Friday, August 29, 2008

Canada and the U.S. Response

Thanks for sharing your story. Your situation sounds similar to the California case I wrote about in High Conflict People in Legal Disputes in the 3rd chapter. In that case, a Father drove his car into the front of the building where the Mother worked. Then, he appealed his case based on “freedom of expression” (he lost, fortunately). What I’ve learned is that these extreme cases show up in all states and countries around the world. As a society, we need to learn how to contain this high conflict behavior, so that others don’t have to suffer. Best wishes.

Keeping Your Cool Response

The same approach applies to high conflict professionals. Don’t take their behavior personally. Don’t engage when you can avoid it. Get help for dealing with the necessary details, and let go as soon as you can. There’s more to life than fighting with HCPs. Best wishes.

Reigning In The Adversarial Process Response

Thank you for your feedback on my book. I’m glad it was helpful. My emphasis is on problem-solving rather than making “judgments” of people. I totally agree that we need to get better in the legal system at not making assumptions that all parents are good at parenting. There are cases when a parent needs supervised contact and very rare cases when no contact is appropriate, usually temporarily. Unfortunately, the court process is not good at figuring this out and sometimes they get these high conflict cases backwards. Fortunately, open-minded family court professionals are recognizing these problems and looking at ways to improve the system. The more that attorneys, judges and mediators learn about high conflict personalities, the more they will know what to look for and not make assumptions. Best wishes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reigning In The Adversarial Process

It occurred to me today, while working on several divorce cases and then reading the news, that family court and the presidential election have a lot in common. They are both adversarial systems that often produce more heat than light. The extreme statements we hear about each parent’s/candidate’s character contain lots of distortions, emotional reasoning, and “splitting.”

“My client/candidate is all-good and yours isn’t fit to parent/run the country.” “Your client/candidate is an evil monster who has manipulated everyone, is certifiably crazy, is lying and getting away with it, and would destroy the child/country.” Most people don’t buy these extreme statements, but there are enough Negative Advocates for each parent/candidate out there to influence a sizable minority with these extreme statements.

Somehow the “character issue” has grown in politics, but not in a meaningful way. Judging someone’s character as somehow good or bad, strong or weak, honest, loyal, etc. misses all the important points. There are no clear-cut “all-good” or “all-bad” characters. Instead, there is a wide diversity of personality traits and we need more of certain traits at different times, in different political environments. The question is: what personality traits would help us now the most? Rather than: who has “good” character and who has “bad” character?

Sometimes someone who is preoccupied with being strong is the wrong person to have as a parent/leader in a complex world. Strong domestic violence perpetrators are generally not good parents. Yet the same traits seem to be popular in the leaders of many countries today.

Years ago, President Bush said he looked into Russia’s President Putin’s eyes and could see his character, and saw that it was good. That settled the matter. Then Putin lead the invasion of Georgia and President Bush saw that his character was actually bad. To me, Putin was consistent throughout: as a leader with a history in the KGB, he has authoritarian personality traits and a history of deception. This doesn’t mean that he couldn’t be a negotiating partner and run a very popular government, but it means that he will always need to be contained—even while we talk to him. Rather than splitting, and viewing him as all-good or all-bad, we need to understand his personality and take a balanced approach from the start.

Now, as we consider Barack Obama and John McCain for president, I hope that we will avoid “judging their character” as all-good or all-bad. Instead, I hope that we will assess their personality traits in terms of open-mindedness, ability to reflect on their own behavior, willingness to consider others’ opinions, ability to respect and contain aggressive HCP political leaders, and most of all: able to learn and adapt as today’s world changes rapidly over the next four years.

The same thing applies when it comes to parents in high conflict divorce cases. I hope that we will avoid fighting over who’s the all-good parent and who’s the all-bad parent. We need to contain the worst behavior and respect them and help them to change where possible. We need to define and teach good skills to use for parenting in today’s world. The adversarial process teaches people to fight, to manipulate, to lack empathy for their enemies, and to think in all-or-nothing terms. It’s up to us to rein in this process and resist the urge to judge character in childlike extremes. I hope we succeed in both settings.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Keeping Your Cool with High Conflict People

Whether you are familiar with the dynamics of High Conflict People (HCPs) or not, one of the hardest things to do is to Keep Your Cool around them. This actually makes sense, once you understand HCPs.

Their high conflict behavior and emotions have the social purpose of grabbing your attention and making you feel responsible for fixing their problems. In many ways, they are like young children who feel afraid and helpless, and have learned a dysfunctional method of trying to enlist your help. It may have actually worked in their families when they were growing up, although these behaviors are dysfunctional in the adult world of close relationships and work relationships.

Recent research about the brain indicates that our emotions are contagious, and high conflict emotions are the most contagious. We unconsciously mirror what other people are feeling. Perhaps this is rooted in human group survival methods that developed long before we learned how to speak. Fear and anger are especially contagious and can grab you before you consciously realize it. Therefore, we have to actively resist the natural, unconscious, emotional pull that HCPs will have on us.

Here’s a few ideas I’ve been thinking about this week:

Remind yourself that it’s NATURAL to get emotionally hooked, and that you can get unhooked as soon as you recognize that this is happening to you. Just say to yourself: “Oops! I just got hooked. Now I can let go.” This often occurs when you are listening to someone complaining about all their problems, which are mostly self-created. You may suddenly feel responsible for their problems and either: 1) want to solve all their problems for them, or 2) want to criticize them for creating their own problems.

Either way, if you feel responsible for fixing their problems, then you got hooked. Now, remind yourself: “I have choices here. I can offer a suggestion and if they don’t want a suggestion, I can drop it. I can change the subject. I can leave the conversation. I’m not responsible for their problems.”

But what if you are in a position of responsibility? Perhaps you are their therapist or supervisor or lawyer or friend? Then, you have to remind yourself that you are not responsible for THEIR behavior or THEIR problem or THEIR solution. You are only responsible for being their therapist, supervisor, lawyer or friend, and doing the “standard of care” for your role. This doesn’t include fixing their problem, but rather doing normal, established procedures to assist them in solving their own problems.

For example, if their behavior in a legal dispute (such a child custody battle) or workplace dispute is inappropriate, take standard action and provide STRUCTURE (you may have to redirect someone’s energies or provide new instructions) or CONSEQUENCES (such as small-step-by-small-step disciplinary measures) as you and/or your organization would usually do. Be matter of fact. You’re not the cause and you’re not the cure (as they say in Alanon).

And always remember: It’s not about you! You don’t have to prove yourself. You don’t have to defend yourself. High conflict people act the way they do, because it’s who they are, not what you did. To read more on these and other subjects please go here

Good Luck! And have a cool summer! Bill