflected in the numbers of parties involved.
Escalated conflict is usually a crisis situation, is the most difficult form of conflict to deal with and it requires an emergency response. It also needs considerable compassion, understanding, communication and facilitator skills to intervene effectively. If you are not a good swimmer you would be wary about getting into the water to rescue somebody who is drowning. Equally it is essential that the project prepares itself and does the appropriate policy development and learning so that it is ready to intervene when and if a crisis occurs.
The following outline of how to respond to escalated conflict assumes that the project has already been developing its conflict strategy over time and isn’t diving into a very tense situation without such preparation. Each project will need to take account of the level of resources available to it at the time to address a particular conflict and will need to tailor its intervention accordingly. This model takes you through a step-by-step process of considering how to respond and what is needed. The model will help staff and the board to manage risk and propose a realistic response. It will also clarify the roles the project will take at different stages, and help communicate and negotiate these roles effectively with parties to the conflict in a way that clarifies and manages mutual expectations between project and parties involved.
Project preparation and development needs to be done in advance of any crisis response and projects should not wait until they have an escalated conflict on their hands before they do this preparation. Different projects will have different levels of conflict intervention capability available to them and the following document will help them decide how best to use their current level of ability. At minimum they will have a role in coordinating and monitoring interventions and learning from in order to improve the way the organisation will respond in future.
Project Response to an escalated conflict
A: A serious incident or series of incidents occurs
A serious incident or event has occurred and harm has been done by one or more parties and there is a high likelihood of escalation if this has not already happened.
B: Project informed of escalated conflict
The project has been made aware of incident/event- this could be a sense that all is not well on the site through outreach, it could be through discussions that relationships are strained or a phone call to say something has happened.
A lot of what is deemed an “emergency” will depend on the work the project has done and how conflict aware you are. For the purposes of this exercise, emergency will mean an escalated conflict where there is a real and imminent threat or actual harm to individuals, families and their possessions.
We will know from our analysis of conflict (see escalation) an emergency or crisis will have been preceded by or may have been triggered by another incident or series of incidents (seemingly innocuous or ignored at the time) months or weeks before.
Conflict may be very serious and need attention immediate without it being an “emergency” as defined here. The earlier a conflict can be identified and tackled, the easier it will be for the project to intervene as there are more options available that do not require the higher levels of skill needed to deal effectively with an emergency situation.
However, identifying and being confident about how to approach emergency situations gives a project, individuals and families the courage to tackle the conflict and engage in ADR processes in more informal, non-coercive spaces (continuum of ADR approaches diagram). The more prepared you are the better the chances of a positive outcome.
C: Initial inquiry – Find out more
Initial inquiry- The project quickly gets information from as many sources as possible to find out what has happened. At this stage, projects are not delving deeply into root causes, triggers, agendas but once this action is taken, the project is now involved in some way.
This process is much easier if the project has already had discussions with the community in relation to conflict and potential roles that it can play have been communicated among them – trust is vital at all stages in this process.
At this stage, a trusted project member will explain the role they are taking at this stage and how it fits into the larger process. They will then gather information confidentially by listening to peoples’ stories of what happened from multiple sources, bearing in mind that there is no single truth and they are not there to judge or take sides however contradictory the various perspectives may be. It is important to remember there is no completely objective source and that includes the information gatherer no matter how impartial they wish to be.
D: Initial assessment, choice of intervention strategy and role(s) of project
An organisation has already developed a Conflict management plan which has been circulated to the community, so the project is already clear on what resources and skills it has which allow it to play different roles depending on the nature of the conflict. The project needs to reflect on its part, relationships with and expectations of, the parties involved. This may force a decision not to take a mediator (neutral) role due to bias or family connections with the project, or that it may seem the project cannot be an “honest broker”. However a coordinator/ monitor and reviewer roles will be possible, subject to confidentiality, and other roles such as advocate, conflict coach, teacher or bridge-builder may also be possible.
Given what you know now, what will the project’s role in this conflict be?
- What third side roles could the project ethically play?
- Has project got the capability to carry out these roles?
- Has the conflict escalated so that an expert conflict coach or a mediator is needed?
- Is there a clear and present danger to the safety and livelihood of parties or is it past that stage of escalation where a peace enforcer is needed?
- If the level of escalation and the numbers of the parties involved at this point is too great, can the project decide that it will take a lead in coordinating a response team?
- How can the project provide continuing advice or practical support for parties and safe spaces for discussions or one to ones?
The range of roles any project will undertake is unlikely to extend beyond alternative dispute resolution processes. (ADR options). Central to these approaches are the principles of no shame, no blame, no coercion. They are voluntary processes that empower the parties to the conflict to work out a sustainable solution among themselves and provide the support and facilitation to enable them to do so. Interventions which involve enforcement or go beyond voluntary participation of the parties require professional expertise and authority and must be referred onward.
At a minimum, the project may simply decide to monitor the situation, and to assess and engage the roles that could be taken or needed from other third parties. The expertise of the community and the organisation should inform this analysis and deep understanding of needs of the community will add value to any intervention.
It is essential that the organisation manage expectations of all parties involved in the conflict, including bystanders and others who may be impacted by the conflict, even if not directly involved as to the process and roles it is taking in the conflict. This does not mean taking sides or sharing confidential information.
E: Neutral Third Party Investigation/pre-mediation preparation
Once who will take the role of neutral third-party and the intervention strategy has been decided, further investigation and analysis will be needed. If the project has become conflict aware and has sufficient confidence in its expertise, the project should use its local knowledge of the root cause analysis of Traveller conflict, initial conflict analysis and contextual and local history including background or hidden aspects of the conflict (see conflict iceberg) to produce a conflict map. Only a local Traveller project could develop a conflict map of the level of detail needed that an external mediator would be unable to develop
Traveller organisations will have an understanding of broader contextual and environmental pressures, such as institutional racism, failure to deliver Traveller accommodation or overcrowding on site as well as individual, community and cultural issues and can map how all this adds to the issue visible.
The project will also have credibility in talking to people and through its relationships with people and families concerned. It will therefore have a critical role in introducing the mediator and helping them build a relationship and gain the trust of the parties involved.
The project may have a role in providing a private and neutral space for meetings to take place, in supporting the arrangement of and attendance at meetings, and in helping parties to understand the process in which they are engaging. They may have a role in supporting the mediator and addressing the challenges which may arise with issues of Traveller culture and sensitivity.
A Traveller project may decide it does not have the level of skill to mediate on their own but is accepted by all parties as impartial so they can play an assistant role to the mediator and learn more about the mediation process as well as assisting. It is essential that the nature and limits of such an assistant role are explicit and agreed with the mediator and all parties. Initial training in mediation is widely available.
F: Design of Third Party Intervention Plan
Based on these discussions, the project (either as sole mediator/facilitator or supporting an external expert) will assist in developing a response in what needs to happen to bring about a temporary resolution of the conflict and what needs to happen to develop a sustainable peace.
The latter will more than likely need external agency buy-in, so the role of the external committee, Traveller interagency group or mediation service will be crucial at this stage. Such a collaboration partnership will need to have been established in advance so that a prompt response to the emergency can be made.
Consideration will need to be given to the stage of escalation, the issues arising,, the number of parties involved directly, the willingness and readiness of parties to meet in dialogue face-to-face, the amount of pre-mediation preparation needed, suitable locations for meetings, and so on.
Consideration will need to be given to the range of possible interventions, whether multiple interventions are needed in the availability of resources to implement them. The goals interests and needs of the parties, identified in the earlier investigation, will shape the emergency intervention plan.
The process once designed will need to be agreed by the parties as will the roles to be played by the project and others. A communication plan for the various stakeholders will need to be devised outline what and when it needs to be communicated to the community and other project members.
G: Intervention and monitoring contracted
It is essential that the proposed intervention mediation process has buy-in of all parties. This reinforces the voluntary nature of the process, the empowerment of parties by reminding them that they will be the ones who develop mutually acceptable agreements and confirms the commitment to alternative dispute resolution process.
It also makes sure that they understand the process which they are committing to engage in and how they will be conducted as well as the roles of the various people who may be involved. This will form the contract between parties regarding the process and how they will engage with one another which can be relied upon should there be any disagreement or confusion about it during implementation.
H: Implementation, Intervention and Monitoring
Regardless of the role the project takes, it will play a key role in monitoring the intervention and what impact it has. Again, given the trust the project has with the community, interactions with members of the community will give an insight into how successful it is.
What information is to be gathered, its purpose and what and how it will be shared needs to be agreed by all parties in advance. Ideally this will be stated in the project’s conflict management plan and be disseminated through information leaflets within the community.
Personal information about any of the parties will not form part of any reporting system which could identify that person. Explicit permission from all parties will be required before information can be used for the purposes of illustration or case study learning.
I: Post Intervention Analysis and Learning
The project will look at, through engagement with the community, the external committee, any 3rd party consultants etc. what did the intervention aim to achieve, did it happen, what were the challenges, what has worked, what the impact of the conflict has been on the community, the impact of the intervention etc. to see how the project can learn from the process in order that, should conflict escalate again, the project’s conflict management and skills are developing over time. From this we will gain expertise in assessing what is needed to develop communication between parties and to inform and learn for preventative processes in the future
It will also inform what non-emergency interventions need to be made in order to prevent such conflict escalating in the future. These may include early recognition and intervention, relationship and capability building, or systemic issues and interventions involving the wider community or interagency groups.
We must recognise that the no two incidents/ conflict events will be the same and there is no set template for responding identically using the exact response in each instance. The project will operate differently for different conflicts- this process map doesn’t give the specific response to all incidents but rather a framework for a project who has used this resource to become conflict aware.
J: Updating of project conflict intervention plan
Learning from the post intervention analysis is included in the project’s conflict management plan and or its emergency response procedure. Ideally Traveller organisations will share this process, ideally using the blog section (link) on the resources part of this website, to share learning.
As with all aspects of a Traveller project’s work, the importance of outreach and relationship building cannot be stressed enough. It is through engagement and participation of the community in discussions around conflict that the project has credibility in relation to conflict- they have spoken to people before about this, and the community has agreed that the project has a role.
When to intervene:
Theoretical escalation- using this theoretical escalation chart as a project you can begin discussions leading to the development of a clear analysis on what roles a project can play. Once you reach this analysis of when and how you can respond it is vital that this is communicated through discussions with the community in order to establish that there is buy-in for that role
Once this role is accepted by the community, the relationship can develop for an early warning system to be in place with people within the community recognising the project’s role in conflict management. This relationship with clear structures in place (what we can & cannot do) manages expectations by clearly communicating to Travellers