Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Early in my career as a family lawyer and mediator (after 12 years as a therapist), I realized that many of my “high-conflict” cases involved one or two parties with mental health problems, especially traits of personality disorders. I was trained in diagnosing and treating personality disorders in 1980, when the DSM-III came out and when I was in training as a child and family therapist. Working with personality disorders at our local psychiatric hospital was a roller coaster, as I worked hard to solve their problems as a social worker: where to live after a psychiatric hospitalization; talking their employer into keeping them on the job with extra structure; and helping them deal with spouses and children who didn’t really want to see them again.
Thus, when I became a family lawyer, to my surprise I realized I was dealing with the same types of clients, but in legal settings where no one else understood their problems, so that they often made things worse. I already knew several things that did not work: trying to use logic to get them to change their behavior; trying to give them constructive criticism; and doing all the work for them. Yet I saw lawyers, judges, mediators and even counselors involved in the high-conflict cases making the same mistakes over and over again. So I started writing books about how high-conflict clients were different and new ways to work with them. Here are some of my conclusions, in brief:
High-conflict clients tend to have traits of personality disorders, so that:
- They lack self-awareness of their part in interpersonal problems.
- They don’t change their basic behavior, even when it has negative consequences.
- They are preoccupied with blaming others for their own problems.
These are givens about personality disorders and you can’t just talk them out of these rigid patterns of behavior. But you can still help them solve problems, take more responsibility and get credit for success. I will be talking about all of this on Saturday, April 8 for the LA-CAMFT chapter. In the meantime, here is one of the techniques I developed to help them, which any counselor or mediator can easily use:
A 3-Step Process for Proposals
When conflicts arise between any two people, whether they are in a couple relationship, dealing with their children or handling a dispute at work, they can address the issues with these three steps:
One person makes a proposal. This generally involves suggesting WHO will do WHAT, WHERE and WHEN. This shouldn’t be complicated; just think of it as making a suggestion. If people have been arguing about the past, just shift over to problem solving by asking: So, what’s your proposal?
This gets them thinking, rather than just reacting with attack-and-defend comments back and forth. It also helps the counselor, lawyer, mediator, parent or whoever, avoid criticizing what they have been doing. Just interrupt the arguing about the past by saying: “I’ll never know what happened. So let’s focus on the future. So, what do you propose you do now?”
While I use this approach now throughout my mediations (especially divorce mediations when people bicker a lot), you can use this approach in couples counseling and parent-child counseling (if the child is old enough). It simplifies things for high-conflict people, but also can be used with any client.
This approach can also be used when a high-conflict person is angry with you as a professional. Rather than arguing with them or trying to get them to see that their behavior is self-defeating (which it often is), shift the discussion to future problem-solving by saying: “What do you suggest for solving this problem?”
Those therapists who are coaching managers or employees in the workplace can teach their clients to take the same approach. When a conflict arises, teach the client to make a proposal or to ask the other person to make a proposal. This is especially appealing to EAPs as a technique to teach their clients.
Then, the other person has to ask at least two questions about the proposal before they can respond. Common questions are:
“When would we start that plan? What would my part look like? Can that plan be revised as we go along?
I discourage “Why” questions, because they are usually criticisms, like: “Why did you think I would ever agree with that?” Or: “Why didn’t you make that proposal a year ago—we could have saved a lot of money?”
By focusing on asking questions, before responding, it shifts the person and the conversation away from defensiveness and toward problem-solving. Once people are taught this simple method, it gets easier and easier to ask questions rather than to just react. But as a counselor or mediator, you have to tightly control this part of the conversation. Otherwise, the people immediately go into attack-and-defend mode, by attacking the proposal instead of asking questions about it.
To role-model this approach, the counselor or mediator can also ask questions. “What time do the children usually get out of school that day? Where would the pickup take place? What would you do if there was no school on that day?” This helps the clients see how questions can be asked, and it gets the proposer busy talking about the details, rather than defending their proposal.
Then, after questions have been asked and answered, the responder should say one of three choices: “Yes.” “No.” Or: “I’ll think about it.”
By telling them ahead of time that these are the choices for a response (and the only choices), it will help them stay focused on making their decision, rather than over-reacting emotionally.
If it’s “Yes,” then the details of their agreement can be discussed and even written down, depending on the situation.
If it’s “I’ll think about it,” that is fine. Especially for heated issues, this helps slow things down so that they can be less defensive when they make their decision. It also helps them avoid looking like they are caving in to the other person’s proposal. However, the counselor or mediator needs to ask how long the person needs to think about it.
If it’s “No,” then the person saying No will need to make the next proposal. That way one person can’t just say No all the time without proposing their own solutions. It forces them to think rather than to just react.
Repeat and Repeat:
These three steps can be repeated and repeated until their proposals come to an agreement. If there is no agreement (which is common in heated situations), then you can ask them more questions and help them keep making more agreeable proposals. If necessary, ask them who they could talk to in order to get more information or new ideas for making new proposals.
If they seem really stuck, you can write down on a notepad or on a white board what seems “most important” to each of them, to help them clarify the issues. Then, looking at what’s most important to each, ask them to think of new proposals that will satisfy both lists. This continues the idea that this is a search for solutions, rather than an attack-and-defend conversation that just leaves everyone upset.
I have found this structured proposal approach to work very well in a wide variety of settings. What’s important is that it is simple, so that people can do this even when they are distracted by upsetting emotions. It can actually shift their thinking away from their upset feelings and into problem solving. This approach can be used with anyone, anywhere. It simplifies things and gets right to the solution, rather than becoming stuck just talking about the problems. This especially works with people going through high-conflict divorces, when many decisions need to be made, but people (especially parents) are having a hard time. This makes it emotionally safer, because they don’t have to defend their past behavior. It makes it more productive, because they only have to think about what to do going forward. And when there’s an agreement, they get the credit!
Bill Eddy is a therapist (LCSW), attorney (Certified Family Law Specialist) and family mediator. He is also the President of the High Conflict Institute, and a Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center, both based on San Diego. He is the developer of the New Ways for Families method for separation and divorce. He is the author of several books, including So, What’s Your Proposal? Shifting High-Conflict People from Blaming to Problem-Solving in 30 Seconds. www.HighConflictInstitute.com.