Thursday, January 26, 2012

Splitting America – Part 2: Left and Right Brain Conflict Resolution


In the previous blog, I wrote about the dynamic of “splitting” – the tendency for some people to see others as all-good or all-bad, and the contagious nature of this highly intense emotional process. This seems to have entered our political process with today’s attack ads. They may seriously split America, unless we realize how this works.

Brain research may help explain this process. It appears that we have two basic systems of conflict resolution associated with the right and left hemispheres of our brains. (This dynamic is a different issue from political right and left.) The left brain is where written and spoken word content is mostly processed. Most of the time, researchers say that our left hemisphere is dominant, looking at problem-solving in a logical, detailed manner that is generally associated with mildly positive emotions, such as calmness, contentment and a sense of safety. This is where we tend to store and reflect on specific detailed solutions to previous problems, which helps in planning logical and detailed solutions to new problems.

Our right brain tends to take over when we are in a crisis or face a totally new situation. The right brain tends to respond much more quickly, in a defensive and protective manner – which also shuts down our higher thinking so that we can focus on fight, flight or freeze responses. Such an approach helps save our lives when facing an immediate, life or death problem.  This defensive response includes splitting: fast all-or-nothing thinking, intensely negative emotional responses and extreme behaviors (running away, violently attacking or trying to hide). The right brain unconsciously and constantly pays great attention to people’s tone of voice and facial expressions, which are highly contagious during a crisis. Before you realize it, you may start reacting to a situation like those around you (running, fighting), in an effort to strongly defend through group strength. This group defense mechanism (contagious emotions) has saved humans for thousands of years. It’s like emotional Wi-Fi.

Anthropologists believe that modern human beings and our modern human brains have been around for approximately 150,000 years. About 50,000 years ago our vocal chords moved up in our throats, so that we developed the ability for speech and modern verbal language, rather than just grunts and shouts. About 10,000 years ago we moved from primarily being hunter-gatherers to an agrarian culture as farmers. This provided the potential to form much larger communities in stable locations. Then, about 5,000 years ago we developed written language.

This means that for most of our existence on earth we have had a social brain that helped us work together to solve problems, based on emotional Wi-Fi – without the benefit of research and historical analysis of political behavior. For most of our human history and brain development, we have been attracted to leaders based on non-verbal behavior, such as charm, strength, speed, aggression, dominance, and the ability to appear confident and clever. These characteristics are recognized by our right brains – our experts on non-verbal behavior. However, these characteristics can be easily manipulated out of context.

Our left brains have the ability to get the context – to gather a wide range of written information about candidates. We can read history, read about political candidate’s full backgrounds of behavior, and predict much more accurately which candidate will meet our goals in the long-run. Yet, if we don’t understand our right-brain tendency to follow leaders based on appearances of strength, charm and wit, we will resort to electing leaders simply because they are good at grabbing our attention.

Today’s political world of attack ads encourages splitting: simple, emotional, all-or-nothing views of complex problems, by identifying “all-bad” individuals and groups – and attacking them. Human history is filled with this simple mistake. Let’s not let it happen again, now that we are aware of its dynamics.

(The last blog in this 3-part series focuses on the power of modern media in promoting splitting.)

High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations, as well and books, DVDs and CDs regarding dealing with High Conflict People (HCPs) in legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author ofIt's All Your Fault!, Splitting, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns and Don't Alienate the Kids!. He is an author, attorney, mediator, and therapist. Bill has presented seminars to attorneys, judges, mediators, ombudspersons, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, managers, and administrators in 25 states, several provinces in Canada, France, Sweden, and Australia. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, Bill Eddy or to purchase a book, CD or DVD, visit: http://www.HighConflictInstitute.com

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Revision: Request for High-Conflict Workplace Examples

We're seeking case examples of high-conflict people and behavior at work, including customers, employees and bosses, for a new book I’m writing. It would help to know specific behavior and patterns of behavior they demonstrated, and how they were handled (or not) and how things turned out – disasters and success stories. A page or two is sufficient, with identifying information disguised. You can even do this anonymously, as I am looking for general examples to use in demonstrating a management method, not looking for exact information. Thanks! Bill

Submit your case studies to: info@highconflictinstitute.com

Splitting America - the new contagion in American politics


The concept of “splitting” in relationships has been studied for decades, especially when borderline or narcissistic personality disorders are involved. Splitting occurs when a person views others as either all-good or all-bad, with no grey areas and with an emotional intensity that is contagious – but uninformed. Others come to believe that a certain person really is all-good or all-bad. Splitting is an unconscious process for those with personality disorders and its contagious nature is generally an unconscious process, unless you know to watch out for it.

Splitting is a common dynamic in many high-conflict child custody disputes in family courts. Randi Kreger and I described this dynamic in our recent book: SPLITTING: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

It also is a dynamic in hospital and substance abuse treatment programs, commonly known as “staff splitting,” when there is a patient in the program with a personality disorder. That patient tells other patients and staff that one employee has acted extremely badly and another has been extremely wonderful. Unless staff recognize when splitting is occurring and how unconsciously contagious it is, they start hating each other and viewing each other as all-good or all-bad. They totally disagree over their treatment of that patient, seeing her or him as a total victim or as totally to blame for their own problems. Rumors start flying and bitterness escalates. I have consulted with organizations where this was occurring, and once they learn about the splitting dynamic, they usually become immune to it and are able to work together well again – although occasionally some workgroups become split beyond repair. 

The current election climate and attack ads remind me of this splitting process, in that candidates are describing each other in terms of being all-good (themselves) or all-bad (various other candidates), with no grey areas and with an emotional intensity that is contagious. Recent attack ads seem to run along these lines and we will see a lot more before November. Uninformed voters who are not aware of this dynamic will become convinced that the target of the split (the attack ad’s target) is crazy, stupid, immoral or evil. An Op-Ed piece in USA Today on Monday was even titled: “Why U.S. Politics Divides into Good and Evil.” Splitting is an intensely emotional experience, without room for rational analysis or discussion, and can occur in a mob-like manner that supersedes any quest for information.

I doubt that any of the candidates has a borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, since a personality disorder is a long-term pattern of interpersonal dysfunction and internal distress. However, politics is an area that is known to attract people with narcissistic traits and people with these traits can often succeed for a while in their work, even though their close personal relationships usually are marked by chronic difficulty.

In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, authors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, explain that narcissists often are chosen as appealing leaders in groups, until the group gets to know them. They see themselves as leaders with outstanding skills – and the group believes that at first as well. But then, their leadership role is short-lived, as group members catch on to their serious deficits and no longer see them as leaders. In fact, the research on leaders in business shows that the narcissists demonstrate more volatile leadership, which hurts the stability of the company over the long run – and stability is what really adds value to the business. The less narcissistic leaders did the best, according to Twenge and Campbell. The narcissists’ overconfidence eventually ruined them. While they continued to see themselves as superior, their peers saw them as inferior as leaders – and threw them out when they could. 

Keep this in mind as the elections and attack ads progress. Narcissists and borderlines can’t help themselves, but reasonable people can stop the splitting of America by becoming aware and explaining this dynamic to others.

(This is the first part of a 3-part blog. The next one focuses on brain research which may help explain about why we are so vulnerable to “splitting.” The last part will focus on the role of the today’s changing media in increasing splitting in society.)

High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations, as well and books, DVDs and CDs regarding dealing with High Conflict People (HCPs) in legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author ofIt's All Your Fault!, Splitting, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns and Don't Alienate the Kids!. He is an author, attorney, mediator, and therapist. Bill has presented seminars to attorneys, judges, mediators, ombudspersons, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, managers, and administrators in 25 states, several provinces in Canada, France, Sweden, and Australia. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, Bill Eddy or to purchase a book, CD or DVD, visit: http://www.HighConflictInstitute.com

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Marriage is Declining: Part II


I was very appreciative of the feedback on my blog last week (1-12-12) about marriage rates declining. The responses triggered a look into more research statistics and some more thoughts for family professionals. Here’s some results:

Remarriage rates: I don’t know if this has changed since 2004, but a U.S. Census report showed that the remarriage rate for men 25 and older who were divorced was about 52% and for women was about 44%. This study indicates that men remarry sooner than women (not a surprise).  (www.remarriage.com)

The speed of remarriage: An interesting article in Newsweek a couple years ago reported that American kids experience their parents’ divorce, new relationships and re-marriage faster than kids in other countries, such as Sweden – which has a higher cohabitation rate. This was surprising, but they found that 40% of U. S. children in two-parent families (married or not) experienced their parents splitting up by age 15, whereas 30% of Swedish children experience a parental breakup by age 15. Then, new partners move into the child’s household within three years of the divorce at a 47% higher rate than in Sweden. (www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/08/14/americans-marry-too-much.html)

Since I was in Sweden last year, I would agree that there seemed to be less marriage but more stability of relationships. While I taught social workers who were providing divorce mediation services about dealing with high-conflict personalities, their level of conflict was reportedly less and I was told that only about 7% of families use court hearings to make their divorce decisions, whereas over 20% do in the U.S.

Incomes of cohabiting couples: One of the comments last week from Australia was that many couples are living in stable cohabitation relationships there, so that their incomes may be similar to married couples, rather than much poorer (which I had implied in my blog). I couldn’t readily find credible statistics on that, although several sources indicate that cohabiting couples in the U.S. have less income than married couples (although they have more income than single parent families). One reason for this may be that cohabiting couples want to get married, but feel they can’t afford it. (http://www.unmarried.org/cohabitation-f.a.q.html)

Some Thoughts: I generally believe that living as a single, cohabiting or married person does not make much difference for adults – the important factor is the quality of one’s relationships, whether with friends, lovers or spouses. However, these recent marriage statistics concern me in the long-term sense for society and child-rearing. They reflect instability of relationships, especially of parenting relationships, and a decrease in relationship skills concurrent with an increase in individualism. And “family instability” seems to be a factor in the increase in personality disorders. (Disorders of Personality: DSM-IV and Beyond, Millon, 1996)

There needs to be an increase in teaching and reinforcing conflict resolution, communication and negotiation skills. People shouldn’t get married because they are “supposed to.” They should get married because they are two people (of any sex) who have the skills for a committed relationship and because it satisfies them more. As a society, we need to provide more support for such skills and satisfaction, rather than endorsing an extreme “do your own thing” philosophy (which reinforces narcissism) or a guilt trip (which reinforces unhappy marriages). It doesn’t need to be “me versus us.” It can be “me AND us.”

High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations, as well and books, DVDs and CDs regarding dealing with High Conflict People (HCPs) in legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author ofIt's All Your Fault!, Splitting, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns and Don't Alienate the Kids!. He is an author, attorney, mediator, and therapist. Bill has presented seminars to attorneys, judges, mediators, ombudspersons, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, managers, and administrators in 25 states, several provinces in Canada, France, Sweden, and Australia. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, Bill Eddy or to purchase a book, CD or DVD, visit: http://www.HighConflictInstitute.com

B.I.F.F.s for Business and Professions

By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Businesses today have many opportunities to deal with HCPs as customers, suppliers, contractors, partners and in negotiations over future business relationships. Professionals face similar situations, as they often operate as small businesses and deal with HCPs on a regular basis.

All businesses and professions create expectations, but the expectations of HCPs are often very unrealistic. This can lead to angry outbursts, customer relations complaints, consumer affairs complaints, licensing board complaints, rumors among colleagues, bad publicity and lawsuits. B.I.F.F.s can help you manage risks and reduce the distraction of draining emotional issues of HCPs.
The goal isn’t to avoid all HCPs in business and professional work – you can’t ever succeed at that (see Chapter One) because HCPs are usually not obvious at the beginning. Instead, the goal is to contain the emotional challenges and stay focused on the services that you want to provide. When handled correctly, most HCPs can be satisfied customers, productive employees and even sources of future work.

This chapter will include B.I.F.F.s for a high-conflict client and a high-conflict business partner.

A Disgruntled Client
For many years, divorce mediation has been a significant part of my work as a lawyer and social worker. After almost thirty years, I received a letter with the following general message (it is not the exact letter, as mediation is confidential). 
Dear Sir:
You met with us on Sept. 9th for our divorce mediation and we scheduled another meeting for Oct. 15th. We are now cancelling that meeting, because both my wife and I (and my attorney) believe that you did not handle our mediation properly. You allowed many criticizing and blaming comments to be made and we accomplished nothing. I paid for the mediation and I would like my money back. Please respond promptly. We have found another mediator who does it correctly.
                                          Sincerely, Disgruntled Client

I remembered this case, as this client came late, took two phone calls on his cell phone during our meeting and left early. He made several blaming comments toward his wife, did not take responsibility for solving problems and yet interpreted her as being unreasonable. This is not unusual for a first session in mediation and I expected to slowly get him to solve problems over the next 3-4 sessions. So I was surprised. However, after I got over my surprise and anger at this letter, I sent the following B.I.F.F. response:
Dear Client,
Thank you for your letter expressing your concerns about our mediation session. After doing nearly 1000 divorce mediation cases and teaching a course in mediation at two law schools, I have learned that people have different styles of providing mediation services. I am glad that you have found a mediator that fits you. Best wishes in completing your divorce.
                                            Sincerely,
                           Mr. Mediator
I never heard from him again. You may wonder why I didn’t tell him directly that I wouldn’t refund his money. I believe that I performed my services totally satisfactorily and that he acted inappropriately. There was nothing that I needed to apologize for and I think this letter makes it clear that I did not believe that I did anything wrong. I didn’t want to make him think about a refund any further, as raising the issue and then rejecting it was more likely to influence him negatively than just telling him that I’m very experienced, that mediators have different styles and that I wish him well. This was the least likely approach to increase his defensiveness, and it appears to have helped him let go.

High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations, as well and books, DVDs and CDs regarding dealing with High Conflict People (HCPs) in legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author ofIt's All Your Fault!, Splitting, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns and Don't Alienate the Kids!. He is an author, attorney, mediator, and therapist. Bill has presented seminars to attorneys, judges, mediators, ombudspersons, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, managers, and administrators in 25 states, several provinces in Canada, France, Sweden, and Australia. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, Bill Eddy or to purchase a book, CD or DVD, visit: http://www.HighConflictInstitute.com

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Send “BIFF” to Washington!


Yesterday, Jon Huntsman declared he would stop campaigning for President. Too bad, he seemed like a reasonable person, by and large. I couldn’t agree more with his comment on the way out: “This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time.” (Several news sources) Of course, he threw in a few of his own attacks during his months in the campaign.

This year is expected to sink to the lowest depths of negative ads and hostile political speech in recent history. I think the U.S. public wants civility, but is fascinated by disdain and disrespect. If we were to turn off the news or refuse to vote for individuals who communicate this way it would immediately stop. But the opposite seems to be happening. People are eager to hear what politicians say about each other – the worst seems to get the most attention and Jon Huntsman couldn’t get attention by mostly being reasonable.

I think there should be a candidate out there who gets attention by using BIFF responses. These are statements that are Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm.  This could fit well in the age of Twitter. A political BIFF could go like this: “I respect my opponent’s sincere efforts to solve this problem. He/she has suggested that we do ABC. But this idea has been studied and tried on several occasions in the United States and in other countries, and this idea failed repeatedly. Instead, we need to do XYZ. This isn’t about bad people or who’s smart or who cares. It’s about what works and what doesn’t work. Thank you.” 

Can you imagine certain candidates saying such a thing? Well, I would actually encourage them to do so. Some candidates say that they are not going to “go negative,” but then they still do – to the extreme. I think we need a candidate who can stay positive and encourage others to do so.

If you want to get attention without going negative, just avoid making it a personal attack. For example, don’t use the other person’s name - let the debates be about ideas. When the media pays more attention to the extreme disdainful remarks of others, have a sense of humor about it. Point out how being positive and talking about issues gets ignored. Blast the dynamics of superficiality, rather than specific people. Everywhere you go, point out that you refuse to make it personal. You can totally disagree with the ideas that are presented, and explain why your ideas make more sense. Point out that when some politicians compare others to Hitler or Stalin or the “worst ever _________ (you fill in the blank),” that this is a gross manipulation of the defensive side of the brain, which shuts down logical thought in favor of “fight or flight” responses. This manipulation should be obvious by now and has nothing to do with the issues. But don’t make it personal back. Be above all of that. Re-focus to the real issue and keep it simple.

People really do want to understand the issues and vote on them. I don’t understand the economy. I don’t know where jobs come from. Can someone really start explaining that, instead of saying it’s all Obama’s fault (reducing the complex issues of healthcare to “Obamacare” makes it personal and tells me nothing) or that Romney has nothing to offer because “he likes to fire people” (so personal and out of context it’s useless). These attacks really shut down logical thinking. Let’s talk about substance and policies. I find it ironic that it took young people in the streets to teach us about the 1% and the 99%. And that I learned how SuperPacs work from 10 minutes on a fake news show on Comedy Central.

See, you can be Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. If anyone wants to send a copy of my little BIFF book to Washington, let me know.


High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations, as well and books, DVDs and CDs regarding dealing with High Conflict People (HCPs) in legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author ofIt's All Your Fault!, Splitting, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns and Don't Alienate the Kids!. He is an author, attorney, mediator, and therapist. Bill has presented seminars to attorneys, judges, mediators, ombudspersons, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, managers, and administrators in 25 states, several provinces in Canada, France, Sweden, and Australia. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, Bill Eddy or to purchase a book, CD or DVD, visit: http://www.HighConflictInstitute.com

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Marriage is Declining Rapidly! Does it Matter?


I read this week that there has been a significant decline in marriage rates, especially in the past two years. 57% of adults got married ten years ago, but only 51% are getting married now. Last year, only 9% of 18-to-24 year olds in the U.S. were married, compared to 45% in 1960. And the Pew Research Center reports that from 2009 to 2010, 13 percent fewer people in this age group got married. (Christian Science Monitor, January 2 & 9, 2012) We are seeing a rapid decline.

In 2011, The Economist (June 23rd issue) reported that only 45% of all households include a married couple, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So what’s the big deal, you say? Couples are just living together instead of getting married. Hey, I’m no prude. I did that myself before I got married. But the studies show that the problem is the big impact on the kids – and on long-term economics.

The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey reported in 2005 (USA Today, July 18, 2005) that cohabiting couples break up at twice the rate of married couples in the U.S. and that 40% of cohabiting couples have children – who get to share these more rapid breakups. In Europe, cohabitation rates are even higher, although divorce rates are lower and more children grow up with both parents – even when they’re not married.

When I started practicing family law in 1993, the average age of a child when parents divorced was about 8 years old. The average age of a child when unmarried parents split was about 4 years old. As high-conflict divorce appears to be increasing, the age of children growing up in conflicted arrangements also appears to be getting younger and younger.

So what are the implications of all of this? Children have less stability and more exposure to parents in conflict or loss of contact with one parent. It’s not surprising that the research on the development of personality disorders suggests that each younger generation has a higher incidence of these disorders. In our book Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Randi Kreger and I explained that about ten percent of the U.S. population has a borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, but about 15% of young adults age 20 to 29 have one of these disorders. One of the causes of personality disorders is instability in early childhood. You need stability to develop confidence, relationship skills and the ability to cope throughout your life.

The other major implication – for adults as well as children – is that unmarried folks are poorer. Researchers indicate that at least half of income inequality in the U.S. is due to this changing pattern. Households with only one parent (who mostly have only a high school education) are getting poorer and married household (mostly with college education and two incomes) are growing more well-to-do, according to The Economist (June 23, 2011) 

In the 1960’s, 76% of college graduates were married and 72% of high school graduates got married. Nowadays, the census shows that woman who get married are much more likely to have a college degree than just fifteen years ago. For women with college education, only 6% of babies have unmarried mothers; whereas 44% of babies of high school graduates have unmarried mothers. (The Economist, above)

For society, the message seems to be that marriage does matter – economically and to the well-being of children. If we care about our collective future, we need to care about the stability of family life – including making relationship skills an important part of education. (See our New Ways for Families program: www.NewWays4Families.com) For individuals, the message seems to be that you should seriously plan on getting married someday, for your own economic good as well as your child. And if no reasonable prospects are handy, it may be a good time to start taking some college classes – that is, if our nation’s economic priorities will make it affordable.

High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations, as well and books, DVDs and CDs regarding dealing with High Conflict People (HCPs) in legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author ofIt's All Your Fault!, Splitting, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns and Don't Alienate the Kids!. He is an author, attorney, mediator, and therapist. Bill has presented seminars to attorneys, judges, mediators, ombudspersons, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, managers, and administrators in 25 states, several provinces in Canada, France, Sweden, and Australia. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, Bill Eddy or to purchase a book, CD or DVD, visit: http://www.HighConflictInstitute.com

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

High Conflict Symposium @ the Willamette University School of Law


Last Friday, I gave an all-day seminar to approximately 100 family professionals (lawyers, judges, mediators, counselors, social workers, domestic violence victims’ advocates, etc.) in Salem, Oregon at their bi-annual “High Conflict” Symposium. It was held at the Willamette University School of Law. We really focused on specific methods of helping high conflict people (HCPs) and also helping parents who are dealing with a high conflict co-parent. We agreed that these methods should be taught to parents and teenagers, who are dealing with a surprising amount of hostility from peers on Facebook and other social media.

One of the biggest points was the paradigm shift to guiding parents to make decisions, rather than making so many decisions for them. This is not an easy shift and it takes practice. They seemed to like the E.A.R. statements (see article “Calming Upset People with E.A.R.”) and we ended with practicing B.I.F.F. responses (see BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People).

It has been so rewarding to me personally to see people understand and successfully apply these techniques. They were designed to be simple and easy to remember under pressure. There was a lot of experience in the room and it was a nice size group to have a sense of a community really dedicated to helping families.

I was disappointed to hear in the opening announcements, that the position of Mediation Coordinator for the county circuit court was being eliminated. Mediation is the method I believe that is most likely to efficiently help potentially high conflict families make reasonable decisions. Once they are in court, such families become so defensive that the children and one or both parents may never be able to communicate reasonably again. Many non-family professionals do not realize the damage to our society that is being done by cutting funds that help bring peace to children – the future of our nation.

High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations, as well and books, DVDs and CDs regarding dealing with High Conflict People (HCPs) in legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author ofIt's All Your Fault!, Splitting, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns and Don't Alienate the Kids!. He is an author, attorney, mediator, and therapist. Bill has presented seminars to attorneys, judges, mediators, ombudspersons, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, managers, and administrators in 25 states, several provinces in Canada, France, Sweden, and Australia. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, Bill Eddy or to purchase a book, CD or DVD, visit: http://www.HighConflictInstitute.com

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Strategic Questions For Dispute Resolvers


By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
© 2011 by High Conflict Institute

Asking questions is one of the most powerful – and often misused – tools for professionals in dispute resolution settings, whether legal, workplace, mediation or anywhere. When you are dealing with high-conflict clients, it is especially important to consider the timing of different types of questions and also to know what questions you should never ask. Whether you’re meeting with an individual client or meeting with two or more clients together (such as in mediation or solving a workplace problem), the following principles generally apply.

Slow Down
The secret to managing high-conflict clients is to manage your own anxiety. One of the things that most professionals do when they’re anxious is to ask lots of questions. It gives the illusion of being in charge and of working on the problem, which distracts us from our fears or uncertainties regarding how to deal with a potentially difficult client. However, this often makes things worse and interferes with the most important first issue, which is forming a positive working relationship.

High-conflict clients usually have a history of broken relationships with family, friends and professionals. Thus, they feel extremely anxious when seeking the services of a new professional, or being required to use the services of a professional that they don’t want (such as a court evaluator or when required to use a workplace coach). Their anxiety is contagious, so we often catch it and – without even realizing it – pepper them with questions. Our own anxiety is also contagious, so that high-conflict clients often increase their resistance to us when peppered with questions, and the power struggle begins – and may never end.

Equally as problematic, is when they respond in the opposite way, so that they stop trying to say their concerns and become passive and just answer the professional’s many detailed questions. In this case, they assume that the professional will figure everything out and take care of it, with little participation by the client. Then, if the professional missed something important to them (which usually happens), they become very angry.

First, Form a Working Relationship
With high-conflict people (HCPs), the issue’s not the issue – their personality is the issue. (For an explanation of this, see my book It’s All YOUR Fault!For the professional, this means that your relationship is the issue more than anything else. You don’t need to know all the facts when you are forming your relationship. You need to establish a comfort zone for the client, so that he or she will feel committed to working with you as an ally, rather than as another person to be mistrusted or attacked. Ask getting-acquainted types of questions and demonstrate your interest in getting to know your client, more than getting to know the “case.” The threshold issue for HCPs is: Are you friend or foe? You want them to feel that you truly want to help them and that you see them in a positive light.

You also want your client to feel comfortable enough with you to spontaneously share uncomfortable information – without worrying that you are going to become impatient, criticizing or judging. HCPs often have embarrassing information about things they have done or things that have happened to them. Yet this uncomfortable information often makes the difference in your work, so you don’t want to discourage it from coming out. Let the client know that you are interested in knowing everything that’s important to them about their case, even if it’s difficult to discuss. Don’t be surprised or criticizing if this type of information suddenly comes out later on – it often takes them time to trust you.

To build this trust, at the start just get your client talking – about anything! When your client is talking, show your strong interest and concern. E.A.R. statements can be particularly helpful here. These are statements that show Empathy, Attention and/or Respect. (See article: Calming Upset People with E.A.R.Your positive responses to your client when he or she is anxious will go much further in establishing a productive working relationship.

Second, Ask Open-ended Questions
Only after you have “connected” with your client(s) should you start asking questions relevant to the problem at hand. However, start with open-ended questions, rather than questions to get to the “core” of the problem, as you see it. You may miss the core of their problem completely, if you focus on your perception of the details too soon. Open-ended questions could be: “What are your concerns?” “What are your goals?” “What’s your picture of a positive outcome to this dispute?” “What do you think is really going on in this situation?” “How do you think the other person(s) see this dispute?” “What questions do you have for me?”

If you’re dealing with several people, make sure that you give everyone a chance to answer these open-ended questions first, before focusing on the details for any one person. In many group settings, mediators or managers often start trying to solve the first problem that they understand. Resist that urge and let everyone get their concerns on the table – or on a written list – before asking detailed questions. The benefit of this – especially if there is a high-conflict person in the group – is that the HCP is treated as an equal; no more or less important, and receiving no more or less attention in general.

As a mediator working with two or more parties in a dispute (especially if they include a potentially high-conflict person), I try to summarize their concerns after everyone has had a chance to speak. I find that high-conflict people tend to become more adversarial if you focus on them too much (they believe you are agreeing with them and become more aggressive), or if you focus on someone else too much (then they feel jealous or threatened that you are agreeing with that person). The best approach seems to be to briefly summarize each person’s comments or the group’s comments after everyone has spoken, then move on to the next task. It can help a lot to be strict about not getting into one person’s details too soon, until everyone has spoken and felt heard.

Third, Ask Your Detailed Questions
While it may feel slow to take this step-by-step approach, it will increase your chances of success – especially if you are working with a high-conflict person. Now ask your Who, What, When, Where, How and Why questions, to fill in your understanding of the case. Try to address these questions to everyone involved in problem solving, such as both parties to a dispute or a group solving a problem.

Make it a team-building activity, rather than appearing to be solving the problem yourself with one party. HCPs are very willing to sit back while you work hard to solve their problems. But when you are done, they will almost always reject your solution. They need to participate to the maximum of their potential, if they are going to buy into the solution. It has to be their solution, not yours. This is true, whether you are meeting with one client, two parties or a group of several people.

Don’t become overly concerned about understanding every detail. With HCPs, the details are often distorted anyway. If they are lying to you, they will have to build a more and more creative story to build on what they have already said, and you don’t want to push them into a corner. If they are describing unbelievable details with all sincerity, don’t make a big deal of confronting them with their inconsistencies by saying: “How could that be?” “That’s bizarre!” or “That couldn’t have happened.”

Instead, you can say that it sounds unusual and you will need documents or other witnesses if you are going to present this information to someone else. Your client may simply back down and say they don’t have documents or witnesses and drop the subject. That’s fine. You don’t need to trap your client or prove that they are wrong. What really matters is finding solutions – more than finding the best details. They can often solve a problem going forward, even when they disagree on the facts.

Of course, if you are dealing with a legal issue – especially one regarding illegal behavior, such as abuse, violence or theft – then you will need to get more detail, which is often best obtained by speaking to each person individually.

Fourth, Ask “What’s Your Proposal?”
Rather than focusing on the past with HCPs in a relationship dispute, progress usually comes with focusing on the future. Once your client(s) have answered the previous questions (which may take a long time, or may go very quickly), then ask them to make proposals. (For more about making proposals, see our free article Yes, No or I’ll Think About It.)

If they start out making proposals earlier in the process, you can gently say: “That’s great that you already have a proposal. Write that down and we’ll get to it very soon when we focus on making proposals. But first we need to hear each person’s concerns and goals.”

In the proposal stage of the discussion, if an individual slips into blaming others or two parties start arguing about the past, just ask: “Then what’s your proposal?” This avoids getting stuck on irresolvable facts and viewpoints, and is also avoids admonishing the parties about what not to say. It puts the burden on the parties to work hard to come up with proposals. You don’t need agreement on the past, if you can get agreement on what to do in the future.

Fifth, Ask About Relevant Issues the Parties Didn’t Raise
As an experienced dispute resolver, you know many of the problems that can arise in the future for people with a particular problem. If you have worked on their expressed concerns first, then it can be totally appropriate for you to raise other potential issues later on that they may need to address, or to think about for the future. “Have you thought about such-and-such, which often comes up when people are dealing with your type of situation?” Or: “You may want to consult with an expert on ABC before you finalize these decisions. Do you know of someone or would you like a referral?” As long as you leave the decision-making up to them, you can raise almost any issue. The parties are often very appreciative, because they are absorbed in the present dispute and unlikely to see the larger picture that you may see.

Also, when dealing with HCPs and those coping with them, it is tempting to be so glad that they reached an agreement or that time is up, that we tend to avoid asking details that need to be asked. “What if someone doesn’t make the payment that is required? Here’s some options you may want to consider.” Or: “What will you do if you don’t reach an agreement? Do you know what the alternatives will cost you?” These are questions that the parties may not know to ask or want to think about, but will discuss if you raise them.

By saving these types of questions until later in the process, you assist the parties first in addressing and resolving their own concerns, rather than taking over the process from them. With HCPs, this can really help build toward making agreements, rather than rushing into specific narrow issues at the start will leave them feeling uninvolved in the solution and less respected as a person.

Questions to Avoid with HCPs
Dispute resolvers often inadvertently ask questions that make things worse. These same questions may do fine with ordinary people, but with HCPs they backfire.

Avoid: “Would you be willing to try such and such?” This question implies that you or another party have figured out the problem and the person being asked is essentially a passive party whose opinion isn’t being sought – just their consent. This also implies that you, as a dispute resolver, think that this is a good idea. So it brings pressure with it and possible power struggles may emerge if an HCP is involved. It’s much better to ask: “What are your thoughts or questions about that proposal or idea?” This leaves room to like it or dislike it. If the respondent dislikes the idea, then you can simply ask: “Then, what would you propose?” Don’t become invested in one particular solution, otherwise they are less likely to do it or will blame you if it doesn’t work.

Avoid: “How do you feel about that proposal?” Instead, ask “What do you think about that proposal?” High-conflict clients often feel terrible about any ideas except their own, so you don’t want to get them focused on how they feel. Instead, by asking what they think, it reinforces logical problem-solving and may help them stay focused on what will work, rather than how awful it may feel.

Avoid: “Why didn’t you say that before?” This shifts the focus to the past, which triggers defensiveness and justification and more unnecessary conflict. In fact, it isn’t really a question – it’s a criticism. Many times, parties get stuck in arguing about the past and why they should have done things differently. This can simply be avoided by saying: “What’s important is that we have a proposal now.”

Avoid: “Don’t you feel better now?” after solving a small problem. High-conflict people tend to have a lot of “all-or-nothing” thinking and defensiveness. When little problems get solved, it’s tempting for professionals to ask this question as a form of validation for the professional’s efforts and in order to boost that client’s optimism. This usually fails miserably with HCPs. They usually feel compelled to explain how they are victims of circumstances. They are most comfortable in the position of helplessness. They get more sympathy and assistance that way, and they may have grown up truly abused or entitled, so that they don’t see that their actions make any difference. So their response will usually be to get angry and say: “Of course not! Look at all of the problems we’re still facing. What we did today is meaningless compared to those! No, I don’t feel any better now!” The lesson here for dispute resolvers is to Forgetaboutit!      

Talk Less and Listen More
After supervising hundreds of role-play exercises in professional trainings, one of the most common statements I hear from participants is: “I realize I talk too much and don’t listen enough.” This is especially true when working with high-conflict clients. In short, professionals usually do better if they talk less and listen more.

By avoiding asking too many questions too soon, and adopting a more patient, step-by-step approach, you can often help high-conflict people reach an agreement, help them feel good about themselves and put less stress on yourself in the process.


High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations, as well as books, DVDs and CDs regarding dealing with High Conflict People (HCPs) in legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author of "It's All Your Fault!" and other books about managing high conflict people. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, Bill Eddy or to purchase a book, CD or DVD, visit:http://www.HighConflictInstitute.com