High Conflict Mediation Training in Victoria, BC

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Last week I had the opportunity to train 35 mediators, lawyers, counselors and workplace professionals in mediating high-conflict disputes in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. It was very rewarding to work with such an experienced and interested group. The theme of the two days was finding ways to engage one or two high-conflict people (HCPs) in helping resolve their own disputes. It is clear that HCPs need to learn skills to participate in effective decision-making. Up to now, many professionals (mediators, lawyers, judges and others) have tried hard to get HCPs to reach agreements quickly, so they can be done with them. But then the HCPs simply sabotage their own agreements. So instead, we discussed ways of putting the responsibility back on the clients to take a stronger role, by:

  • Managing their own emotions during the mediation – by avoiding taking things personally. (“The other person’s verbal attacks are not about you – they’re about the other person’s inability to manage their own emotions.”)

  • Helping clients make proposals – in many cases to make two proposals for solving any problem. Any criticism, blaming, frustration, etc. can simply be turned into a proposal.

  • Helping clients respond to proposals, with Yes, No or I’ll Think About It. This avoids getting into arguments about the wisdom (or lack of) of the other person’s particular proposals.

For mediators, this means constantly remaining vigilant to avoid doing too much of the work for the clients.
This is a common problem with high-conflict clients (HCPs). They either don’t have the skills or the confidence to focus on solving problems. Instead, they unconsciously try to shift responsibility for their own behavior and decisions onto the mediator. They may get angry or sad, in an effort to get the mediator to do the decision-making for them. But then they blame the mediator for doing it wrong.

One of the most popular points of the workshop was the ways to reduce the mediators’ frustration and anxiety in dealing with high-conflict clients. We made a list of reminders, including:

  • Don’t work harder than your clients – or your high-conflict clients won’t work on their part of the problem.

  • You’re not responsible for the outcome – just the process.

  • The issue’s not the issue – the personalities are the issue, so the relationship with the clients is your focus.

  • Telling clients “You have a dilemma” when new problems arise, and educating them about their options rather than trying to direct the clients in how to resolve these new problems.

  • Many HCPs CAN reach realistic and lasting agreements – it just takes longer, sometimes three times as long.

  • Treat HCPs at all times with Empathy, Attention and Respect – and they will often calm down and become productive problem-solvers.

As I said, it was a very experienced group, which meant that I also learned a lot and enjoyed our collaborations in discussing ways to help our clients. I am more convinced than ever that mediation can be highly effective for high-conflict clients, if we use the right skills – and teach them some simple skills – in the process.

Mediation isn’t just an alternative to court – it should be the main method for resolving disputes – especially with high-conflict people. The techniques we discussed can offer them a chance to be effective problem solvers, rather than getting stuck in endless attack-and-defend battles in court over issues that are more about their personalities than the law.

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.