Federal Executive Board Workplace Training
On June 12 – 14, I provided a training for managers and mediators of several departments of the federal government, in Long Beach , California. The training addressed dealing with high conflict personalities in the workplace, which has become a more urgent problem with the “sequestration” budget cuts that are laying off many employees in federal government agencies.
I emphasized the C.A.R.S. Method for handling employees who are violating rules and diverting a lot of attention. This method includes four basic areas, which are especially relevant for handling those with “high conflict personalities:”
CONNECTING with Empathy, Attention and Respect. This helps calm any upset person, so that they can focus on tasks, problem-solving and possible change of future behavior. By giving EAR Statements, a manager or employee can deal with someone on a more friendly basis, rather than increasing their upset behavior. A calm tone of voice and open body language tends to help “high-conflict” people feel less threatened and more willing to address problems.
ANALYZING options and proposals. By analyzing, it helps a high-conflict person (or anyone) to focus in their problems in a constructive way. By asking the manager or employee how they see the problem and what they would propose for solving it, it helps keep them away from defensive thinking and reacting. Often they have a better idea of what some constructive solutions might be – and they feel good contributing to the solution rather than just appearing to be a problem themselves.
RESPONDING to misinformation or hostility. High conflict people tend to have a lot of “cognitive distortions,” which include: all-or-nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, personalizing events that have little or no connection to them, etc. One system of responding is our BIFF Response method: Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. For more about this method, see our book BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People. It can also help to reinforce the high conflict person’s responsibility to help solve the problem. They often present complicated problems with no apparent solution. In this case, managers (and sometimes employees) can simply say: “You have a dilemma! How do you want to resolve this.” You can give them some suggestions to choose from based on your experience.
SETTING LIMITS on inappropriate behavior. This is a common problem with high conflict people in the workplace. They tend to push the boundaries, much as children push the limits to see how far they can go. With high conflict people, managers (and employees) need to set limits much earlier. You can focus on policies and rules that need to be followed, rather than letting it become too personal. Explaining choices and consequences can be very helpful here, as many high conflict people are focused on the present moment and don’t think about what could happen to them (or their pocketbook) if they keep the conflict going. And managers can set limits by giving EAR statements and focusing on future behavior: “Unfortunately, you cannot do such-and-such behavior here, but how I CAN help you today is to do this new task with you.”
Using these kinds of techniques from the C.A.R.S. method, a supervisor can manage a wayward employee more effectively and positively. Also, using this same approach, an employee can “manage” their supervisor. (See article on our website: “Managing Your Narcissistic Boss”)
I also spent one day training several of these participants for providing high conflict mediation. This involves some similar skills to the C.A.R.S. Method, but has been organized in a new way which I call New Ways for Mediation. This is a highly structured method which more strongly focuses on the future, having the parties make proposals, and not allowing very much emphasis on story-telling about the past.
While some mediators will be aghast at the idea of limiting story-telling, there are two reasons for this:
1) They don’t really get their story off their chest, as high conflict people don’t tend to grieve and heal past negative experiences. More often, they are simply distracted from their upset emotions. An effective mediator can distract them in a more positive direction.
2) By not allowing much (if any) storytelling, the mediator can more effectively help the parties in making proposals about the future. When high conflict people steer the conversation to their complaints about the past, they become stuck in the past. By focusing mostly on the future, and limiting discussion of the past, they are actually more able to resolve their disputes.
Overall, the federal managers and mediators seemed to find these methods very helpful. I look forward to more opportunities to give these concepts and skills to people in the various federal agencies. The more people that understand high conflict thinking, the more successful we will all be at reducing high conflict behavior.
Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute, and an attorney, therapist and mediator. He has provided workplace trainings to several government agencies including the Social Security Administration, U.S. National Merit Protection System Board, San Diego Navy Medical Center, San Diego District Attorney’s Office, the State Services Authority in Melbourne Australia and other organizations. He is the author of several books, including It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything and High Conflict People in Legal Disputes. The website for High Conflict Institute is: www.HighConflictInstitute.com.