Spotting Dangerous Clients in 3 Steps

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©2018 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Family law professionals were shaken to the core by the murders of 6 people by an angry ex-husband in Arizona. The victims included two paralegals who worked for the wife’s attorney, a forensic psychiatrist who had testified in the case, a psychologist who rented space from a therapist involved in the case, and an unrelated couple who were known to the suspect. The gunman killed himself when police were closing in. He was 56. Apparently, the husband had a history of domestic violence and they had a high-conflict court case with restraining orders and disputes over their child. The case went on in court for several years from 2009 to 2016. What triggered the killing spree is not currently known. Apparently, his only criminal history was his misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence in 2009 against his wife. But with people with high-conflict personalities (HCPs), the issue’s not usually the issue, the personality is the issue. People with high-conflict personality disorders don’t usually change simply because of the passage of time. Few people realize that. But apparently, he was actively involved in social media postings that were threatening and it may be that engaging in venting his feelings online reinforced them so much that he moved into taking action. Since people with high-conflict personality disorders regularly feel helpless, vulnerable, weak and like a victim in life, when they focus on their feelings they get more and more upset, rather than getting feelings off their chest. Of course, there may have been a specific trigger for this killing episode, but if one cannot be found it’s worth considering that it was related to his immersion in his anger made possible by venting on social media. This should raise concerns for all family law professionals since public venting on social media is becoming so common in high-conflict separation and divorce cases. What is known is that the former wife, who was uninjured, has said that her former husband was a “very emotionally disturbed person” and that she had “feared for my safety for the past nine years.” In addition, the psychiatrist who was killed had done a psychological evaluation in the case and testified that the former husband “had anxiety and mood disorders and features of a paranoid personality.” And one of the first “Replies” to this article in the news with the above quotes was: “Continue to enslave men and this will continue to happen. You reap what you have sown.” While most comments were empathetic, this type of thinking only takes a few people to become highly dangerous.   Warning Signs In retrospect, we can see how dangerous this man was. But can we tell in advance that someone is dangerous or escalating into a dangerous episode? There are possible warning signs, although professionals who specialize in threat assessment, such as in the workplace, will tell you that we do not yet have an exact science about who is truly dangerous and who is just blowing off steam. While I do not specialize in threat assessment for violence, there are three key steps that I have found helpful for recognizing people with “high-conflict” personalities with the potential for a range of extreme behavior. I have developed a simple approach that anyone can use to recognize when they are dealing with a high-conflict person. Then, it’s important to concentrate on calming the conflict and re-directing attention to problem-solving, rather than emotionally confronting them or focusing on their emotions. I call this the WEB Method®. WEB stands for: Their Words Your Emotions Their Behavior I describe this method in depth in my new book 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life: Identifying and Dealing with Narcissists, Sociopaths and Other High-Conflict Personalities. The following is one excerpt from the book, which explains how this approach can be used in three steps to see warning signs, including another example from a legal dispute.   Listen to Their Words for Threatening or Extreme Language Written and spoken words can give you some clues. Let’s look at the following real-life message, written to a lawyer by a person without a lawyer on the opposing side, before a mediation session to resolve a business dispute.  I am going after you with every fiber in my being and I won’t rest until I see you behind bars for conspiracy to defraud. This might seem like a fairly simple and brief sentence. But it’s pretty extreme. If that were the only extreme thing the person said to the other person’s lawyer, perhaps in a moment of high emotion, it might be worth ignoring. But here’s what happened in real life: The man repeatedly swore at and threatened the lawyer weeks before the mediation. He also had a history of suing people. This suggests a pattern of high-conflict behavior. Notice, too, that this one sentence reveals all four key HCP traits: all‑or‑nothing thinking (“with every fiber in my being”), intense or unmanaged emotions (“I won’t rest”), extreme behavior or threats (“until I see you behind bars”), and a preoccupation with blaming others (“I’m going after you”). A week after writing the statement, the man attended a business mediation session at the office of a lawyer-mediator. Also in attendance were the CEO of the company with whom the man had the dispute, and the CEO’s lawyer, to whom he had written the message. Right after the mediation session ended, he shot and killed both the lawyer and the CEO! Then a couple days later he killed himself.   Check Your Own Emotions for Intense Reactions When you hear someone make extreme statements, you may feel uncomfortable, threatened, or disgusted. Pay close attention to those emotions. Don’t discount a sudden emotional impulse to run, or fight, or freeze in someone’s presence, especially when it doesn’t match what your thinking brain is telling you. While you don’t necessarily want to jump into action whenever you feel afraid, do pay attention to that feeling, and who might

6 Ways You Should Be Assertive in Family Court

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© 2016 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq Family court presents a difficult dilemma for reasonable people. If you act reasonably and use the cooperative problem-solving skills you use in daily life, you risk losing your case, your kids and your property because family court is a highly adversarial process that rewards combative thinking and behavior. This is why people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) traits are often attracted to court and often win.If the target takes a passive approach—and many do—then the blamer’s allegations appear unchallenged and therefore true. Person A allowed this to happen at her hearing, when she did not have an attorney and did not respond in her own defense to Person B’s allegations. If you allow this to happen, it gets harder and harder to overcome the appearance that you accept the allegations as true. Remember, the burden is on you (and your attorney) to assert your position. The court won’t otherwise try to figure it out, and rarely asks you questions, such as whether or not you agree. You or your attorney must convey assertively that you do not agree; otherwise the judge may assume that each of the blamer’s statements is true. But if your approach is too aggressive, you may give the appearance of being the abusive person you say you’re not. Husband’s urge to have his attorney make a lot of unsupported allegations against Wife at the next hearing will generally backfire. While TV and movies are filled with dramatic and aggressive attorneys, this often backfires in real courts, especially in the long run. Ultimately, most court cases are won or lost based on the evidence gathered through assertive homework. In reality, in family court, the burden is on you to raise credible reports of abuse you or your children have experienced, or to respond to false abuse allegations against you. You and your attorney must be very assertive about gathering evidence that already exists, presenting that evidence to the court, and noticing new evidence as it occurs throughout your case. The Assertive Approach 1.  Start documenting right away. High conflict divorces often start with an emergency court hearing about true or false allegations of abusive behavior. If you or the person with BP or NP traits is seeking court orders (often restraining or “protective” orders), it is critical that you put together detailed, accurate information to present to the court. In a notebook, record detailed information about parenting behavior (yours and the other parent’s), abusive behaviors, threatening statements made, and explanations of any confrontations between the two of you. Many people keep a daily diary (in a safe place), even before they separate. Focus on actual statements and behaviors, and avoid opinions and interpretations. If and when you need to describe events in court, you want to be seen as capable of presenting very objective, factual information that’s most helpful to the judge and other professionals. Information that is written down the same day as it happens is considered far more credible than something written a week or a month later. 2.  Think strategically, not reactively. Avoid acting out of frustration and anger; otherwise you may do things that waste energy and will hurt you in the long term. Example: Thomas was so upset after a hearing in which supervised visitation was ordered for him that he sent Tammy an e-mail saying that she should be ashamed of herself, and that their daughter would never forgive her for lying and saying he abused her. At the next hearing, this spontaneous and reactive e-mail showed up as an exhibit to Tammy’s declaration, intended to show that Thomas was aggressive, angry, and unstable. Thomas’s lawyer convinced him to never send an angry e-mail again without showing it to him first. 3.  Check with a therapist or attorney whenever you feel like communicating angrily with your partner. You are better off processing your frustrations in therapy than putting something angry in writing or in a voice mail that could inadvertently become a new court document. Advise your friends and relatives to avoid such angry statements to your partner for the same reason. Invest time in learning the BIFF Response® method of effectively communicating; especially when your emails and texts are likely to be filed in court. 4.  Choose your battles. Many people who are divorcing someone with BP or NP traits complain about how unfair the court process is and how unfair it is that the blamer gets away with certain things. Of course, this is upsetting, but your case actions must be based on what you need to do to make it right, not what you feel upset about. You must think strategically and choose your battles. Talk to your attorney about which issues need a response and which ones you can ignore. Attorney letters sent back and forth can be very provocative but don’t always need a response, especially if they are not in the court record. “Your client is always late with support payments and doesn’t seem to care if the children ever eat again”—this letter may or may not need a response at all. It is a choice. If there was a problem and the payment was a day or two late, it may help to provide an explanation to the blamer’s attorney, just in case this letter shows up as an exhibit to a declaration at the next hearing. You should always respond to court declarations containing false statements. A general denial may be sufficient, but false information at court needs a written correction, just to protect you now and in the future. 5.  Don’t make yourself into a target. When you’re in a family court battle, you need to be as perfect as possible. Stop and think as often as you can. Remember, you’re being watched by your partner and your partner’s attorney. Any of your public actions and some of your private actions may be exposed and twisted around to fit their adversarial purposes. Innocent discussions with your partner, or

Hiring a Lawyer Who Understands High Conflict

©2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Excerpt from Chapter 7: Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder)   Selecting the right attorney may be your single biggest decision. Interview at least three attorneys before choosing the one you want to retain as your advocate through what may be the roller-coaster ride of a lifetime. Ideally, look for an attorney who: Has experience in your court: Your attorney should know the judges and what to expect in their courtrooms. There is some variation among counties, so find a local attorney who knows the local rules and is respected by your judge. Is easy to communicate with: Your attorney should be open to your input and concerns, and work closely with you in handling surprises and legal maneuvers. Understands difficult personalities in family-court cases: While you may not find an attorney with specific knowledge of BP and NP traits, some are better than others at handling common manipulations and false statements. Few attorneys recognize and understand PDs. They simply view blamers as jerks, liars, or incredibly frustrating opponents. If you find an attorney who is experienced in your court, easy to communicate with, and open minded; returns your phone calls; and is willing to share decision making with you, you may be able to educate him on the personality issues. Keep in mind that most family law attorneys are reluctant to take potentially high-conflict cases, because blamers drain their energy, too. Using referral sources, such as the following ones, is more effective than making cold calls from the phone book. After getting names, be sure to interview the lawyer yourself. Mental health professionals: Contact a mental health professional who knows about PDs and works on family-law cases. Psychologists, clinical social workers, and family counselors regularly testify in court or do assessments for the court. Mental health organizations (such as a psychiatric hospital or counseling clinic): Explain your situation to someone who has dealt with people with BP or NP traits, and then ask if the person has referrals to three attorneys. Family and friends: Someone you know may have had a good experience with an attorney in a difficult case. Keep in mind that the case may have been quite different from yours. Referral service: Most county bar associations have referral services that usually give out three names. Then you can interview all three and make a choice. Court observation: If you’ve got the time, go to the court where your case will be heard and observe the attorneys. See the way they interact with each other and argue their cases. If you like one, go up afterward and ask for a business card. Questions to Ask                                            There’s a wide range of attorneys; you’ll want to find one who fits you like a partner, accompanying you through the ups and downs of what will likely be an unpleasant journey. Here are some critical questions to ask: How do you usually communicate with clients? Look for answers that include a usual response time for returning phone calls of at least twenty-four to forty-eight hours, depending on the urgency of the issue. You don’t want an attorney who will always pass you off to an assistant, associate, or secretary. Sometimes staff will be able to help you, which saves you money. Just make sure you have access to your lawyer when you need it. Ask how easy it is to schedule an appointment with the attorney when you want to discuss your case. When you speak with a prospective attorney, notice whether she is distracted by other matters (phone calls, papers to review, and so on). Does she seem attentive? Is the attorney a good listener, or does he interrupt or take over the conversation before you explain your concerns? Do you prefer to negotiate or go to court? About how many cases have you settled this year? About how many cases have you taken to court for hearings or trials? While negotiations may work, many attorneys quickly become frustrated with blamers’ rigid thinking, mood swings, arrogance, and disrespect. These attorneys may try to avoid this mess by prematurely ending negotiations. That’s not what you want. You want a lawyer who won’t take these traits personally and will exhaust all settlement options before going to court. But a credible threat of going to court sometimes helps settle a case, so be sure to hire a lawyer who is equally competent in and out of court. When you use the same attorney for court whom you used in negotiations, that person will be familiar with you and with the other side’s manipulations, allegations, and rigid thinking. Patterns of behavior that occurred in negotiations (which will probably escalate in court) may help your attorney plan a winning strategy. Have you ever handled a case like mine before? Ideally, the answer is yes. Some attorneys may have had lots of experience with your type of case, and others will be relatively new. Experience matters a lot in law, because there are so many details, rules, and tools you’ll use. It’s helpful if the attorney is familiar with your judge and how your judge handles cases like yours. What steps would you take in handling a case like mine? There is no right answer to this question. Mostly, you want to see if the attorney’s steps make sense to you and if she explains things to your satisfaction. This will give you an idea of whether the attorney is familiar with the common problems of persuasive blamers or if he’s merely guessing. You’ll also get an idea of whether you feel comfortable with this attorney’s approach. Make sure this person is open to your information and suggestions. Do you believe that most abuse allegations are true or false? Does the lawyer jump to conclusions about your case? Is she honest with you about her experience, availability, and the strengths and weaknesses of your case? Beware of attorneys who readily accept any abuse