There are certain characteristics of high conflict personalities. Here are some tips I have found to be helpful when mediating with high conflict personalities (HCPs), taken largely from Bill Eddy’s books and lectures.
Tips for Mediating with High Conflict Personalities
- Establish authority for the process so the HCP is clear that you are in charge.
- Rather than ask for opening statements, instead ask for what decisions they want to make. You may also ask for their initial thoughts and questions regarding these decisions. Explain that articulating these will help them make their proposals, which are at the center of the mediation process, so that they can eventually reach agreements.
- Identifying each other’s interests when mediating with high conflict personalities is usually too hard for them. They don’t think in terms of having interests; they just think they are right.
- HCPs often come in ready to argue for one solution. You can reframe their solution as a proposal and let them know that proposals are what eventually lead to agreements.
- Be and sound truly interested in what they have to say. Give them not only your attention, but genuine empathy and respect. Underneath their bluster is often a preoccupation with a fear of abandonment or a fear of being seen as inferior. Therefore, bonding with them and helping them feel safe can calm them down.
- HCPs have cognitive distortions but believe they are true. They can be very persuasive. Maintain a healthy skepticism.
- Exude a sense of calmness and confidence even if they get emotionally reactive or exhibit unhelpful behavior.
- It may help to gently (and without criticism) lower their expectations of the legal process, since they likely believe that a judge will hear them fully, see through the other side and fully agree with them.
- Avoid any appearance of taking sides even though you may find the HCP offensive. Maintain equal respect and recognize positive qualities of both parties.
- Seek mutual agreement on every small step in the process when mediating with high conflict personalities so they buy in all along the way.
- Don’t intentionally open up emotions. Avoid letting HCPs vent. They have great difficulty managing their emotions and a low tolerance for hearing the emotions of others. If they do vent, listen attentively but don’t let it go on too long. Briefly acknowledge their emotions and then focus away from them toward problem solving.
- Avoid criticism or negative feedback directed at the HCP. They will feel compelled to respond and retaliate.
- When mediating with high conflict personalities the process should be all about getting them to make and respond to proposals. You may have to teach them how to do this. Any concern they raise about the past can be turned into a proposal for the future.
- Urge them not to criticize or react against proposals offered. Slow down their responses to help them stay constructively focused on details of the solution. Have them respond to proposals with “yes,” “no,” or “I’ll think about it” or have them ask questions to understand how the proposal would work in practice. If they respond negatively, ask them what they propose.
- If they resist the process, let them know the outcome is completely up to them so as to avoid any impression on their part that you are taking over responsibility for the dispute. It may help to explore possible outcomes of the dispute with them since they often do not connect realistic consequences to their actions.
- Write agreements very specifically with specific consequences for noncompliance. Ask the HCP for input on what the consequences should be.