- Kenneth Boulding
Updated May 2013
De-escalation is the cooling off or calming down of a heated conflict.
Anyone involved in a highly emotional, intense, or heated conflict, or intermediaries who want to try to calm such conflicts down.
De-escalation is the reduction in the intensity of a conflict. Sometimes this occurs quickly, when a conflict escalates rapidly to the point where the parties fear that further escalation will be catastrophic, and they back off. (This occurred in the Cuban Missile Crisis between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. which escalated, and then de-escalated rapidly, since both sides feared further escalation would cause nuclear war.) More often, however, de-escalation does not occur until the parties have reached a prolonged "hurting stalemate," a term developed by Saadia Touval and William Zartman to refer to a situation in which neither side can prevail, but both sides are being harmed by continuing the confrontation. Once both sides realize this is the case, they are much more likely to be willing to negotiate at least a temporary settlement of the conflict. But as long as at least one side thinks it can win, de-escalation is much harder to achieve.
Unlike escalation, which often occurs rapidly and unintentionally, de-escalation tends to be slow and only happens intentionally through much effort. Often it begins when one or both sides realize that continuing the conflict is likely to be more damaging than beneficial. They might then carefully (often through a third party) signal to the other side that they are interested in exploring the possibility of settlement. If the other side responds positively, the parties then may try to meet or at least begin to communicate to determine a method of pursuing negotiation. If they can come to an agreement about how to pursue negotiations, this already signals a considerable de-escalation, which may advance further, once negotiations are begun.
Other approaches are useful as well: An approach developed by Charles Osgood is called GRIT, or the "gradual reciprocal reduction in tension approach." With GRIT, one side makes a small, unilateral concession in the hopes that the other side will reciprocate, then, if the other side does, the first side makes a second small concession, and so on. The concessions go back and forth, resulting in a slow "racheting" down of tensions. Other de-escalatory strategies include cooling off periods, anger management, media management (to discourage alarmist or exaggerated stories), and changing communication strategies and patterns to try to calm down emotions and anger, rather than continuing to allow them to accelerate unchecked.
Often, when friends or spouses get into a fight, they argue for awhile, and they may yell at each other. If the anger is unchecked, the argument may actually result in violence. Most often, however, friends will stop short of such a result--they will usually back off if they see their anger swelling to that level. They may simply walk out of the room or the house--imposing a "cooling off period." Or they may simply become quiet, signaling an interest in calming the argument down and seeking an agreement.
Nations do the same thing: leaders of many countries caught in long-running conflicts sometimes decide that the conflict has become too damaging, and they seek a "cease-fire" or a resolution. Several Arab leaders have sought resolution of their conflicts with Israel, and at times, those conflicts de-escalate. But since final resolutions have not yet been achieved, eventually, most of those conflicts have escalated again, in a seemingly never-ending cycle of escalation, stalemate, de-escalation, and around again and again.