On Mediation


October 7, 2003


Are high conflict personalities costing you time and money?

People with high conflict personalities blame others for their own problems and take little responsibility themselves. They are constantly involved in interpersonal conflicts and increasingly at the center of high conflict business disputes and litigation.

You are probably familiar with a few people whose lives are dominated by: all-or-nothing thinking; jumping to conclusions; taking things too personally; intense emotions over minor issues; distorted perceptions of events and intentions; inability to consider alternatives or consider compromise; repeatedly behaving in an impulsive, deceitful or manipulative manner; and endlessly seeking vindication.

As a family law attorney and Superior Court Mediator (with prior experience as a therapist), I have observed that high conflict cases are usually driven by those with traits similar to four personality disorders identified in the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DMS-IV).

  • Borderline (more often women): Marked by extreme mood swings, anger and manipulative behavior, and a preoccupation with feeling abandoned.

  • Narcissistic (more often men): Involves an extreme preoccupation with the self, a disdain for others and a need to be seen as superior.

  • Histrionic: Noted for constant high drama and a need to be the center of attention.

  • Antisocial: Includes an extreme disregard for the rules of society, a lack of remorse, a drive to dominate control others and a smooth ability to con others into getting what they want.

    Researchers say about 10 percent of the general population has a personality disorder; another 10 percent or so exhibit milder traits of these. Surprisingly, people with these personalities often look like victims of other's misconduct, when in fact they -- in constant distress -- are the cause themselves.

    At first they may appear normal, often charming, intelligent and persuasive. It is not until you see them in a crisis or over time that their disorder or traits emerge with a blast of rage, self-destructive behavior or interpersonal blaming. They can be successful at work for a while, but their blaming and intense emotions often sabotage their efforts at long-term success. They can be effective at convincing others they are victims, and many people are fooled by them until the full story comes out -- if ever.

    How do you protect yourself against the rage, blame and allegations of a high conflict personality? Four areas appear to be important.

  • Bonding: Establish a consistent, arms-length relationship with the person. Avoid raising unrealistic expectations of yourself, your product or your working relationship. Many people with high conflict personalities sue businesses and professionals after they develop unrealistically high expectations, followed by disappointing reality. Those with personality disorders or traits project fantasies and expectations on you that you may never know.

  • Structure: Don't violate your own boundaries and do unreasonable favors for the person. It is easy to get hooked and develop a seemingly close relationship in their eyes that is more than a business relationship. On the other hand, avoid being too rejecting or angry toward the person. If you have to let them down, do it slowly and gently. It helps to have a dispute resolution structure and procedure that is perceived as fair and reasonable.

  • Reality-testing: Do not believe everything you hear, especially about how the person is a victim. Gather information from many sources before reaching conclusions. "What's your part in this problem?" is a good question to ask when confronted with complaints against others. Sometimes you can improve the situation by joining with them in gathering information and jointly trying to solve the problem.

  • Consequences: Lectures and anger have little impact on high conflict personalities. Sometimes these escalate the problem, when the person becomes defensive and wants to prove you wrong. Financial and legal consequences generally get their attention, and may cause them to change a behavior even when they do not believe they were wrong.

    How do you resolve their high conflict disputes? Some considerations:

  • Mediation: This approach focuses on solutions and avoids the high conflict person's preoccupation with blame and past issues. It can shift them from emotional escalation to joint problem solving. It is generally worth a try, before allowing the case to land in the adversarial court environment, where high conflict personalities seem to be most effective at delaying resolution -- sometimes for years -- and escalating costs.

  • Positive advocates: In high conflict cases, ordinary mediation between the parties may not be sufficient. It may be necessary to bring in positive advocates, maybe a friend, family member, co-worker, attorney, therapist or another who can assist in resolving the dispute. They can be helpful by taking breaks with the person, doing reality-testing and presenting bad news in a way that could not be heard from the other party or even a mediator.

  • Avoid being a negative advocate: The chief reason a dispute escalates into high conflict is because there is at least one other person "advocating" for the high conflict person's misperceptions and misconduct. Do not be fooled. Intense emotions deserve empathy and understanding, but may be based on inaccurate information. Avoid picking up the fight for a "victim" that is actually the primary cause of their own problems. Avoid joining in blaming someone who may not be at fault.

    Today's high conflict disputes can be resolved. However, they require looking beneath surface issues, and understanding and handling the personalities involved.

    Eddy, LCSW, Esq., is a mediator with the San Diego Mediation Center, and the author of "High Conflict Personalities: Understanding and Resolving Their Costly Disputes" and "Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissist." He can be reached at william.eddy@sddt.com.


    October 7, 2003