Some conflicts are not going away, and focusing on resolution may be counter-productive. I heard leading researcher John Gottman say in a plenary address that over 65 percent of marital conflict is never resolved. It’s how couples live and work with conflict that makes the difference. The same could be said of many other organizational, community, business, and international conflicts.
How does one live with an ongoing conflict? In Staying with Conflict Bernie Mayer introduces the concept of ‘encapsulating conflict’. This is the practice of choosing when to engage in a conflict, while at other times reducing its presence and influence on one’s life.
I think that encapsulating conflict is supported by three particular attitudes and beliefs:
Firstly, a premise that a conflict is likely to be lasting. Although flare-ups in difficult relationships may be resolvable – and should be resolved – the underlying differences may lead to repeated disputes. Examples I can think of include two immigrant communities from different parts of the world that have settled in the same section of a North American city, two siblings who have never got along, or union and management sides of a labour relations committee.
Secondly, encapsulating conflict rests on a belief that progress can be made from engaging in conflict, and therefore it is worthwhile to put time and energy into the engagement. It is often better to continually improve understanding of lasting differences and work steadily on the consequences that repeatedly or intermittently arise from them.
Thirdly, a belief that the quality of engagement can be improved through cooperative practices of engagement – and, just as importantly, practices of disengagement.
Encapsulating conflict requires a set of agreements, which can be a challenge as conflict is by character a state of lack of agreement on key issues. If you wish to begin a practice of encapsulating your conflict, you could introduce the idea to the other party as follows:
“I have a suggestion I would like to talk over with you that may make our interactions go better. In order to have this specific conversation I would like us to refrain from working on the main issues. Instead, I would like to talk about how to work more effectively on our conflict, including taking complete breaks from communication. Are you open to having this talk?”
You can explain that since the conflict is challenging and draining, you would like to find ways to both reduce the strain and be more effective in your communication. Assuming there is willingness, here are some of the issues worth getting agreements on:
-A schedule for meeting each other
-A schedule of periods when you completely refrain from communicating with each other
-The maximum length of your meetings
-Simple guidelines and agendas for your meetings
-A written record of any agreements reached
In gaining consensus on these process issues, you are acting as your own mediator. The principle is to work on the ‘how,’ or process of interaction, as well as the ‘what,’ or issues at hand. Work on the process builds capacity to deal more effectively with whatever flare-ups and issues arise. This advice may sound ridiculously simple, but in conflict the ‘what’ is seductive. We frequently must work in a focused and intentional manner to initiate and sustain communication over the process of interaction.
If you can achieve understanding on the points above, you could elect to work on more challenging topics. Simply notice what aspects of communicating and relating are problematic and bring them into conversation. Here are a few examples I can think of in this moment:
-Past behaviours that have not been helpful, and that both of you should refrain from
-Specific guidelines for using the different channels of communication such as telephone, email, and texting
-How to introduce the viewpoints of outside experts
The notion of encapsulating conflict is a useful concept and metaphor. Conflict may not have to dominate a relationship. Perhaps you can find ways to contain it, have complete breaks, and be more focused and effective during the times when you do interact. Beginning a conversation about process may be awkward, or even embarrassing, but it rarely makes a situation worse. It may be very helpful.