ContainingStopping violence and preventing escalation

As conflict escalates, one or both of the parties involved may become increasingly aggressive and threatening towards the other. Violent escalations of a dispute and other forms of anti-social behaviour should ideally be prevented through support from trusted community members, social workers, or mediators. In practice however, they can be difficult to anticipate and contain. Failing to do so, or doing so in a way that exacerbates the issues underlying the conflict, can cause harm to the parties involved as well as the broader community.

Why is this a fundamental dispute resolution practice?

Containing is necessary to reduce the risk of violent escalation. When proactive efforts to prevent anti-social or violent behaviour have failed, or when an immediate threat is posed to a person or community, more active measures to contain harm are needed.

These are necessary for maintaining people’s basic sense of security and belief that past violence can and will be prevented in the future. Containment can take very different forms depending on the specific situation. Minimally disruptive interventions such as therapy or community supervision should take priority to more punitive interventions, such as ankle monitoring or incapacitation.

What are the active ingredients of containing?

Monitoring anti-social behaviour

The goal of proactive monitoring is to detect early warning signs of violent or anti-social behaviour.

Interventions that stabilise and prevent violent conflict before it breaks out

One of the best known evidence-based practices for preventing harmful behaviour and deterring crime is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)1,2  Mediation can also help prevent conflict from spiralling out of control and causing long-term damage.

Preventing violence by restricting freedom

This can be achieved without removing people from their existing social supports through community supervision or electronic ankle monitoring. A more extreme alternative is detention. To mitigate the harmful (individual and societal) effects of detention, the appropriate containment strategy should be determined through an unbiased and validated risk assessment 3,4 .

What are people actually doing to make this happen?

Parties to spiralling conflicts or disputes are responding with de-escalation techniques rather than inflammatory language or violence. De-escalation techniques include conciliatory gestures, re-framing, and emphathising. Ideally, parties are also making early commitments to “cut their losses” and set limits on how far they will allow their disagreement to escalate.
Mediators and facilitators
Mediators and facilitators ​are using preventative diplomacy to keep conflicts and disputes from escalating. This includes looking for early warning signs in the parties’ behaviour, such as the build-up of stress and tension. It may also involve intervening to enforce limits the parties have set for themselves.
Mediators and facilitators
Police and probation officers
Police and probation officers are taking appropriate measures to maintain public safety. This involves identifying and supervising individuals who may pose a threat and connecting them to appropriate psychosocial support. Depending on the threat level, physical containment measures such as detention, or moving at-risk individuals to safe housing may also be necessary.
Police and probation officers
Judges and justice leaders
Judges and justice leaders are ensuring that a wide range of containment strategies are available and applied in an unbiased way, based on the specific needs and circumstances of the parties involved.
Judges and justice leaders
Innovators are designing tools that encourage pro-social behaviour and increase community safety without causing unintended harm.

What indicators can be used to monitor this practice?

Public Safety
Conflict level

What makes containing difficult?

Behavioral barriers

Parties to conflict can become entrapped by their decision to pursue a particular course of argument or action, even when it is clearly not working. This means that rather than abandoning a clearly misguided strategy, they double down in the hopes of justifying the sacrifices they have already made. This is sometimes called a “sacrifice trap” and can prolong or escalate the conflict in a way that makes it more difficult to contain.

More Resources

  1. Matt Watkins, Heal and Punish? When Therapy is the Alternative to Incarceration, New Thinking Podcast, Center for Court Innovation (2019)
  2. Edward Latessa et al., What Does (and Doesn’t) Work in Reducing Recidivism (2013)
  3. Arnold Ventures, Public Safety Assessment (PSA) Background
  4. Sarah Picard et al., Beyond the Algorithm: Pretrial Reform, Risk Assessment, and Racial Fairness, Center for Court Innovation