© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
High-conflict disputes are almost always about the facts, not about the law. When one or both parties have a high-conflict personality, the dispute over the facts will never end, because it is really a dispute over perceptions – distorted perceptions. Since their cognitive distortions are unconscious, arguing with their logic is unproductive and locks them deeper into defending their “emotional facts” (which really do feel real to the HCP).
It helps to start out by lowering expectations of the entire legal process. Attached to this article is a “Handout” which can help in establishing realistic expectations, which can be freely copied and used. It also helps if there are opportunities for litigants to get realistic assessments of their cases by a neutral person as soon as possible. Many high-conflict cases go for months or years with preparations based on unrealistic assessments by HCPs, which their attorneys or other supporters reluctantly (or enthusiastically) pursue. An early neutral evaluation of the case may bring their unrealistic expectations into focus, and avoid months or years of totally unnecessary litigation.
During the case, it helps to emphasize that we all have different viewpoints, based on our different life experiences. Our viewpoints are also influenced by our emotions, and litigation can be very stressful on our emotions. It also helps to acknowledge that you, as the formal decision-maker, will never know all the facts. Only legally permissible information will be considered, so what they believe are their best facts and arguments may never be properly heard by the court. From time to time say, “You might be right. I’ll never know all of the facts. But I have to make a decision based on the evidence before me.”
Evidence still matters. Since HCPs speak in emotional, dramatic terms much of the time, it helps to ask: “Can you give me a specific example of how that happened?” It also helps to gently challenge unusual information. “Are you sure about that? It sounds very unusual to me.” Share your skepticism of “emotional facts,” which could be cognitive distortions “under the stress of the divorce,” rather than intentionally inaccurate information.
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.