Mediating High Conflict Disputes – in Vancouver
© 2013 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
On March 4-5, I gave a training to 35 mediators, lawyers and law enforcement professionals. While I have taught this 2-day training before in Vancouver, there was fresh interest and I have refined it further to emphasize practice activities with high-conflict clients. The theme was engaging high-conflict clients in learning and using positive skills for decision-making, rather than being passive recipients of professional efforts. By engaging them more actively in positive use of skills, their resistance to settlement is lower and their sense of ownership of the outcome is much higher. This addresses their usual resistance in three ways:
It helps them stay away from their common preoccupation with the past, by redirecting them to use skills that focus on the future: setting their agenda, making proposals, responding to proposals and actively discussing the details of final well-written agreements. This is a shift from traditional professional efforts to arm-twist the parties and/or to try to help them resolve the past. As I like to say: “We can’t mediate the past!” While most mediators would say they emphasize the future – the “what to do now” – aspects in mediation, this method emphasizes it much more.
It helps them feel good about their contribution to decision-making, rather than feeling over-shadowed by their brilliant professionals. By learning how to make and respond to proposals, the parties get to feel proud of their final outcome and more engaged in making it work. With the mediator or other professional playing more of a guiding role than arm-twisting role, the parties work harder and feel more invested in the outcome. This is one of the benefits of the saying: “Don’t work harder than your clients.” If professionals work too hard, high-conflict clients become less invested in the final outcome. Of course, this is hard because high-conflict clients generally want to put responsibility for problem-solving on the other party and on professionals, so we need to resist our normal feelings of fight or flight with them and just hang in their providing information and patience while they reach the agreements.
It helps the mediator stay away from their common frustration with the parties, and the temptation to become preoccupied with a certain outcome. As we say: “You’re not responsible for the outcome – just the process.” This helps professionals stay focused on a stronger and more encouraging relationship with the parties, rather than a pressured relationship. The goal for the mediator is to move forward and backward with the clients, as needed (keeping their relationship intact), rather than fighting with them to keep moving forward. It is common for mediators – especially in high conflict cases – to openly show their frustration with the parties, rather than to remain patient with them as they move back and forth in self-defeating directions. Of course, this patience takes practice and we had several practice exercises.
It was a pleasant and inspiring visit, especially seeing the growing role of mediators in family law cases with the new Family Law Act of British Columbia. This Act places much stronger emphasis on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods – especially mediation – as it should. Families (especially high-conflict families) are much better served if they can stay out of the adversarial process of court (which reinforces their high-conflict thinking rather than reducing it). And I always enjoy Vancouver - meeting people, eating in great restaurants and walking along the waterfront and around Stanley Park.
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.