De-escalating High Conflict Situations in 4 Steps

© 2015 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. & L. Georgi DiStefano, LCSW The CARS Method® was developed specifically to address four big areas of difficulty in high conflict situations, which often involve one or more people with high conflict personalities (HCPs). But this method can be used with anyone – anywhere. The CARS Method® is designed to help you organize your responses to calm down upset people, to redirect their energies and to focus them on positive future choices and consequences. This article is a brief excerpt from our book It’s All Your Fault at Work, Chapter 2, which explains the basics of how anyone can use this method. Forget about Insight (Just Fuhgeddaboutit!) One of the hardest things to “get” about dealing with highly-upset people is that normal efforts to talk logically and give them insights about themselves will fail. Repeatedly we are told: “He just doesn’t get it. How can I make him see what he’s doing?” Or: “When I try to help her and point out what she’s doing wrong, she yells at me that I don’t care and don’t understand!” Just Fuhgeddaboutdit! Save your energy and avoid becoming frustrated. You’re not going to make him see or make her understand. But this doesn’t mean you can’t successfully deal with HCPs. Instead, focus on managing your own responses with the four key skills of the CARS Method®. These four skills can be used in a step-by-step progression or you can use any of the skills individually at any time, depending on what fits your situation the best. Sometimes “Connecting with EAR®” takes care of the problem. Other times, “Setting Limits on Behavior” is the only thing that resolves the problem. 1. CONNECT with EAR Statements® The first step or skill is to attempt to calm the HCP’s emotions by forming a brief positive connection with the person. Of course, the first thing that most people feel like doing when they’re blamed or attacked is to attack back—to say, “No, it’s not all my fault. It’s all your fault!” While this might get a reasonable person to stop and assess the situation, with an HCP this response simply escalates the person’s emotions and aggressively defensive behavior. In these cases, it is helpful to respond with a statement that shows empathy, attention, and/or respect—what we call an “EAR Statement®.” This may be very difficult to do at first. However, an EAR Statement® usually calms down high-conflict people right away, at least long enough to use their problem-solving skills for a while. Empathy “I can understand how upsetting this situation is.” “I’m sorry to see that you are having to deal with this problem.” “Wow! I can see how important this project is to you!” “I know you are concerned about how this is going to turn out.” Attention Let the person know that you really want to pay attention to his or her concerns. High-conflict people put a lot of energy into getting attention, but in the process they turn people off. Most people try to avoid dealing with high-conflict people as much as possible. So the simple act of showing interest and paying full attention is often enough to calm them down, because they don’t have to fight for your attention. “I hear how important it is to you to get the report done by the weekend.” “I understand that your budget could be affected by the results of this study.” “Tell me more.” Respect “You’re a really good record keeper. You’re very well organized.” “I really respect how hard you’ve worked to gather information about this issue and notify us of this problem.” “I respect your concern that you won’t get a response from us, so let me reassure you this is important to us too.” 2. ANALYZE Options After you have connected with the HCP and hopefully de-escalated the situation, you need to consider your alternatives or options. Approach this process in three steps Brainstorm several possible options for yourself and write them down. Check yourself for high-conflict thinking—remember, you are human too. (Georgi calls this the “Santa steps”: “Making a list and checking it twice!”) Select an option and analyze it carefully. Key Questions Here are several key questions you can ask yourself when analyzing options: Is this option realistic and practical to execute? Will this option effectively resolve the problem or at least manage it successfully? Does this option require the buy-in of anyone else and can I count on their assistance? Don’t take their cooperation for granted. Check it out. What are the pros and cons of this option? Be specific and ask yourself how important each of these pros and cons are to you. It may be helpful to rate each, with “3 = very important; 2 = somewhat important; or 1 = not important.” What are the most likely “What ifs” and how will I respond? Is there anything else I must do or find out to ensure the success of this option? What is the timetable and steps for each piece of the process? How do my values and personal preferences align with this option? Respond to Proposals Another way of analyzing options is to make or respond to proposals. You can almost always take a past problem and turn it into a proposal for the future. Whatever has happened before is less important than what to do now. Avoid trying to emphasize how bad the problem is. With a high-conflict person, this just triggers more defensiveness. Plus, people never agree on what happened in the past anyway. Picture a solution from your list and do it or propose it. Here are the three key steps for making proposals: Propose: Who will do what, when, and where. Ask questions: The other person then asks questions about the proposal, such as: “What’s your picture of what this would look like, if I agreed to do it?” “What do you see me doing in more detail?” or “When would we start doing