Conflict Stages

Eric Brahm

September 2003

It has become common to describe conflicts as passing through a series of phases.[1] Different authors name and describe these stages differently, but most include, at a minimum:

These phases are frequently shown on a diagram that looks something like this, although the accompanying text will always explain that the progress from one stage to the next is not smooth and conflicts may repeat stages several times.

These stages are described briefly in this introductory essay, and then each is discussed in more depth in other essays.

The potential for conflict exists whenever people have different needs, values, or interests; this is the "latent" conflict stage. The conflict may not become apparent until a "triggering event" leads to the emergence (or beginning) of the obvious conflict. Emergence may be followed quickly by settlement or resolution, or it may be followed by escalation, which can become very destructive.

Additional insights into conflict stages are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Escalation, however, cannot continue indefinitely. De-escalation can be temporary or can be part of a broader trend toward settlement or resolution. Or escalation may lead to a stalemate, a situation in which neither side can win. If the pain of continuing the conflict exceeds that of maintaining the confrontation, the parties are in what Zartman calls a "hurting stalemate,"[2] which often presents an ideal opportunity for negotiation and a potential settlement. Finally, if and when an agreement is reached, peacebuilding efforts work to repair damaged relationships with the long-term goal of reconciling former opponents.

Some scholars add other phases to this list. For intractable conflict, in particular, Kriesberg adds failed peacemaking efforts after escalation, and institutionalization of destructive conflict after that.[3] This latter stage is closely linked with the hurting stalemate.

Alker, Gurr, and Rupesinghe distinguish between six phases:

  • dispute (equivalent to conflict emergence);
  • crisis (equivalent to escalation);
  • limited violence;
  • massive violence;
  • abatement (equivalent to de-escalation); and
  • settlement.[4]

These stages are similar to those set out by the Complex Emergency Response and Transition Initiative (CERTI) project:

  • conflict,
  • crisis,
  • chaos,
  • complex emergency,
  • recovery.

The related Health as a Bridge for Peace (HBP) project defines five phases:

  • impending crisis,
  • outbreak of violence,
  • war,
  • post-crisis, and
  • stable peace (which is one stage beyond the final phase of the first list above).[5]

All of these models are idealized. Actual conflicts usually do not follow a linear path. Rather, they evolve in fits and starts, alternatively experiencing progress and setbacks toward resolution. The lack of linear progress helps to give the conflict a sense of intractability. Escalation may resume after temporary stalemate or negotiation. Escalation and de-escalation may alternate. Negotiations may take place in the absence of a stalemate. However, these models are still useful, because most conflicts pass through similar stages at least once in their history.

Delineating different stages is also useful in efforts to resolve conflict. By recognizing the different dynamics occurring at each stage of a conflict, one can appreciate that the strategies and tactics for participants and interveners differ depending on the phase of the conflict.

A diagram by the Health as a Bridge for Peace (HBP) project[6] illustrates both their and the CERTI stages of conflict, linked to appropriate response measures. One can quibble about the relationship between the outside (white) circle and the inside (blue) circle. Many scholars and interveners, for instance, would argue that peacebuilding should take place all around the circle, with the possible exception of the stable peace phase, by which time peacebuilding has become institutionalized and is done as part of everyday life.


Source: Rodriguez-Garcia, et al., "How Can Health Serve as a Bridge for Peace?" Available online at

We note that the stage of a conflict is determined subjectively by those involved. Some participants may see the conflict as escalating, while others believe it is de-escalating; one side may perceive itself to be in a hurting stalemate, while the other side believes it can prevail through continued force. Determining each party's assumptions regarding the stage of the conflict is thus important, before one can design a conflict management, transformation, or resolution strategy.

In addition, Kriesberg observes that the sequence of the phases differs from group to group. "Moderates, hardliners, spoilers, and various other factions within each camp tend to be in different phases of intractability at any given time. Therefore, shifts in the relative size and influence of these factions will produce changes in the conflict's course."[7]

[1] See, for example, Creative Associates International, Inc., Conflict Prevention Guide Click here for full URL.

[2] I William Zartman, Ripe for Resolution (New York: Oxford, 1985/1989)

[3] Louis Kriesberg, "Nature, Dynamics, and Phases of Intractability" Chapter in a forthcoming book edited by Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson, and Pamela Aall on Intractable Conflicts (exact title as yet unknown), to be published by U.S. Institute of Peace Press.

[4] The Conflict Database, accessible online at Click here for full URL.

[5]Rosalia Rodriguez-Garcia, et al. "How Can Health Serve as a Bridge for Peace?" Available online at

[6] R. Rodriguez-Garcia, J. Macinko, X. Solorzano, M. Schlesser. "How Can Health Serve as a Bridge for Peace?" The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. Available online at

[7] Louis Kriesberg in a draft version of "Nature, Dynamics, and Phases of Intractability" a chapter in a forthcoming book edited by Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson, and Pamela Aall on Intractable Conflicts (exact title as yet unknown), to be published by U.S. Institute of Peace Press.

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Conflict Stages." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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