When Helping Hurts – How Professionals Become Negative Advocates – Or Not
© by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Most professionals are helping professionals. We like to help our clients as lawyers, mediators, therapists, arbitrators, social workers, human resource professionals, financial professionals, healthcare professionals, educators, administrators and others. We want to help people accomplish their goals, using our professional skills. Often, in order to help someone in a dispute or difficult situation, part of our work is to advocate for a client in dealing with one or more other people.
But when a client has a high-conflict personality, there is the risk that this drive to help can go off the rails and become distorted. Inadvertently, we may help the person stay stuck in their dysfunctional behavior; and inadvertently we may hurt others who have become their “targets of blame.” When this happens, we become “negative advocates” for a high-conflict person (HCP), by advocating for their negative behavior, negative thinking and negative emotions, much like a co-dependent “enables” an alcoholic or addict. (For information about high-conflict people, see: High Conflict People in Legal Disputes or BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People)
When a professional becomes a negative advocate, he or she may be much more persuasive than the HCP and may make the situation much, much worse. In my experience over the past 30 years as a lawyer, mediator and therapist, most prolonged high-conflict disputes involve at least one HCP and one professional who has become a negative advocate for the HCP.
Helping an Individual Client
Sometimes, a professional becomes outraged with the other party in a high-conflict divorce (or other dispute), who the professional has never met. The client’s stories of the other person’s bad behavior (abuse, false allegations, alienation) may be so emotionally upsetting that the professional soon tells the client: “That’s horrible! You must divorce her.” Or: “You must go to court and get restraining orders!” Or: “I will send a letter or affidavit to the court saying how bad the other party is.”
All of these statements may go beyond the scope of the professional’s role. Sometimes, the client may actually be an HCP, whose perceptions are distorted and who misinterprets or generates “emotional facts” which do not exist in reality. People with high-conflict personalities or personality disorders often look good on the surface (smart, attractive, friendly, etc.), but under the surface they are abusive, alienating and/or make frequent exaggerated or false statements. HCPs are preoccupied with blaming others and have a lot of intense emotions. This can confuse the listener, especially one who is sincerely trying to help a client. The listener can become “emotionally hooked,” totally believing what the client says and totally absorbing their fear and anger.
If the professional is saying all of these advocacy statements without ever meeting the other party or having any other outside confirming information, the professional may be “enabling” a high-conflict person. In some such cases, the professional’s “zeal to help” reinforces distortions on the part of an upset client – and that client takes legal actions that eventually backfire. In some extreme cases, a professional has lost credibility and been sanctioned for vigorously promoting allegations which were found to be false.
For example, sanctions were awarded against two attorneys in one case for $3000 each, paid to the court, for becoming negative advocates (although that term was not quite used):
“An inference of willingness to assist Mr. Kwong’s harassment of Ms. Gong and to abuse the court’s processes could be drawn from his counsels’ sophistry and their litigation tactics, which went beyond proper advocacy and common sense. An attorney in a civil case is not a hired gun required to carry out every direction given by the client….”
In re Marriage of Gong and Kwong (2008) 163 Cal. App. 4th 510, 521. Emphasis added.
Helping Clients as a Neutral Mediator, Arbitrator or Evaluator
In Mediation: A mediator may have a case in which one party is extremely upset and tells the mediator that the other party is hiding money. “I know she is! You have to do something about this!” This emotionally upsets the mediator, who turns angrily to the alleged guilty party and tries to persuade her: “Can you bring some proof of your income? Can you bring your accountant to the next meeting?”
The problem is that the mediator is now emotionally hooked and emotionally implying that the alleged guilty party IS responsible for this problem, without any other source of information and without any skepticism toward the first party’s complaint. The mediator no longer feels impartial to the parties – the mediator feels like an advocate to the first party and feels like an adversary to the second party.
In Arbitration: In contrast to a mediator, an arbitrator is the one who makes the decisions. However, in making the decisions it is essential that the parties feel that they have been treated as equals in the process and received the full benefit of an objective process. Sometimes an arbitrator becomes a negative advocate for one side and suddenly becomes hostile to the other party. Then, either verbally or in writing, the message comes through clearly that the arbitrator has totally accepted and favored one party and totally disregarded and disliked the other party. When that comes through, the arbitrator has become a negative advocate for the one and treated the other like a target of blame. Then, the targeted person complains informally or formally about the arbitrator and the arbitrator’s reputation and the arbitration process is tarnished.
In Evaluation: Evaluators are becoming more common in legal disputes, to assist the court in understanding the depth of the case, especially in cases in which psychological or other specialized knowledge is helpful. Evaluators are supposed to be neutral, but during the process their analysis of the case often involves favoring one side or the other, which is appropriate if the information supports that conclusion. But this should remain at all times an objective process. If the evaluator becomes emotionally hooked and suddenly believes “everything the person said” on one side and becomes hostile to the person on the other side, then the evaluator has become a negative advocate for the favored person. As with mediators and arbitrators, this harms the evaluator’s reputation and the evaluation process in general.
Throughout this article, I have referred to professionals becoming “emotionally hooked.” This is actually a process with a scientific background. Neuroscientists have determined that emotions are contagious. When other people show intense facial expressions of fear and anger, it activates our amygdalas in our brains – especially the amygdala in the right hemisphere of the brain. This is the organ that triggers your fight, flight or freeze response – and also shuts down your higher, logical thinking so that quick action becomes your entire focus. (See It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything, Eddy, 2008, for further discussion of these principles and references.)
In practice, it appears that high-conflict people express a lot of intense fear and anger, and that this is unconsciously absorbed by listeners, unless they can over-ride the emotional content and deal with the information using their left-brain logical analysis and prefrontal cortex self-control. You have to consciously tell yourself that you are not going to get emotionally hooked by what others are saying, but instead that you will remain calm and manage the situation rationally with full analysis and input from others and/or concrete evidence. You can do this with practice, even in the face of an extremely upset person.
Mirror neurons are a recent scientific discovery that teaches us that we mirror in our own brains what we see others doing. So, for example, if you are watching someone playing tennis – you are also playing tennis in your brain, as if to prepare you for playing the game if you need to soon. This is apparently one of the main ways that children learn – they mirror the behaviors seen around them. This is apparently also true for our emotions, so that when we see someone feeling sad or angry, we automatically mirror that person’s emotions and actually feel their pain (or joy). The closer you are emotionally to the person, the more likely you are to mirror the other person’s emotions. You can see this when two people are talking and nodding their heads together, or looking sad and concerned.
However, just as with the amygdala response to facial expressions of fear and anger, you can over-ride mirroring and choose not to do a behavior you have just seen in someone else. Instead, you can consciously tell yourself not to do a behavior or you can make it a habit not to do a behavior. Most of what we see, we don’t act on. However, it does become part of our underlying repertoire of potential behaviors to choose from, so that in today’s over-stimulating world we have to resist a lot of urges that we see. For example, the rise in bullying behavior and disrespect in our society are probably a mirroring of the constant images of bullying and disrespect we see so often on TV, in the movies and on the Internet.
Negative advocates are usually emotionally hooked and uninformed. They can be anyone, not just professionals. In conflict situations, HCPs often bring one or more negative advocates, who may be family members, friends, co-workers, and professionals. A common characteristic is that they are hyped up emotionally, but turn out to know very little about the situation. It is easy to become frustrated with them for their ignorance combined with intensely emotional advocacy. But we need to be aware that we, as professionals, are just as vulnerable to being uninformed if our sole source of information is our upset client (who may be an HCP or someone responding to an HCP with great emotional intensity and frustration).
When dealing with others who are negative advocates, it helps to calmly inform them about the realities of the situation rather than getting angry with them for their ignorance. To prevent ourselves from slipping into this situation, we must make sure to gather more information besides what we hear from our upset clients.
How to Avoid Becoming a Negative Advocate
There are several points to take away from this discussion:
1. Monitor your own emotional level. Keep this in mind when advocating for a client or when resolving disputes – especially high-conflict disputes. Make sure you do not become so emotionally engaged that your logical and higher thinking shuts down.
2. Maintain a healthy skepticism. If you totally believe someone, you are probably emotionally hooked – because we shouldn’t even totally believe ourselves. Our own brains play tricks on us from time to time, so it is natural for that to occur to our clients as well. Emphasize the importance of gathering outside information to corroborate a client’s story and explain that other professionals may be skeptical of basing action on emotional information only.
3. Ask yourself: “Is this really a crisis?” Intense emotions help us deal with a crisis with responses like fight, flight or freeze. However, most disputes in today’s society involving professionals are not this type of crisis – they just feel that way. If it’s not a life-and-death crisis in the moment, then you have time to think logically and use all of your problem-solving skills – which are not available to you in a life-or-death crisis when emotions take over for very quick but less accurate action.
4. Avoid “all-or-nothing” solutions. Most of today’s problems require refined solutions, rather than all-or-nothing solutions. Desires to eliminate or totally blame another person or group are signs of being emotionally hooked, not useful problem-solving. Yet our adversarial systems (court, politics, etc.) were structured centuries ago and allowed (encouraged?) all-or-nothing solutions that don’t fit well with today’s disputes or alternative dispute resolution (ADR) options. We can do better (and we have to do better) than thinking in all-or-nothing terms in today’s modern world.
5. Be a positive advocate. When faced with a client or two parties in a dispute, advocate gathering information, tell them options, say you will represent their concerns – but don’t go “beyond proper advocacy and common sense” as was described in the case above.
6. Prepare some responses in advance. It often helps to have a few statements ready for those times when you are suddenly facing an emotionally intense client – who could be an HCP or someone just responding to an HCP who has become emotionally hooked. For example, with individual clients you can say:
“Your situation sounds very concerning. Here’s what I can do and what I can’t. I want to help.”
“Let’s discuss who you can talk to for information about dealing with your concerns.”
“You might be right! Let’s do what we can, presenting your concerns and information, but not appear to just be emotionally reacting. If I just accept what you say, I will be viewed as a negative advocate. We need to gather more information and present it as reasonably as possible.”
If you are a dispute resolver, it helps to treat both parties with respect at all times. You can say:
“You two have a dilemma. Here are some options, but you will need to decide the next step.”
7. Get another perspective. Ask for feedback or consultation to help manage your own responses. We all have “tricky brains” which sometimes confuse situations requiring fast defensive action and slower more accurate problem-solving. You can’t solve many of today’s problems alone.
None of these precautions limit you from informing possible victims of abuse and false allegations about options for dealing with their situation, including talking to victims’ advocates and professional advocates. The point is to remain logical and in control of your efforts at all times, and never to allow yourself to become purely emotionally driven. This way, you will remain within the limits of your own knowledge and scope of professional responsibilities, while maintaining your own credibility and doing the most you can for your client(s).
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, mediator, therapist and the author of several books on dealing with high-conflict people. He is also the President of High Conflict Institute, which provides speakers, seminars and consultation about dealing with high-conflict situations in legal disputes, workplace, education and healthcare. www.HighConflictInstitute.com. View full book list here.