© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Yesterday, I gave a keynote presentation and several workshops for about 150 lawyers representing parents and children in child abuse cases. The emphasis, of course, was Working with High Conflict Clients. They seemed to really grasp the methods that I call “Talking to the ‘Right’ Brain” in a conflict, which can apply to any professional in any setting. I emphasized that we can’t control other people’s behavior, but we can influence them by our own responses, including:
Accepting that we are not responsible for the outcome of our clients’ disputes – they are – but that we are responsible for the process of assisting them.
We need to avoid “hammering out” agreements with them, because this simply triggers their heightened defensiveness (right brain) and reduces their ability to think logically (left brain), and they may undermine the agreement soon afterwards.
Working with patience – understanding that it often takes high conflict people 2-3 times as long to settle their disputes, but that they can settle them. When there is limited time for a decision, this means coaching clients sufficiently in advance of settlement meetings.
Talking to the ‘right brain,” by using E.A.R. Statements®: Speaking with Empathy, Attention and Respect for clients, opposing parties and even high conflict lawyers. This tends to calm them down, which is necessary before discussions of logic, facts, laws and future actions can take place productively.
Providing structure to our conversations, so that clients and others are expected to accomplish small tasks with our guidance, rather than simply telling them to stop misbehaving, criticizing them or expecting them to accomplish big things that they do not have the skills to accomplish – especially as fast as we want.
Emphasizing learning skills for conflict resolution, including how to make proposals, respond to proposals, communicate in writing with BIFF Responses® (Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm), give yourself encouraging statements, and other small skills with lots of repetition.
Repeating information and requirements frequently, because they often are unable to absorb new ideas or tasks as quickly as we can as professionals.
Often professionals become irritated at having to answer the same questions over and over again, but this is a reality when you are working with high conflict clients who can’t absorb information when they are emotionally distracted. It is best to accept this and patiently repeat information which they may absorb after the third or fourth explanation. They need to be calmed down first, in order to learn new skills and understand new realities, rather than being criticized or told how frustrating they are. This doesn’t have to take much time at all.
The Utah lawyers indicated that this focus on What To Do was very helpful. I also met with child welfare mediators, who assist in settling many of the cases in this area. They don’t mediate child abuse, but they mediate what can be done now, in terms of parent treatment, legal consequences, and sometimes termination of parental rights in extreme cases. They have a high success rate, settling about 80% of their cases in mediation. Yet they were very interested in further understanding the causes and dynamics of personality disorders and how to work with parties who may have these disorders in the short period of time they have for their mediation sessions.
This was a very dedicated group of lawyers and mediators, and we all realized how much impact this work can have on the future of children in abusive families. Personality disorders seem to be increasing in society and I think they agreed with me that helping abusive parents can have a positive effect on helping their children in the long run. Otherwise, children tend to repeat their parents’ behavior and we often see a cycle of abuse, academic and economic failure in their future – and all of our futures – if we don’t intervene effectively to help these families as early as possible.
As a closing note, this conference was held in the beautiful green and snow-capped mountains of Utah, which looked like the Swiss Alps. Inspiring for dealing with such a difficult subject!
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.