If any of you are like me, at some point in your life you will have come across a very difficult person (likely, more than one!). You know, the kind that doesn’t seem to respond to typical/traditional/common sense approaches to conflict resolution and problem solving. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try to practice your open-ended questions, your active listening and your interest-based conflict resolution skills, the situation seems to deteriorate inexplicably.
I have a family member like this. And he can be extremely hard to deal with. A small misunderstanding can escalate out of control before you even realize what has happened. There’s a tirade of blame, accusation and sometimes even yelling. He seems completely irrational and incapable of looking at his own behaviour, demonstrating very little (if any) self-awareness or even interest in self-reflection. Attempts at problem solving and talking things through seem to only make things worse. Everyone around him walks on eggshells. All. The. Time.
Occasionally, I also come across people that demonstrate this kind of behaviour in my work as a mediator. Bill Eddy calls this “high conflict behaviour”. And it’s a very real factor, he says, in about 10% of the population.
Earlier this week, I mediated what would surely be considered a high conflict divorce. The situation was exceptionally challenging because both parties seemed to be exhibiting high conflict behaviour (and have been throughout our engagement with them over the past year and a half). To say they struggle to listen to one another is an understatement of behemoth proportion. Their conversations are characterized by fiery blame and unwavering intransigence. People like this don’t only create difficulties at home, of course. They can and do cause immeasurable problems and pain in the workplace. When we receive referrals that involve individuals like this, we need to adapt our approach.
Last week, I attended the annual conference of the ADR Institute of Canada where I heard Bill Eddy and his colleague Michael Lomax talk about the dynamics and traits of high conflict individuals, how to identify them and how to effectively manage the challenging dynamics.
Characteristics of High Conflict Behaviour:
- Preoccupation with blaming others
- All or nothing thinking and solutions
- Unmanaged emotions that can take over
- Extreme behaviours or threats (things that 90% of the population would never do)
People exhibiting high conflict behaviours require us to adapt our approach to conflict resolution. The models and tools that work with 90% of people simply will not work with these folks. In fact, our typical conflict resolution and mediation models (e.g. interest-based approaches, working at building understanding about the past, etc.) can serve to cause further harm.
Bill Eddy talked about four “Forget-About-Its”:
- Forget about helping them get insight into their behaviour. They won’t get it anyway and it will just hurt your relationship. Shift the focus to education and choices.
- Forget about trying to work through the past. It only entrenches the situation further (think: drug addict getting a fix). Shift the focus of the conversation to the future.
- Forget about engaging in a discussion that you expect will evoke a strong emotional response. These folks can’t easily come back from emotional escalation due to strong/unmanaged feelings like anger or sadness.
- Forget about telling them they are exhibiting high conflict behaviour. This is totally counterproductive (see #1 above).
One way to work at deescalation and helping the person refocus is to use EAR statements, Eddy says. This is like a paraphrase that demonstrates listening through communicating 3 key components:
Empathy (e.g. I can see how incredibly frustrating this is for you…)
Attention (e.g. Tell me what’s going on…)
Respect (e.g. I respect your commitment to…)
The best way forward is to keep the conversation highly structured. Focus on education and providing choices.
And perhaps most importantly, the goal and focus of the process needs to be on your relationship (i.e. you and the “high conflict” individual) – not on the outcome or solution. The reality is, if you can build and maintain a strong relationship, any outcomes are invariably more positive.
For further insight and resources on high conflict behaviours, visit the High Conflict Institute.
If you are struggling with managing a situation involving high conflict behaviours, call us. We can help.