Wisconsin Interprofessional Divorce Training
Last Thursday I gave a full-day training to over 160 lawyers, mental health professionals, judicial officers and others on Managing High-Conflict Personalities in Divorce. One of the points I emphasized is that Family Courts apply an adversarial process of conflict RESOLUTION, whereas high-conflict personalities have persistent adversarial thinking WITHOUT RESOLUTION. So they get stuck there. In fact, they get very ratcheted up before and after court hearings, return again and again to court (commonly known throughout the country as “frequent filers”), spill their stressed-out emotions onto their children and they often don’t follow court orders anyway.
One of the first things I focused on is that many high-conflict people have personality disorders or traits (especially including borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder), so:
- they lack self-awareness of their part in their problems;
- they generally don’t change on their own; and
- they don’t work in their own self-interest – in fact they work hard against their own self-interest in many cases.
With this in mind, professionals need to let go of criticizing them and attempting to give them insight (forgetaboudit!). Instead, professionals need to focus on educating them about simple choices and the consequences of those choices. Also, teaching small skills in small steps can help, and we spent some time on learning and teaching clients several skills, including “BIFF Responses” to hostile communications: responses that are Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. This is turning out to be our most popular skill for clients and professionals. It’s simple, but takes practice. For more on this, see our book BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People.
I also showed them video clips from the New Ways for Families method, emphasizing how courts can order this diversionary method and significantly reduce the number of high-conflict hearings. By the end of this year we hope to publish some of the preliminary results coming out of two jurisdictions in Alberta, Canada, which are applying and researching the New Ways method. When this method is combined with immediate mediation after the counseling sessions, preliminary results look very promising – helping nearly 90% of cases settle out of court without a judge needing to make their big decisions.
This method focuses on teaching small skills in small steps: Flexible thinking, Managed Emotions, Moderate Behaviors and Checking Yourself! It appears that even people with personality disorders or traits can learn and practice these skills, if given enough repetition, interdisciplinary reinforcement and encouragement. This can even work in cases with domestic violence, because the parties never have to be together, and in alienation case, as both parents are required to do exercises with the children that support their relationships with the other parent.
I also explained the issue of Pattern Analysis with the high conflict cases that will remain in family courts, the other 10% or so of cases that don’t settle. These cases are often riddled with mental health issues, abuse issues and very contradictory information. Some of these cases have two high-conflict parties and some just have one. In either case, it helps to view the big picture of each parties’ patterns of behavior over time – not just arguing about a single event which can be shaded any way either party wants. Instead, I explained the HCI PatternViewer program that has been developed by High Conflict Institute along with a computer service in Seattle, which inputs numerous documents into the program to show patterns of functional and dysfunctional behavior. For more information on this method see: HCI PatternViewer.
The great thing about the Wisconsin seminar is that it was sponsored by an interdisciplinary group (Wisconsin InterProfessional Committee on Divorce – WIPCOD) which was established decades ago, so that they have a lot of experience and established a very positive culture of lawyers, counselors, judges and others working together in the best interests of the children and their parents. For this reason, I think that they would be perfect for establishing a New Ways for Families program, which can really help families stay out of court, while receiving expert assistance at working together from lawyers, counselors and mediators and others.
The next day they had Barbara Jo Fidler from Toronto speaking about Alienation, so that my presentation was a good lead-in to her presentation – especially since New Ways has had some success as a structured method (a “family systems approach”) to address alienation in mild and moderate cases.
Overall, I enjoyed my visit with this strong interdisciplinary group and look forward to future contacts with them!
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, mediator and the President of the High Conflict Institute (HCI). He and other HCI speakers provide trainings in managing high conflict personalities in legal disputes and workplace, healthcare and educational settings. He is the author of several books, including The Future of Family Court: Structure, Skills and Less Stress.The HCI Website is www.HighConflictInstitute.com. The New Ways for Families Website is www.NewWays4Families.com.