High Conflict Mediation in New York

NYSCDM Conf.psLast week I gave a training to over 60 mediators at the New York State Council on Divorce Mediation. Since I had all day, I was able to talk about the brain and also focus on practicing several techniques for managing high conflict mediation. I told them about the two types of conflict resolution that seem brain-based: Logical and highly defensive. Many people with personality disorders, especially borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder, appear to have a much harder time calming themselves and moving into problem solving – they seem stuck in high conflict thinking and behavior. So it becomes part of the mediator’s job to learn statements that will calm these clients enough to engage in more logical problem solving – something they are fully capable of when they are not upset. Of course I talked about E.A.R. Statements. (If you’ve been reading this blog and haven’t heard of E.A.R. Statements, look up the article on our website titled: Calming Upset People with E.A.R. – it really seems to work over 90% of the time.)

But mostly I focused on the four-part structure I have been using for managing high conflict cases. It may seem overly structured, but it seems to be what is necessary to avoid the unrestrained anger and blaming of some high conflict clients. It’s easier to start out structured and loosen the process later on, than it is to go the other way.

By focusing on structure, you can accomplish several things:

1.  You help the parties restrain themselves from blurting out hostile statements, because the structure doesn’t allow unrestrained comments. Instead it focuses on very narrow tasks in each of the four steps.

2.  You help protect the parties from each other’s verbal attacks, because there are no openings for attacking behavior. This is because we don’t open up discussions of the past, how people “feel” about various subjects, nor allow debates over the “facts” of the case. These three openings are where most mediators run into trouble with high conflict clients, because they don’t realize that the clients can’t restrain themselves once they start talking about the past, talking about “feelings” and arguing about the “facts.” Instead, the structure focuses on the future and making proposals.

3.  You give the parties hope, because they see that you are confident that using this highly-structured approach can help them actually address difficult topics in a new way than they have been used to. I like to emphasize that it’s like jumping into the shallow end of the pool while we learn how to swim.

The principles of this structured method are based on the idea that high-conflict people don’t need more self-expression; they need more self-restraint. If you help them restrain themselves from their usual blaming and extreme comments, then they can focus on actual logical problem-solving – and reach agreements given the circumstances of their case.

Overall, I believe that mediation can handle most high-conflict cases, including those that many people have traditionally thought had to go to court. If mediators can learn to manage these cases, they can really benefit the children and families. We know that court just makes high conflict people behave even worse afterwards. From my experience with the experienced divorce mediators of New York, I am very hopeful that mediation will make great strides in helping even the most difficult families in the coming years ahead.

I also want to mention that the beautiful and peaceful Saratoga Springs location, and their friendly family mediators, would help almost anyone reach agreement on almost any issue! I really enjoyed my brief visit there and look forward to future visits.


Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and a professional family mediator – as well as a clinical social worker and a lawyer. He is the author of High Conflict People in Legal Disputes, which contains many suggestions for providing mediation services to people who may have a personality disorder or are dealing with such a person in a legal dispute. He also provides trainings to professionals dealing with “high-conflict” workplace, healthcare and educational disputes around the world. His website is www.HighConflictInstitute.com.