©2017 Michael Lomax, JD
Imagine you are a manager, and you have a supervisor who reports to you who is dealing with an employee with high conflict traits. There has already been a complaint from the employee that the supervisor is abusing their authority over the employee. You have investigated this complaint and it is clear the supervisor is using their authority appropriately. However, you are concerned that the supervisor’s style is very directive and can be abrasive, which you know triggers the employee into defensive behaviour. You are concerned that the relationship is deteriorating and will result in either formal discipline against the employee or further complaints against the supervisor. You value both their contributions to the work of the organization and so you decide to offer a mediated/facilitated process to work on improving their working relationship and prevent further complaints. This might be a service offered by an ombudsperson office/ conflict resolution program in your organization or through a private mediator. (For information on the how to approach the actual mediation of these types of disputes see the article Should Workplace Conflicts use Mediation?)
You sit in your office thinking, “How am I going to talk to my employee about going to mediation, without them simply getting defensive and rejecting the process out of hand?”
1. Stay Connected with them.
When introducing the idea of participating in the mediation process, ensure you maintain a focus on your relationship with the person, not the outcome of whether or not they agree to mediation. High Conflict People (HCPs) are highly defensive to perceived criticism and negative feedback, such as any suggestion that you are upset with them or want to distance yourself from them. It is easy to get hooked by HCP emotional attacks, and to either get defensive or withhold positive responses or be robotic. Instead we need to demonstrate Empathy, Attention and Respect (EAR℠) for their concerns no matter how absurd.
The paradox of this approach is that when you focus on the relationship you are more likely to achieve positive outcomes, including them choosing to mediate. By staying connected with the HCP throughout the conversation the person will be calmer and see us as someone who wants to help them. Using a calm, confident and reassuring tone of voice as well will help them hear the information and options we are presenting. Don’t get fussed if they start blaming the other person or you, the way through this is to try to stay relaxed and find something to empathize with them about or respect them for. Making statements like the following throughout the conversation can help calm someone with high conflict traits so they can hear your information:
“I really value your contribution to the organization…”
“I want to work with you on this…”
“I understand this is difficult…”
Using EAR Statements℠ can help keep the conversation moving in a positive direction and is less likely to trigger emotionally defensive responses. Plus, they will see you as a helpful source of information, which will help them make better decisions.
2. Focus them on a choice.
HCPs will quickly escalate into attacks and emotional outburst when they don’t feel in control of what is happening. However, they may realise that is not wise to get angry at their boss in a meeting, so they may respond in a moderate way but afterward respond in a passive-aggressive way, such as sending an email above you to your own supervisor saying, “I felt interrogated” or filing a complaint against you.
A very effective strategy for prevent this reaction is to focus the person on a choice. This can shift them from their emotional upset into problem-solving, gives them a sense of control over what is happening and helps them take responsibility for solving their own problem. If we try to convince or force our ideas on to an HCP, we will end up in a power struggle with them, because they are so distrustful and their emotions take them over when they don’t feel in control of what is happening to them.
Offering the mediation option along with other options will help the HCP feel in control and they will actually be more likely to agree to mediation. This could see you presenting options such as, meeting with the mediator to gather more information about the process before making a decision or entering into a skills-based coaching process such as New Ways for Work as a first step and then deciding whether to proceed with mediation. These options provide a structured way forward and allow the HCP to develop relationships with the professionals who will be working with them.
Obviously, an option is the HCP might not choose mediation and we need to allow for this as an option. This might leave the manager continuing to monitor the situation. However, as much as this is an option, we need to point out that there are choices, and there are consequences for each choice.
3. Educate them about the consequences of each choice.
Because HCPs often think they are in a fight for their survival (even over objectively small issues) they don’t analyze the consequences of their choices. If we come from a caring place we can educate an HCP about the consequences of each of their choices.
For example, in the case of the employee choosing to ask the manager to simply monitor the situation, the concern for the manager is the HCP will have unrealistic expectations (“You will protect me”) and when those expectations aren’t met, the HCP will blame the manager (“I trusted you, and you betrayed me”). In this case, the manager in a caring way can educate the person about the realities of this choice by saying things like, “I understand this is a frustrating situation, what you might not realise is in my role as a manager I am responsible to address anyone’s behaviour that might breach respectful workplace guidelines and I have to be impartial about that……”
By focusing the employee on their choices and educating them about the consequences of each choice, the manager can stay connected to the employee and assist them in making decisions that are in their own self-interest, plus that of the organization.
4. Involve Positive Advocates.
High Conflict Personalities seek out people to advocate for them, because they are invested in persuading others they are a victim and they feel more powerful when they have someone else fighting for them. This could be a co-worker, lawyer, union representative or a relative. Sometimes these are what we term “Negative Advocates” (see When Helping Hurts – How Professionals Become Negative Advocates – Or Not ) but also, they can be “Positive Advocates”.
It is very helpful to involve an HCP’s positive advocate when discussing the option of mediation, because generally they can hear the information you are presenting in a more objective way, help remind the HCP of what was discussed in the meeting, and assist them in analyzing their options. Don’t try to convince the advocate of how difficult the HCP is, as they may start to see you as the problem. Instead focus on communicating with them in the same way as you do with the HCP (giving information, options, and seeming relaxed and non-judgmental).
By following the above tips, you can help HCPs take responsibility for solving their own problem, seeing you as a helpful source of information, and very often the HCP will make better decisions that are in their own self-interest.
Michael Lomax, JD is a highly experienced mediator and conflict resolution trainer. He has conducted hundreds of workplace and family meditations and was the director of a Canadian federal government workplace mediation center. Michael is an Associate Speaker/Trainer with the High Conflict Institute based in San Diego, CA, and regularly delivers workshops in how to manage high conflict personalities across Canada. Michael is a non-practising member of the Law Society of British Columbia.