Find Mediators Near You:

Attribution Theory & De-Escalation: Transforming Concrete into Abstract as a Method of Conflict Management

Introduction: De-Escalation & the Mediated Dispute

I posit that as conflict escalates, a person’s ability to deal with conflict through abstract thought decreases. Abstract thought can be defined as our ability for rational problem-solving that allows us to see things from multiple perspectives. I believe that conflict de-escalation techniques during the mediation process can help parties re-engage their abstract problem-solving abilities, and ultimately embrace positive solution-oriented ways of thinking. I further posit that conflict de-escalation is the key to creating an environment where negative attributions can then be shifted—through the use of several techniques—allowing each party to adopt a new frame of reference from which they can more effectively view their own behaviors and the behaviors of each other. In short, de-escalating emotional conflict during the mediation process allows abstract thought to be re-engaged, and negative attributions—those that otherwise bind the process and keep the parties from seeing each other’s perspectives—to be changed to a more productive framework. By changing the attributions, we change the strategies for communication, and thus the overall outcome of the mediation.

Specifically, I propose a series of techniques in this paper that are intended to accomplish two things: (1) de-escalate the emotional dynamic behind the conflict in order to encourage abstract thinking in general, and (2) encourage a shift from negative attributions to a new framework that allows each party to better view and understand each other’s perspective. To accomplish the first goal, I propose a technique termed Emotional Reframing, a variation of active listening and reframing techniques traditionally used in mediation. [1] To accomplish the second, I propose a series of techniques drawn from both my own experiences and those of published researchers in the fields of communication and dispute resolution.

There and Back Again: From Abstract Thought to Attribution Theory

Abstract thought can be defined as the ability to combine rational problem-solving techniques with multiple theoretical outcomes. [2] In simple terms, abstract cognitive abilities empower us to envision, process and manipulate multiple layers of data, embracing both the pragmatic and theoretical aspects of an issue. [3] Human children who are developmentally healthy begin to learn abstract problem solving—which includes elements of identity, moral reasoning, and affective development—at an early age by working through personal dilemmas and educational challenges. [4]Ironically, conflict escalation has been termed, “a gradual recession from a mature to immature level of emotional development.” [5] Each phase of conflict escalation tends to result in reciprocal regression on an emotional and cognitive level that resembles movement backward through the stages of human development—including the repression of abstract problem solving. [6]

I have noticed this phenomenon many times in mediation sessions when parties become enraged with each other and their emotions begin to boil over. When conflict escalates, parties who have previously shown every sign of wanting to resolve their dispute abandon empathy and problem-solving behaviors and instead become deeply entrenched in their positions. I believe what I am witnessing is a shift from abstract thinking, characterized by the ability to rationally reflect about issues and dynamics external to oneself, to concrete thinking—where every issue becomes either right or wrong, my way or nothing. As long as the emotional frustration remains, the parties seem stuck in a concrete world of opposites where principles drive behavior and good and evil predominate. One party may not be able to see the other’s point of view or engage problem-solving strategies that require looking at conflict from more than one perspective.

Fundamental Attribution Error, a term coined by Franz Heider in 1958, provides an excellent theory for understanding how two parties to a dispute can come to see the same issue in very different terms. [7]Heider believed that people have an innate need to explain the behavior of others—and the behavior of themselves—in order to make sense of their extremely complex environments and maintain a sense of power and control. [8] He further posited that such explanations fall into two categories: internal and external attributions. [9]Internal attributions occur when a person’s behavior is attributed to internal characteristics (e.g., personality traits, beliefs, and choices), whereas external attributions occur when behavior is attributed to something outside of a person’s control (e.g., traffic, deadlines, and other environmental dynamics). [10] Heider noticed that people tend to attribute other people’s behavior to internal characteristics, and their own behavior to external characteristics—and thus the concept of Fundamental Attribution Error was born. [11] Communication theorists and researchers have been using this concept ever since to explain the differing perceptions between two parties, especially those in dispute. [12]

Alan Sillars, a researcher who studied inter-marital conflicts and expanded attribution theory, proposed that how a person attributes behavior ultimately determines what strategies they will use to deal with conflict. [13] For example, if a person attributes the other’s behavior as being cooperative, they are likely to respond with cooperative behavior themselves. [14]He emphasized, however, that time and time again this process is sabotaged by Fundamental Attribution Error—that is, people see the other’s behavior as an internal characteristic, and thus a choice, and thus competitive in nature. [15] Because of this negative attribution, they tend to respond in-kind with competitive strategies for dealing with conflict—something that often results in circular conflict escalation and the diminished likelihood of a productive outcome. [16] When applied to mediation, Fundamental Attribution Error essentially allows us to predict that each party will see their own behavior as caused by circumstances beyond their control, and the other’s behavior as a personality flaw. Lateness is a classic example of this: Another person’s tardiness may be attributed to their lack of consideration, while one’s own tardiness to external circumstances such as traffic or some other unexpected condition. [17] Based on Sillar’s research, Attribution Theory also allows us to predict the communication strategies each party will use in the mediation process—and, conversely, to witness such strategies in action in order to identify the underlying attributions that are subsequently driving their behavior. This will ultimately allow the mediator to select the right techniques to shift the attributions, thereby shifting each parties’ communication strategies, and thereby shifting the outcome.

In summation, conflict de-escalation during the mediation process creates an environment in which parties can re-engage abstract problem solving behavior, improving the chances that negative attributions will shift into a more positive framework for understanding each other’s perspectives. Because attributions drive each party’s strategies for dealing with conflict, changing these attributions into a productive paradigm—one that allows for multiple perspectives and points of view—will ultimately assist the dispute resolution process.

Step One: De-escalating the Emotional Conflict through Emotional Reframing

I have had success de-escalating emotional conflict in dispute resolution sessions with a technique I have termed Emotional Reframing. This method, to a limited extent, is similar to the reframing techniques made famous by Carl Rogers and commonly used in mediation. [18] These traditional Rogerian techniques, with which most practitioners are undoubtedly familiar, involve reframing a party’s issues and concerns in a different way—and repeating the message back to them—in order to facilitate problem solving and allow the party to feel engaged by the listener. [19] Emotional reframing, however, takes this a step further and is perhaps best described as reframing the party’s concerns and feelings with the same emotional intensity that they are experiencing. [20] Once the party feels listened to and understood on a deep emotional level, the mediator has successfully created a connection—one that can be used to redirect the message and de-escalate the conflict. This process involves (1) deep acknowledgement of the parties concerns and feelings on an emotional level with matched intensity, (2) slightly twisting or changing the message to be less combative while slowly lessening the level of emotional intensity, and (3) blending or redirecting the conversation in a new direction with a new message and a different level of emotion. When done correctly, this technique usually produces a startling effect. The party often follows the lead of the mediator, having felt heard on a deep emotional level, and allows the emotional intensity to subside. In short, the energy of the conflict dissipates and the dispute begins to de-escalate. In my experience, this technique may have to be repeated several times and performed equally on both parties in order to prevent the appearance of bias. Once it begins to de-escalate the conflict, however, it sets the stage nicely to begin shifting negative attributions into more productive beliefs.

Step Two: Replacing Negative Attributions with Perspectivism

As mediators, we are essentially trying to substitute each party’s negative attribution—such as their belief that the other side is evil or bad because they broke an agreement—with a more productive cognitive framework for understanding the other side’s perspective. While de-escalating the emotional conflict facilitates an environment that naturally encourages abstract problem-solving behavior and the ability to understand more than one perspective, specific techniques can also be used to help unseat negative attributions. John Ng and Sophia Ang suggest managing Fundamental Attribution Error though party role-reversal, which entails having the parties switch roles and speak on the other’s behalf. [21] They posit that such role reversal facilitates cognitive dissonance, a theory that suggests that when a person’s actions and beliefs are in conflict they tend to change their beliefs to match their actions in order to promote a more harmonious mental state. [1] In other words, the parties may let go of their negative attributions and be more receptive to the other’s perspective. Melissa Janis sums up this technique nicely by writing:

In mediation, giving the parties the opportunity to be each other shifts their blame away from character and toward situational factors. As this technique corrects the fundamental attribution error, it creates cognitive dissonance as the parties validate each other’s perspectives. The parties’ need to reconcile their newly disparate beliefs creates movement toward resolution. [23]

Another method of shifting negative attributions involves encouraging each party to take responsibility for their own behavior. Education and discussion with this purpose in mind may facilitate a shift from the belief that the situation is to blame, to the idea that each party has a higher degree of control over their own cognitive disposition. Other mediators describe success with videotaping each party and having them watch themselves—which allows each to see themselves through the eyes of a casual observer or another party. [24] Personally, I have had success with a technique called “do want/don’t want” which involves one party repeating back to the other “what you do want is” and “what you don’t want is” followed by what they believe that party does or does not want. [25] Each party does their best to listen to the other’s version of events, and repeats back to them what they have understood by alternating between these two phrases. Not only does this technique facilitate listening and understanding, it also encourages the release of negative attributions that do not match the new information gleaned from the other party.

Case Example: The Unfinished Doorway

I recently had the opportunity to mediate a case at a local small claim’s court between a homeowner and an artist who had been hired to repair and paint the homeowner’s antique doors. A contract for the work—which involved a large amount of fine detail and restoration—had been signed by both parties. The homeowner, however, decided one year into the process to hire someone else to paint the doors, effectively denying the artist the chance to finish the job (and effectively breaching the contract as well). Both parties were highly emotional by the time they sat down with me, and neither one wanted to consider, or even hear, the other’s position. The conflict had escalated to a point where abstract problem-solving had given way to protracted hostility and a break down in the communication process—with both parties being entrenched in their concrete concepts of right and wrong, good and bad. Fundamental Attribution Error was arguably present in both parties, with each feeling that the other’s behavior was caused by either an immoral disposition or greedy, self-serving behavior.

In order to de-escalate the conflict, I chose to use the formerly described Emotional-Reframing technique. [26] I did this with both parties, in succession, and the results were two-fold. The first party said, “That’s exactly how I feel,” and immediately seemed more engaged with me, while the second nodded and appeared grateful I had recognized her position. Perhaps just as importantly, both parties seemed to calm down and the “energy” in the room shifted subtly, following my lead. I believe I was able to de-escalate the conflict by repeating this technique—allowing them to feel an emotional connection with me—which ultimately allowed both parties to relax to the point that abstract problem-solving behaviors could resurface in the mediation. The process became much smoother after this and the parties themselves engaged in problem solving (rather than passing this role to me as the mediator).

Once the conflict was successfully de-escalated and the environment more conducive to abstract cognitive behavior, I was able to use a combination of active listening and education about negative self-attribution to further open each party’s perspectives to better encompass the other’s. Once the momentum toward conciliation began, both parties attributions changed, their strategies in turn changed, and the dispute resolution process was significantly furthered.

Conclusion: If We Have Offended . . .

These techniques in combination may prove helpful and important to facilitating positive outcomes in mediation. More importantly, the overall theory I have sketched out by cobbling together de-escalation theory, abstract thought, and Fundamental Attribution Error, may prove a useful tool for explaining some of the underlying processes within the realm of conflict resolution—and encourage even more techniques to re-engage abstract thought and shift negative attributions. These techniques seem to be limited only by the imagination, and I fully encourage all mediators to further develop these techniques and their own methods.


1 This technique, which I have nicknamed emotional reframing for the purposes of this paper, is based entirely on the work of Professor Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, Pepperdine University School of Law, as presented in the course, Advanced Mediation, Summer, 2003. Please contact Robert Benjamin through the Straus Institute for more information. See generally Robert Benjamin, Gut Instinct: A Mediator Prepares, Family Mediation News (ACR), Summer, 2001, at 6-7; Robert Benjamin, Managing the Natural Energy of Conflict: Mediators, Tricksters and the Constructive Uses of Deception, in Bringing Peace into the Room: The Personal Qualities of a Mediator (Daniel Bowling & David Hoffman eds., 2003) (Scheduled for release in Fall 2003).

2 See Gary Furlong, Conflict Analysis Models for Mediators and Other Practitioners, 11 (2002), at

3 See generally Lera Boroditsky, The Roles of Body and Mind in Abstract Thought, Stanford University Department of Psychology (2001), at 4 See generally Zopito Marini, The Development of Abstract Reasoning About the Physical and Social World, 65 Child Dev. 147 (1994); Rose L. Laub, In Defense of Modernity: Role Complexity and Individual Autonomy (1991); Advances in the Psychology of Human Intelligence (Robert J. Sternberg ed., 1989); John P. Miller, Piaget, Kohlberg, and Erikson: Developmental Implications for Secondary Education, 13 Editions Medecine et Hygiene 237 (1978) (English); Don Kuiken, Immediacy in Self-Representation and the Development of Abstract Thought, 16 J. Hum. Psychol. 29 (1976).

5 See Douglas E. Noll, Conflict Escalation: A Five Phase Model, 5-6 (2000), at

6 See id.

7 See Fritz Heider, Social Perception and Phenomenal Causality, 51 Psychol. Rev. 358 (1958).

8 See Melissa Janis, In the Eye of the Beholder: Using Perceptual Errors to Resolve Employment Disputes, 56 Disp. Resol. J. 49, 50-51 (2001).

9 See Heider, supra note 7.

10 See id.

11 See Janis, supra note 8, at 50.

12 See generally Robert Lana, Behavior, Cognition, and Society, 23 J. Mind & Behav. 95 (2002); Attribution, Communication Behavior, and Close Relationships (Valerie Manusov ed., 2001); Gerald Metalsky, Attribution Theory: Clinical Applications, in Theories of Behavior Therapy: Exploring Behavior Change (William O’Donohue ed., 1995); Hector Betancourt, An Attributional Approach to Intergroup and International Conflict, in Attribution Theory: Applications to Achievement, Mental Health, and Interpersonal Conflict (Sandra Graham ed., 1990).

13 See generally Alan Sillars et al., Cognition During Marital Conflict: The Relationship of Thought and Talk, 17 J. Soc. & Pers. Relationships 479 (2000); Alan Sillars, Stress, Cognition, and Communication in Interpersonal Conflicts, 9 Comm. Res. 201 (1982); Alan Sillars, Attributions and Communications in Roommate Conflicts, 47 Comm. Monographs 180 (1980).

14 See id.

15 See id.

16 See id.

17 See Janis, supra note 8, at 51.

18 See Christopher W. Moore, The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict 217-23 (2nd ed. 1996); Laurence Boulle, Mediation Skills and Techniques 129-33 (2001); Carl Rogers, Client-Centered Therapy: It’s Current Practice, Implications and Theory (1951).

19 See generally Karl Slaikeu, When Push Comes to Shove 232 (1996).

20 This is my attempt to briefly summarize Robert Benjamin’s theory. Any misinterpretation is solely my responsibility for which I humbly apologize. See generally Benjamin, supra note 1.

21 See generally John Ng & Sophia Ang, Attribution Bias: Challenges, Issues, and Strategies for Mediation, 16 Mediation Q. (1999); See Janis, supra note 8, at 51.

22 See Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957).

23 See Janis, supra note 8, at 51.

24 See id. at 52.

25 This is based on the work and techniques of Gary Acevedo, MSW, as taught through his course on relationships in Salt Lake City, UT.

26 See generally Benjamin, supra note 1.


Kenneth B. Gorton

Kenneth Gorton is an attorney in the State of Washington.  He handles a wide variety of personal injury and wrongful death claims.    Before entering private practice, Mr. Gorton served as a federal law clerk for the Honorable Robert Bryan, a well-known federal judge in Tacoma, Washington.  He later became a… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Online Dispute Resolution for Consumers

This chapter is from "Online Dispute Resolution Theory and Practice," Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Ethan Katsh & Daniel Rainey ( Eds.), published, sold and distributed by Eleven International Publishing. The Hague,...

By Pablo Cortés

Child Dependency Mediation Update

This article discusses the successful innovative approaches that SoCal Family Mediators have developed. Great mediators are negotiators of acumen, surrogate negotiators really.  Our proof of concept enters its 4th year...

By Randy Drew

The Known and the Unknown

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. PollackWhen I first read this quote years ago, it made no sense to me. It seemed nonsensical at best. But then last month, I...

By Phyllis Pollack