Promoting De-Escalation – Part 1: Conciliatory Gestures

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

September, 2018

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


Conciliatory gestures are moves, first instigated by one side, to try to break down the escalation spiral.  They do this by trying to show that your side is not "as bad" or "as intransigent" as the other side thinks you are, and that it might actually be possible (and useful) to work with you to try to de-escalate or even resolve the conflict.

Referenced Resources:

  1. How to Use Active Listening with Children.  Chart obtained from:
  2. "The End of White Christian America" The Gardian. Sept. 20, 2017.
  3. Christopher Mitchell. Gestures of Conciliation: Factors Contributing to Successful Olive Branches. Palgrave. (2000)

Full Transcript:

Slide 1. Hi, this is Heidi Burgess. And this is the first of a series of videos on strategies for de-escalation. In this, I'm going to talk about conciliatory gestures.

Slide 2. In the last video on escalation, you may remember that I said that Guy argues that this is the most destructive force on the planet because it tends to increase the intensity of conflict, turning it into a major storm that will wipe away anything in its path. For that reason, I urge that people avoid getting involved in escalated conflicts if they can. But oftentimes, we can't. We find ourselves in escalation, and we have to figure out what to do about it.

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Slide 3. I also told the story of The Boiling Frog, and the fact that we need to be aware of the fact that the water is getting hotter and hotter and jump out before it gets too hot. But what do we do if we don't?

Slide 4. Looking at this diagram which I also showed in the earlier video, there's lots of changes that take place as escalation goes on.

Slide 5. And all of these changes interact upon each other creating massive positive feedback cycles…

Slide 6.  that turn the entire system into a hurricane or a cyclone.

Slide 7. But, if you look at this chart, you can figure out ways to escape.

Slide 8. You could escape from any of these places, but the easiest escape is at the beginning before the water gets too hot. Now looking at this list of things at the beginning, you'll see grievances, victim bias, worst case bias, and out-group identity. I want in this video to talk specifically about out-group identity, or what I have also called “enemy imaging” or “us-versus-them framing.” What can we do about it once it's already started?

Slide 9. Well the important thing is to break down the stereotypes that other sides have of you through what's called “conciliatory” or “de-escalating gestures”.  There are a number of ways to do this.

One is to find out what the other side expects of you, and then do the opposite. If the other side expects you to be closed to new ideas, surprise them and be open to listening to their new ideas. If they expect you to be hostile and aggressive, surprise them by being friendly. If they expect you to blame them for the entire situation and say it's their fault and you're blameless, surprise them. Take some responsibility for your part of the situation. Now that doesn't mean you have to take responsibility for the things that they're doing wrong. But as I said very on in one of the very early videos about called “The Blame Game,” very often, both sides of a conflict have some responsibility for what's going on, certainly for the way it's escalated. If you own up to your responsibility, that's a de-escalating gesture that will surprise the other side and may get them to own up to their responsibility too, and then open up the door to dialogue and potential resolution.

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Slide 10. When I teach my class on Conflict Skills, I tell my students if there's only two words that they remember 10 or 20 years down the road, I want those words to be “listen” and “respect.” If you really listen to somebody on the other side of a conflict, that's a very powerful de-escalating gesture. They don't expect you to do that. They don't expect you to care what they're thinking. They don't expect you to care about their problems. If you listen and indicate that you do care, and you respect them for who they are, that is very powerful.

Slide 11. If you don't respect them, if you treat them with disrespect, worse if you dehumanize people and you shame them, you can be certain to get strong pushback. But if you want to be listened to and respected yourself, the best way to do that is to set an example and surprise the other side with how reasonable and respectful you are.

Slide 12. Another way to do this is by making conciliatory overtures in the media or through third parties. This is a picture of Anwar Sadat, who was president of Egypt back in the 1970s. And Egypt had been at war with Israel essentially ever since Israel was formed in 1948: a hot war or a cold war. But Sadat realized that this wasn't good for Israel and it wasn't good for Egypt. And in 1977, he offered to come to Israel and speak to the Knesset. No Egyptian leader, no Arab leader, had ever given Israel the legitimacy of coming to their capital and speaking in the Knesset, which is their main legislative body. It was an amazing conciliatory overture that was rapidly accepted.

I found another lovely picture that I didn't use because it was copyrighted (this one was free to use), of children dancing in the street in Israe,l welcoming Sadat. He was welcomed warmly--despite the expressions of the other two men sitting next to him.

And the relationship went on to allow for the Camp David Accords in 1978, which ended the war between Egypt and Israel to this day! So conciliatory overtures can have a major impact in changing out-group, in-group images.

Slide 13. Another thing to do is to find out what threatens the other and stop doing it. Here, I've been lamenting the articles and the books that I see that are like this one that is entitled “We're at the End of White Christian America. What Will That Mean?” Some of them are even more hostile, indicating that white Christian America is dead. How do white Christians, especially men, receive that? Is that not seen as a threat? Of course it is!

Now, part of this article is about demographics that aren't very changeable. President Trump, of course, is trying to change the demographics by expelling as many non-whites as he possibly can. But the numbers are such that it's very unlikely that enough non-whites are going get expelled and disenfranchised that whites are going maintain their super majority for very long. But rubbing their nose in it, threatening them that everything that they believe in and stand for is going to be obsolete and reversed is asking for opposition! It's asking for them to be afraid of the other.

And it's totally unnecessary. We don't need to threaten the other side! Far better to work with the other side! Go back to the notion that we can all learn from each other! We can all become stronger with each other if we all respect each other. But articles like this do not respect whites. And they do not engender respect in return.

Slide 14. There are two other approaches to de-escalation that are usually discussed at the international conflict level that are worth mentioning here. One is GRIT, the Graduated Reciprocation in Tension Reduction. And the other is tit-for-tat. These are very similar, except the difference is with the GRIT strategy, one side makes a conciliatory move. And even if it isn't answered, the initiator makes a second and a third and a fourth conciliatory move, trying to firmly change the image of itself as the enemy. Now that's risky, of course, because conciliatory moves can be interpreted as weakness and can be responded to in very harsh and destructive ways.

But historically, this has worked in the past. It was a theory developed by Charles Osgood originally related to the U.S./Soviet relationship. And he was proposing that the U.S. make conciliatory moves toward the Soviets.  As it happens, the Soviet Union did more with Gorbachev's trip to the United States.  That was a lot like Sadat's trip to Jerusalem. And they also did it with China too. And in both of those cases, it was quite successful.

The tit-for-tat strategy is similar except that the conciliatory action is only tried once. And then, if the response of the other is to be competitive, then the instigator becomes competitive. And tit-for-tat means you follow what the other one does, responding in like ways.

The diagram down in the lower right-hand corner is a payoff matrix for a game called the prisoner's dilemma game. And this is a game that tests whether people want to be cooperative or competitive when the payoff for being competitive is potentially much higher than the payoff for being cooperative. But the risks are higher too. And when experiments have been run either having people play this game over and over and over again, or having computers play this game over and over and over again, it's been proven that the tit-for-tat strategy wins the most points.  So the best strategy is to start being conciliatory. And then if the other side is conciliatory, continue that way. And the conflict will very quickly de-escalate. However, if the other side is competitive, then answer with a competitive move. And that supposedly does better than the GRIT approach. However, both of them have their place. And both of them initiate what's called reciprocal de-escalation if they work as hoped.

Slide 15. Chris Mitchell wrote a book back in 2000 called Gestures of Conciliation: Factors Contributing to Successful Olive Branches. And it's summarized here that in order to be successful with a de-escalating gesture, it has to be a major change from the past, and be surprising or novel. Yet it has to fit into the target's orientation, meaning they have to understand what you're doing. They have to see what's going on. And it has to be made in an undeniable manner. It can't be seen as a trick. It also should involve costs and risks for the initiator which, of course, makes it costly and risky. But it also, according to his research, makes it more effective. It makes it more likely that you will be believed. It has to be made unconditionally and voluntarily. If the other side thinks you're being forced into it, or that you'll reverse it if they don't go along, it won't work as well. And it also has to be structured so that the other side can easily respond in a positive way. To the extent that you can structure your gestures in these ways, the more likely they are to result in a de-escalation from the other side as well.

Slide 16. But the thing to keep in mind is, unless you're talking about an interpersonal conflict, in these large-scale conflicts, no one person or group can transform the conflict by themselves. Sadat and Gorbachev made fabulous overtures. But they had to be supported by the people behind them and people on the other side, thousands and thousands of people. And in fact, Sadat was not, which is why he was eventually assassinated. And that is what contributed in part to the breakdown of the peace process, although, fortunately, this happened after the Camp David Accords, which have held despite Sadat's assassination. But conciliatory gestures need the cooperation and support of many people over an extended period of time to be successful.

Slide 17.  It's true; conciliatory gestures are risky. But I would assert that escalation is more risky!  So trying to get off that escalating spiral before you've gotten too high is definitely worth the risk.

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