Last week, I participated in the annual four day Academy of Professional Mediators Conference in Reston, Virginia and learned with mediators who had flown in to the D.C. area from all over the world. Of particular interest to me were sessions I attended on high conflict clients and high conflict mediations.
Bill Eddy has worn many hats -- kindergarten teacher, substance abuse counselor, therapist, lawyer, and mediator. He is also President of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego. I attended one of his seminars called Mediating High Conflict Disputes (New Ways for Mediation) a couple of days ago at Multidoor Dispute Resolution in Washington, D.C. What I learned is helpful not only in terms of mediating high conflict cases but in navigating all kinds of daily interactions with certain difficult personalities.
High conflict people can be very smart, successful, charming, and good looking! Bill says that some high conflict people regularly criticize or blame others without taking any responsibility. Some high conflict people have personalities in which they lack self awareness about why they are the way they are. Other high conflict people are extremely rigid, self absorbed, and certain that they are superior and right 100% of the time. Still others are always dramatic personalities who exaggerate, tell exciting stories, and need to be the center of attention. Bill says what high conflict people have in common is: (1) blaming others, (2) all or nothing thinking, (3) unmanaged emotions, and (4) extreme behaviors.
Bill explained in his seminar that people who are not high conflict solve conflicts with logical problem solving such as focusing on analyzing a problem, looking for a number of solutions, and feeling a need for a thorough analysis. A high conflict person will focus instead on fighting, seeing only one solution, and feeling the need for fast action to survive.
Bill suggests that when a high conflict person is having a dispute with another person, the response that works is to immediately shift over from blaming, criticizing, and attacking each other to problem solving as a starting point. In other words, don't get stuck in a rehash of what happened in the past. Keep everyone calm by asking "So, what's your proposal?" There is no need to argue. The first person can suggest a proposed solution to a defined problem. The other person can ask questions about how the proposal would work and ultimately say "yes," "no," or "I'll think about it." If the other person says no, then that person makes a new proposal.
I started to use this approach yesterday when I found myself in a meeting with two high conflict personalities. It will take practice, but I found that I was able to keep the conversation going in a positive and productive manner by refusing to engage in the "chaos of the past" and insisting on moving forward with concrete solutions to identified problems. Read more about Bill Eddy and his work at www.highconflictinstitute.com.
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.