Vancouver High-Conflict Mediation Training

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Thursday and Friday (March 30 and 31, 2012) I gave a 2-day training to 34 experienced family mediators, police officers and other professionals – who regularly deal with high conflict clients in mediation. It was similar to the training that I had done two weeks earlier in Victoria, BC. I built on the concept of putting more responsibility on the clients, whether “high conflict” or a person dealing with a high conflict person. However, in this training I presented for the first time a specific structure for helping clients with their responsibilities in mediation: “Pre-Mediation Coaching: 3 Skills for Clients.” We spent one morning focused on exercises for this Pre-Mediation Coaching. I did a demonstration of how I envision this coaching process going in a meeting with each individual client a day or two (or even an hour or two) before the joint mediation session would occur. I received a lot of good questions and comments about the process, which can actually be very brief (10 minutes) or ideally a full hour. Then the participants had an opportunity to role-play this method in the morning.

In the second afternoon, they did role-play mediations with the same “clients” they had coached in the morning. The feedback and questions indicated that pre-mediation coaching had several positive benefits:

  • The clients clearly knew that they were responsible for coming up with solutions.

  • The clients participated more by making proposals that they had thought about beforehand.

  • The clients felt calmer in the process, because they knew more about what to expect and they had learned methods of calming themselves during the process.

Of course, there were questions about this process: Will it really change how a high-conflict person behaves? I explained that these skills are unlikely to be used outside of the mediation sessions by high-conflict clients, but that clients can be reminded to use them in the session and they generally do – with more or less prompting. I have been using this approach in regard to making proposals for several years in my divorce mediations and clients have been able to focus on using this skill during the sessions – even high conflict clients. In fact, they ask each other “What do you propose?” after a while on their own in the sessions. It actually makes it easier for them to be productive in the mediation process.

Other questions were: What about analyzing the underlying facts? What about finding out their interests during the mediation process?

The reality that mediators face in high conflict cases is that focusing on the “facts” in great detail tends to push the parties farther apart, as high-conflict clients (could be one or both in the dispute) do not usually agree on the underlying facts. Rather than informing the search for solutions, a focusing too much on facts increases arguing and decreases working on positive future behavior and cooperation. Common comments are: “That’s not what happened!”  “He’s lying!” “She’s trying to manipulate you by blaming me for this problem.” And so on. Likewise, digging deep to help the parties understand each other’s interests triggers similar conflict and misunderstanding. While it is helpful at times to help them identify some of  their interests in finding a solution, focusing too much on analyzing the problem brings out frustration for high conflict people, because they often feel too defensive to look at their own needs and the other person’s needs.

So I believe that the focus needs to be on the future and making proposals. The parties know their case better than I do, so that they include their knowledge in making new proposals. I never need to know what really happened, since I wasn’t there and they don’t agree anyway. We can’t change the past and rarely agree about the past, so all we need to do is to make agreements about the future.

I found the Vancouver training with these experienced mediators to be a great learning experience for me, as well as very inspiring and hopeful. As we all learn together, I believe that we can resolve many high conflict disputes in mediation – and perhaps give clients skills they can use in resolving some future disputes on their own as well.

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.