Recognising Signs and Stages of Conflict Escalation

The workplace should always be a safe environment for those who work there. Conflict exists everywhere, and the workplace is no exception. Differing personalities, styles of work, and personal values or beliefs can all lead to conflict escalation between individuals. Many work environments are high-stress. In these situations, there is always some risk of potential conflict. In fact, according to Acas, 10 million people in the UK experience conflict at work each year, with more than half reporting stress, anxiety or depression as a result.

Unfortunately, conflicts will arise during working life, and employees may find themselves in challenging or uncomfortable situations when facing them. Though conflict will always exist in the workplace, what should an employee do?

It’s crucial to recognise the signs of conflict to try to stop it in its tracks. While it won’t always be possible, you’ve got more chance of de-escalating a situation at the early stages.

In this guide, we’ll go through the five stages of conflict and how to recognise them, the signs of conflict escalation and how you can handle and de-escalate conflict situations.

The Five Stages of Conflict

There are five stages of a conflict, and within each, there are ways that you can recognise a problem building.

1. Latent

Conflict usually starts quietly. In the latent stage, those involved aren’t aware of it, but they may have hidden frustrations that could surface at any time.

Sometimes, conflicts may never pass beyond the latent stage, but other times people may be able to feel it coming.

2. Perceived

At the perceived stage, the people involved in the conflict will be fully aware of it. This is when it may get reported to a manager, and if it does, this may be enough to stop the conflict from escalating further.

It it doesn’t, this conflict may start to affect the people involved more seriously.

3. Felt

The felt stage of conflict is when the conflict is not only perceived but actually felt and recognised by those involved. It may make them feel stressed or anxious, and people tend to harbour these emotions which can perpetuate the conflict.

In contrast to the perceived stage, people are starting to have reactions to the conflict in the felt stage, which can start to affect the organisation more widely. For example, if an employee is feeling stressed due to a conflict at work, they may deliver a project task late, affecting those who need to work on it next.

4. Manifest

During the manifest stage of conflict escalation, people become more vocal about the conflict. They may start airing out grievances with the other people involved, and may start to become aggressive or disobedient. It’s rare that workplace conflict turns into violence, but it’s important to recognise and de-escalate aggression when you notice it to prevent it from progressing any further.

Other common practices during the manifest stage include emails, phone calls and face-to-face meetings where the conflict manifests itself to participants. In conflicts in the workplace with customers, for example in retail, a customer may demand to speak to someone more senior to report the conflict to.

5. Aftermath

The aftermath stage is when there has been an outcome of the conflict, whether good or bad. The conflict may be resolved fully to the satisfaction of all participants, or it may be suppressed. If it’s suppressed, the latent conditions of the conflict may arise again and explode in a more serious manner.

De-escalation is essential and is typically easier earlier in the stages of conflict; the longer the situation drags on, the more heated and violent it might be.

Understanding the Signs of Conflict Escalation

conflict escalating at work - a manager shouting at two employees sat opposite each other

It simply isn’t enough to rely solely on individuals reporting conflict. Managers must be able to detect the potential signs of conflict escalation, acting quickly to prevent situations from getting worse.

The most effective conflict recognition and resolution method is first to recognise a situation and maintain proactivity to handle the issue before it starts. Here are some of the various stages of conflict analysis:

Determining body language

Analysing body language is one of the most common and effective methods to tell if something isn’t right in the working environment. People typically don’t realise the body language they subconsciously adapt. Focusing on these nuances can prove critical to recognise if workers are facing problems.

Aggressive body language is easy to spot, as aggressors commonly show physical indicators like widened shoulders, frowns, or crossed arms. Other signs like shifting weight, nervous appearance, darting eyes, and perspiration may indicate that someone could take further action that could place employees in danger.

Detecting behavioural changes

Changes in normal behaviour indicate that something may be wrong. When an individual becomes withdrawn, quiet, moody, or stops contributing to a conversation, this can indicate that they face an issue. Managers can encourage employees to look for signs of withdrawal in interactions.

Nonetheless, it remains important that workers be kind and use gentle language that may help diffuse the situation by making people feel heard, cared for, and safe. Acting in this way also presents an excellent opportunity to ask other if they understand what the employee is telling them while opening up the floor for them to speak out about their concerns.

Understanding words or comments

The way people express themselves verbally can serve as a clear view of a potential conflict about to take place. When people become upset, they may make “cutting” comments, use rude or vulgar language, or become more emotive overall, signalling the panic alarm.

Under these circumstances, employees can quickly feel overwhelmed, inadequate, hurt, and stressed. Encouraging workers to remain calm while trying to be helpful can encourage those involved to turn a negative situation around entirely.

Employees should also look out for one another at work. Workers feel more secure knowing they have someone else at their back should an interaction turn problematic. Furthermore, encouraging employees to work as a team by supporting one another can help management build a strong and compassionate team.

After tough interactions, employees that work with difficult individuals may need time to gather their thoughts and reflect on the situation. Although it isn’t ideal for workers to sit around for 20 minutes at a time when they have jobs and tasks to accomplish, understanding when stressed employees need to rest and reset is an example of great management.

De-Escalating Conflict Situations

Learning the steps to de-escalate conflict is a skill and something that comes more naturally to some than others. However, it can prevent a situation from evolving into something more harmful to workers and others around them. 

Active listening

Listen to the problem at hand. Everyone wants to be listened to; for example, they may want to vent their frustrations about a project not being delivered on time, or in a retail setting they may be angry that the product they wanted isn’t in stock. Give them a moment. Sometimes there are other issues underlying that might not have anything to do with the conflict that’s arisen.

You may find that customers or colleagues already have a solution in mind for their problem. Actively listen, don’t interrupt, and clarify if you need to.

Confidence

When someone is presenting aggressively, it is essential to stay confident and polite and not match their anger in response.

Calm demeanour

If the conflict goes further into the stages outlined above, listening to someone attack you can be challenging. Take a deep breath, and keep calm. You need to look past their outburst and find the root of the problem. 

Mirroring

Repeat the issue to the customer or colleague as they explain it to you. Mirroring will help convey that you have listened, understood, and are ready to take action on their behalf (or help them resolve the issue).

Preparing for the Inevitable: Handling Conflict Situations

Conflict has the opportunity to strengthen an organisation overall. Unfortunately, these circumstances can also impose detrimental effects on workplace culture and productivity when not managed appropriately.

When tensions grow high, empathetic intervention, strong communication, and the proper training and tools go a long way to resolving conflicts optimally. However, in conflict situations, it isn’t always easy to signal for assistance from others.

Nevertheless, managers can strengthen their team when facing conflict situations by taking steps to train and equip workers for success. Intervention from technology makes this far easier with tools like discreet radio earpieces and discreet panic button security systems. These tools enable employees to signal when they need help or information, strengthening a business as a whole.

Little Green Button is a company that focuses on and commits to the well-being and safety of all our customers. This began with the healthcare sector in mind, but it soon became clear that there is a great need for discreet panic alarm security systems in any environment dealing with members of the public.

As a result, we retooled our technology, adapting it to suit various situations where individuals working on their own could benefit from signalling a colleague in situations that may cause them concern.

Try a 14-day free trial of Little Green Button today to see how it could help you reduce conflict escalation in your organisation.