Dealing With the High Conflict Personality in Practice

We’ve all come across them. Difficult people can be found everywhere, including co-workers, clients, and lawyers on the other side. Sometimes these difficult people are actually manifesting what could be considered a personality disorder, and it looks like the prevalence of them are increasing.

At the Federation of Law Societies conference in Halifax this week Bill Eddy of the High Conflict Institute closed the session by looking at the changing population and the implications for the courts. Eddy indicated that there is a clear trend that clients have fewer conflict resolution skills, more high‐conflict behaviour, and more personality disorders.

The main clusters of personality disorders in the DSM-IV are as follows:

  • —Narcissistic: extreme preoccupation with self, a disdain for others, and preoccupation with being treated superior
  • —Borderline: marked by extreme mood swings, fears of abandonment, frequent anger and manipulative behavior
  • Paranoid: a long-term distrust and suspicion of others, but does not have a full-blown psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia
  • Antisocial: extreme disregard for the rules of society, little empathy, and a willingness to hurt others for personal gain
  • —Histrionic: emotionally intense, similar to Borderline but often with less anger and more drama; sometimes fabricates events

Eddy cited a (U.S.) National Institutes of Health study which found the prevalence of personality disorders among 35,000 people as follows:

Many of these personality disorders overlap with each other, and can often be found in conjunction with substance abuse, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, suicidal thoughts, and actual suicides. Most personality disorders are socially environmentally created, except for anti-social disorders, which seems to have a genetic link.

He demonstrated a much higher prevalence of all of these among younger populations, suggesting we could be creating an environment that is fostering and encouraging these traits. Narcissism is especially on the rise. The younger generation today expects to be on TV and be millionaires by age of 30. When they don’t accomplish this, it often leads to high anxiety and self-esteem issues.

There are also gender-based distributions to these disorders. The prevalence of narcissism is 62% male and 38% female. But fastest growing group is young women.

Borderline personalities are roughly equal; 47% male 53% female. The emotional cycle of these disorders mirrors domestic abuse cases, even if not characterized by violence. To illustrate, Eddy shared that a borderline personality disorder client will often have an emotional outburst stating they want to fire the lawyer, emphasizing how horrible the lawyer is and how they have messed up the case. Inside, the lawyer might actually rejoice, being happy to get off the emotional rollercoaster. But then the borderline personality client will give the lawyer one more chance – until the next time.

The gender distribution for anti-social personalities is 74% male 26% female, which interestingly enough mirrors incarceration rates. Many people erroneously assume that histrionic disorders will be primarily female, but it is 51% male 49% female.

People with personality disorders lack basic relationship conflict resolution skills, and cannot be motivated by others to use skills they don’t have. Reprimands by the bench, or even court orders, are ineffective. They are resistant to learning new skills and managing themselves under stress, especially in adversarial settings. However, they still have a range of behaviour, and a practitioner can influence whether they use their best or worst traits.

Eddy recommended using more structure, imparting more skills, and creating less stress, when dealing with these high conflict personalities.

Structure is created by providing more explanations, repeating yourself without getting frustrated, providing deadlines, and following up. Structure can also be created by creating client responsibility for behaviour and decisions. These individuals often pressure lawyers to become responsible for resolving their dispute, and then blame them when they don’t get the outcomes they want.

Lawyers should respond to blaming activity by stating that decisions are up to them. They should avoid getting emotionally hooked, and shouldn’t feel responsible for fixing clients or resolving a case. Instead, they should focus on skills.

Lawyers can reduce their own stress when dealing with high conflict personalities that it’s not about them, it’s about their lack of skills. The supposed issue presented is not really the issue, it’s high conflict thinking that is the issue. They should not even try to change their client’s thinking, but can deal with them in more effective ways. A lawyer is not responsible for the outcome, they are responsible for the standard of care. A no blame no shame approach helps remind the lawyer that it’s not about them.

Direct confrontation of high conflict personalities usually triggers defensiveness. Communication strategies can be employed to allow the nervous system to settle down, by de-escalating, employing a strategic tone of voice, planning ahead, demonstrating respect, and using adult time-outs. Acknowledge their concerns, no matter how absurd, and then educate them by pointing out what has been discussed before, or things they may not have considered.

Some emerging research in the area of mirror neurons suggests that emotions such as smiles, sadness and anger are mirrored in other people. By using empathy with high conflict personalities, you may be able to override their responses. You can respond to anger with empathy, sadness with hope, and upset emotions with problem-solving.

The EAR approach:

  • Demonstrate Empathy: —Recognize that it’s easy to become frustrated with their emotional sensitivity & cognitive distortions
  • Pay Attention: —Recognize that it’s easy to get “emotionally hooked” & want to withhold positive responses
  • Display Respect: —Recognize that it’s easy to want revenge and attack or criticize in return

Building on this, the CARS approach:

  • —Connect: Listen closely and respond with Empathy, Attention & Respect (E.A.R.)
  • ——Analyze: Get the Client to make a list of problems/options and choose a task
  • —Respond: Be brief, informative, friendly and firm
  • —Set Limits: Don’t make it personal. Help client deal with policies and procedures. Use indirect confrontations.

Common fears of high conflict personalities include being abandoned, being seen as inferior, being ignored, being dominated, and being taken advantage of. The EAR responses to these fears include I want to help you, I respect your efforts, I’ll pay attention, I’ll listen, Its just rules we all have to follow, I understand this can be frustrating, I’ll work with you on this, and I know this can be confusing.

An example of an EAR statement in practice is as follows:

I can understand your frustration – this is a very important decision in your life. Don’t worry, I will pay full attention to your concerns about this issue and any proposals you want to make. I have a lot of respect for your commitment to solving this problem, and I look forward to solving it too.

The lawyer might feel like doing the exact opposite of this, but approaching the situation in this way will reduce the lawyer’s stress immensely. Eddy’s article on Calming Upset People with EAR helps further illustrate how this can be done in a practice setting.

A lawyer can also educate the client about consequences and options. High conflict personalities don’t know the risks of their behaviours and decisions. A lawyer has to educate them about various legal standards, and the implications of their behaviours, including the response by the bench. Lawyers should encourage settlements from the start of the case when dealing with high conflict personalities.

There are a number of skill sets that can be used to deal with high conflict personalities. Teach the client to make proposals and focus on the future. Turn any complaint or past frustration into a proposal, and when they slip into the past too much or complain too much, respond with an inquiry into what their proposal is to deal with it. They can also be taught to make a new proposal if dissatisfied with any proposals they have received. Eddy’s article, Yes, No, or I’ll Think About It, elaborates further on how to deal with proposals.

Another skill is to teach high conflict clients encouraging statements to hang in there for the duration. Specific coping phrases can help, and they should learn to choose their battles. If vulnerable parties are involved in litigation, it may be useful to impart that emotions are contagious. High conflict emotions are especially contagious, and can lead to alienation more than any other statements. Clients can be asked what they will do to protect their children from their upset emotions during the case.

When dealing with hostile correspondences, employ the BIFF approach:

  • Brief: Keep it brief. Long explanations and arguments can be triggers for high conflict personalities
  • Informative: Focus on straight information, not arguments, opinions, emotions or defending yourself
  • Friendly: Express empathy for concerns and respect their efforts (E.A.R. approach above)
  • Firm: Gently repeat information and close the door to further argument

Eddy’s article, Responding to Hostile Mail (BIFF), elaborates on this further.

If the high conflict personalities are too much for the lawyer to handle, it might make sense to get some professional help. Eddy has launched a new program, New Ways for Families, designed to teach parents going through a high conflict divorce some of the skills needed to reduce the stress and conflict. Although based in San Diego, CA, he currently offers services in Calgary and Medicine Hat, AB.


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