Managing High-Conflict Clients

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Last week I had three training days, two in Iowa and one in Wisconsin. In Iowa, the first day I focused on Legal Disputes and the second day I focused on Managers and Mediators – including several practice exercises.  It’s always fun acting the part of a high-conflict person, but it also helps prepare professionals to stay calm when they deal with such a person in real life. One of the key points we discussed is that high-conflict clients are more easily managed if you treat them as equals, rather than looking down on them as inferior people (which is tempting to do because of their self-sabotaging behavior). I emphasized the success of speaking to high-conflict people with statements that show Empathy, Attention and Respect (E.A.R. Statements®). I explained the medical research which showed short video clips of doctors talking with their patients to a panel, who had never seen them except for these short 40-second clips. Half the doctors were sued more than once and the other half had never been sued. The panel was able to tell, with surprising accuracy, which doctors were getting sued. Then they garbled the speech, so you couldn’t tell what the doctors were saying. A different panel was still able to tell, with surprising accuracy, which doctors were getting sued. The ones who spoke with a domineering tone were getting sued and the ones who spoke with a concerned, empathetic tone were not.  It seems that people feel more resentful and less connected when you look down on them.

I explained other research that showed that people with lower incomes had higher rates of personality disorders, and that this could fit with the research that shows that people at the bottom of a “dominance hierarchy” tend to have more stress and illness. Child development research indicates that children raised in lower economic and social status families are at higher risk of mental health problems throughout their lives, which can include personality disorders. Stress researcher Robert Sapolsky says that treating people as peers creates the most satisfying and least stressful relationships. I hadn’t presented all of this research basis for E.A.R. Statements before and I think it makes a lot of sense.

In Wisconsin, I spoke to family court judicial officers (judges and commissioners) at the end of their 3-day state conference. I gave them ten tips for managing personality-disordered parties in family court and emphasized the importance of providing structure for them to behave appropriately in their courtrooms, to learn skills and to have successful outcomes. Again, I explained the E.A.R. Statement® approach and resisting the urge to verbally criticize high-conflict parties, but instead to focus them on tasks and consequences. I explained that the normal “fight or flight” response with high-conflict people is most likely our amygdala  response in our brain to unrestrained aggressive behavior by the person in front of us. High-conflict people don’t restrain themselves sufficiently in today’s society, which is why there has been such a growth in the need for restraining orders – from domestic violence to freezing bank accounts – in today’s society.

I mentioned research from twenty years ago by William Hodges which indicated that court-ordered parenting plans were followed about 40% of the time and that parenting plans made by agreement of the parents were followed about 80% of the time – which I believe is still the case. Therefore, anything we can do to assist parents in making their own decisions (even if they get a lot of guidance and direction from professionals), and to require them to learn and practice basic conflict resolution skills (such as the New Ways for Families method), will benefit the parents and their  children with greater stability and cooperation in the long run – even when one or both parents has a personality disorder or traits. This is very hard work and I must say that family court judges and commissioners are some of the most dedicated people I have met.

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.

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