Can You Coach High Conflict People to Change?
© 2015 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and L. Georgi DiStefano, LCSW
The answer, of course, is “it depends.” This article explains some of the factors that have helped people with personality disorders change, which have influenced the development of our New Ways for WorkSM Coaching method, as well as High Conflict Institute’s New Ways for Families® and New Ways for MediationSM methods.
High Conflict People
High Conflict People (HCPs) have a repeated pattern of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors and a preoccupation with blaming others. Because of this pattern, they often increase conflicts, lack insight into their own contribution to the conflict and therefore don’t make any efforts to change their own behavior. Many HCPs also have personality disorders, but many do not (although they may have some traits of these disorders). Perhaps half of people with personality disorders tend to become HCPs, especially some with narcissistic, borderline, antisocial, histrionic or paranoid personality disorders (but not all – some aren’t preoccupied with blaming others).
HCPs can be extremely smart, average or of low intelligence – the full range. They can also be in any level of an organization: from barely able to function, up to managers, and even CEOs in some cases. Their difficulties are primarily in close relationships and often come out over time or during a crisis (which may be self-generated).
Since personality patterns are generally hard to change for anyone, and high-conflict personalities are especially resistant to change by definition, it would appear hopeless to get HCPs to change their behavior. However, we are seeing some hopeful signs, based on the methods used.
Some types of therapy methods are having researched-based success, which indicate that HCPs are able to change in some cases.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies (CBT): These types of therapies focus on helping clients examine their own thinking and challenging their own “automatic negative thoughts” with more realistic positive thoughts. There are written exercises which clients learn to use on their own, so that they can improve their thinking – and therefore how they feel – whenever and wherever they are. These “cognitive” methods have been successful in helping clients overcome depression, anxiety, and have been applied to personality disorders with mixed success. They also involve examining and practicing changes in behavior.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): This specific method was developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD, approximately twenty years ago for treating borderline personality disorder and it has been thoroughly researched for years. It emphasizes teaching clients skills for self-management, including: distress tolerance, seeing things as not all-or-nothing, managing emotional responses, using one’s “wise mind” in decision-making, etc. Clients attend skills-training group therapy, as well as individual therapy. But the focus is on present behavior, rather than feelings about the past. With DBT and other improved therapies for borderline personality disorder, many people no longer even meet the criteria for the diagnosis after several years of treatment (Cloud, J. The Mystery of Borderline Personality Disorder, TIME Magazine, January 8, 2009).
Parent-Child Interactive Therapy (PCIT): This is a method also developed about twenty years ago for teaching abusive parents to change to positive parenting behaviors. It involves focusing on learning specific parenting skills in small steps with lots of encouragement and repetition with the therapist. It also focuses on having parent and child interact in learning the skills, rather than being in individual counseling.
Training Principles of New Ways Methods
New Ways for Families was developed by one of us (Bill) in 2009, after seeing the need for family courts to address the different cognitive and behavioral problems of high-conflict families in divorce and separation cases. After three years of researched-use of this method in two family court jurisdictions in Canada, we are seeing the success of the training principles involved. (See the SROI Executive Summary at www.NewWays4Families.com.) In 2013, Bill developed New Ways for Mediation, which emphasizes small and simple skills for clients to use during mediation.
In 2014, we (Bill and Georgi) developed the New Ways for Work Coaching method. Based on our shared experience as therapists with cognitive-behavioral techniques, we wrote a detailed coaching manual and workbook designed for 3 to 12 individual coaching sessions. The key lessons presented and reinforced are:
Flexible thinking (such as making lists, making proposals, analyzing options, etc.)
Managed emotions (various ways to calm oneself and prepare for difficult conversations)
Moderate behaviors (such as writing emails/letters that are brief, informative, friendly, firm)
Checking yourself (regularly checking if you are using other skills, reflecting on own behavior)
Focus on future desired behavior, rather than past mistakes. (Feed-forward, not feedback)
Forget about giving them insight into their own behavior patterns (just fuhgedaboudit!)
Focus on learning small skills in small steps.
Use lots of encouragement and repetition.
Use writing exercises.
Discuss and practice the skills with a trained coach.
Keep it simple and totally positive.
These lessons help employees in trouble at work for potentially high-conflict behavior to take the edge off so that they can still benefit the organization in many ways. They also assist employees who want to advance in their careers (such as becoming a manager) and who want to strengthen conflict resolution skills by preparing to deal with high-conflict situations by practicing with a coach.
You can see that the basic principles underlying this new ways coaching approach apply cognitive-behavioral methods to a workplace environment, which Employee Assistance Professionals and workplace coaches can easily use:
Ironically, these training principles are a huge paradigm shift from common practice in the workplace, which includes much of the opposite approach: Focusing too much on past behavior; trying too hard to motivate change through criticism; making threats to motivate people; expressing frustration, anger, disrespect and other negative emotions at high-conflict people; discussing issues in vague, general terms without making specific plans for new behaviors; expecting (demanding) major behavior changes in short periods of time; while avoiding appropriate consequences for behavior and instead pressing people for insight and self-reflection. In short, much of our current culture teaches blame and shame, rather than new skills.
The Importance of Personality
Approximately 15% of the general United States population meets the criteria of a personality disorder (American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, 2013). In our book It’s All Your Fault at Work: Managing Narcissists and Other High-Conflict Personalities, we decided to talk openly about personality disorders in the workplace and the need to deal with them differently. (We do not talk about personality disorders in New Ways for Work, to keep it totally positive.) Personality disorders are often a hidden mental health problem, so that average employees and managers think they are dealing with logical people behaving badly – rather than people who lack self-management skills – and get into power struggles or worse with them. Or they see them as hopeless and don’t consider that the right approach might help them become manageable.
The goal of New Ways for Work coaching is not to change people’s personalities. Instead it’s to train employees in some very basic conflict resolution skills, which can help take the rough edges off of their personalities in order to get along better at work. We believe that many HCPs are and can be significant contributors in the workplace, if they can be trained to manage their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors at work. This method won’t work with everyone. Some personalities are too rigid to change, even using the principles we have applied in this Workbook-based method. But we have seen people change behavior from good training in the four interpersonal skills we teach: flexible thinking, managed emotions, moderate behaviors and checking themselves. We have both worked with personality-disordered clients in psychiatric hospitals and outpatient treatment, as well as in legal disputes and workplace settings. We believe, with proper professional training, that coaches can assist workplace clients to change in many cases.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.
L. Georgi DiStefano is a best-selling author, international speaker, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and the recipient the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Social Workers San Diego chapter. She has extensive experience in the management of substance abuse programs and employee assistance programs, as well as workplace conflict resolution.