Bill Eddy, an author, lawyer, mediator and therapist, who specializes in dealing with high-conflict cases and high-conflict personalities, has written a new book, 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life. Bill sent me an advance review copy a few months ago, and I invited him to do this e-interview. The techniques he describes are directly relevant to interacting with someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and other personality disorders.
SBP: For readers who may not be familiar with the term, can you explain what you mean by a high-conflict personality, or HCP?
BE: Based on my observations over 20 years of dealing with legal disputes, workplace disputes, family disputes and neighbor disputes, the individuals who stayed stuck in conflict (or who increased conflicts) are those with a narrow pattern of the following four characteristics:
- A Preoccupation with blaming others
- All-or-nothing thinking and solutions
- Unmanaged emotions
- Extreme behaviors (I define that as behaviors 90% of people would never do)
I’ve come to call people who show those four characteristics “high conflict personalities,” or HCPs for short.
SBP: Those four characteristics will probably sound familiar to readers with a borderline parent. Can you talk about the overlap between high-conflict personalities and personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and/or histrionic personality disorder (HPD)?
I’ve worked with people with personality disorders (PD) since the 1980s in psychiatric hospitals and outpatient clinics. The two key characteristics for them are: 1) truly not reflecting on their own behavior and, therefore, 2) not changing their behavior. So when an HCP and a PD overlap, when they feel emotionally threatened, hurt or wronged, they tend to focus on a target of blame. They remain stuck in blaming that person for everything and don’t look at their own part in the problem or try to change anything to make the situation better.
So those HCPs with BPD, in some situations they focus all their frustration, rage and desire for revenge on a specific person and are often willing to drag them into court, publicly humiliate them by spreading rumors over the internet and possibly even use violence to break their possessions or physically harm them.
Those HCPs with NPD often publicly put their targets of blame down to put themselves up. They can be insulting and demeaning, without empathy. Those HCPs with HPD may make up stories in public and spread rumors about their targets of blame, and be very dramatic about it.
SBP: You’ve been working with HCPs and their targets of blame for a long time, and you’ve written several books. What prompted this particular book, and why now?
After 30 years as a therapist and as a lawyer and mediator, I have seen so many people trying to get out of relationships with high-conflict people, that I wanted to write a book that would warn them before they got into these relationships—romantic, at work or in general. It’s especially important now, because our culture of blame seems to be increasing and filtering down to the smallest levels of conflict. I believe that the number of high-conflict people are increasing in society, so others need to start learning the skills now to identify them, avoid intense relationships with them and deal with them effectively if they are in relationships with them—such as in their families, at work, in their communities or other settings.
SBP: What’s the most common question you get about HCPs? What’s the hardest thing for others, including targets of blame, to understand about their interactions with high-conflict personalities?
The answer to both of these questions is the same thing. The most common question I get is “Don’t they know what they’re doing? Can’t they see the harm they’re doing to others and themselves?”
And the answer is basically NO. And this is the hardest thing for targets of blame to understand. HCPs lack self-awareness and therefore don’t change, so they defend their bad behavior as “normal and necessary” for the situation.
So in dealing with them, you need to forget about trying to give them insight into their own behavior, and instead focus on what to do now going into the future. If you focus on the past, you will just get stuck with them, like in quicksand, because they can be so defensive about their past behavior.
Instead, it helps to use the CARS Method® that I describe in the book (and I explain below).
SBP: Your background is a bit unusual – you’re both a therapist and an attorney, and you co-founded and now lead the High Conflict Institute. Can you talk about your career path and how practicing those two professions helped you learn to identify, and gain insights into, HCP thinking and behavior?
I got into this focus on high-conflict behavior accidently. I was working as a therapist, mostly with couples and families in which there was a substance abuse problem. I also volunteered at a community mediation center helping neighbors and others resolve their disputes. I liked how counseling-types of methods seemed to help resolve these disputes better than going to court. I especially saw how divorcing couples could benefit from divorce mediation, rather than fighting in court. So I went to law school after a dozen years as a therapist, and set up my law practice to focus on both family law in court and divorce mediation out of court.
In the process of switching from therapy to law, I noticed that the cases I dealt with in mediation had the same issues as the cases that went to court: parenting plans, child support, property division, etc. But what made the difference between which family went to court and which family settled everything in mediation was the personalities of the parents – not the legal issues.
Since I had a dozen years as a therapist, I recognized that the “high-conflict” families – the ones who headed to court because they couldn’t settle the issues in mediation – involved one or more parents with a personality disorder or traits. They were so stuck in their behavior, things didn’t get resolved. There was always another issue to fight about.
After a few years, the high-conflict pattern became clear to me, because I saw it repeated so often in one case after another. But the other legal professionals involved (lawyers, judges, mediators) didn’t think about the personalities at first, because they didn’t have the therapy background.
I started writing and teaching about this cross-over subject. Then I set up the High Conflict Institute with another colleague who also had been working in family law, Megan Hunter. That was ten years ago in 2008. It’s as relevant now as ever.
SBP: What was the process like to develop the strategies and tools you share in 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life? How did you know when things were working, and when they weren’t? What signs would you see in HCPs, or hear about from your clients who were dealing with them, that “told” you you were on the right track?
30 years ago, I worked as a therapist with some clients with personality disorders in a psychiatric hospital. So when I started seeing the same personalities with traits of these disorders in legal disputes, I realized the same techniques should work with them.
I began to focus a lot on trying to connect with HCPs in legal disputes like I did with patients in the psychiatric hospital: lots of empathy, attention and respect, and to avoid criticizing them and blasting them with anger and frustration — which is what I saw a lot of lawyers and judges doing.
I also learned as a therapist that there would always be another crisis the personality-disordered patients wanted me to solve for them, and that I had to give back the responsibility to them to solve their own problems by giving them encouragement and helping them look at their choices for future behavior and decisions. This approach worked really well with law clients as well.
Through trial and error over the last 20 years, I developed methods for legal conflict resolution based on counseling methods for personality disorders. I mostly learned by making mistakes, then learning what I could have done differently.
I knew methods really worked when my clients would calm down and make more rational decisions. It’s like you can almost decide how logical or emotional the client will be by how you behave toward them. Use the CARS Method and they calm down and focus on problem-solving. Use blame and shame, and they become highly agitated and confrontational. Unfortunately, the legal system tends to reinforce the blame and shame approach, which doesn’t work very well for HCPs.
SBP: If readers were to take away only one thing from your book, what would you want it to be?
The CARS Method®.
Connect by staying calm and saying something that shows empathy, attention or respect for the person.
Analyze options by focusing on the future and what choices you have or the HCP has.
Respond to hostility or misinformation with straight information that is Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm (BIFF).
Set limits by focusing on rules and policies, so that you don’t make it personal.
I’ve tried to make this approach simple, but it does take practice because it’s usually the opposite of what you feel like doing when you’re frustrated with a high-conflict person. But it does work to help calm situations and manage relationships.
And by the way, you can use this approach with anyone; so you don’t even have to figure out if a person is a high-conflict person. If it’s even a possibility, you can still use this approach.
SBP: One of the great things about your book is how you not only help readers improve their awareness of others’ personalities, but also their own, too. Handling conflict is difficult for a lot of people, but among individuals raised by a borderline mother or a borderline father, it can be especially challenging because they didn’t get to consistently practice some pretty essential conflict-resolution skills.
Why did you make the decision to include that self-awareness piece in the book; what role does self-awareness play in dealing with HCPs?
I think self-awareness is the key to healthy and happy relationships. For people raised by a borderline parent, you got almost the opposite of this – parents who did lots of blaming others and not reflecting on him or herself.
The reason this is so important is that it helps us learn and grow together in relationships. It’s such a rewarding experience when, for example, a parent can say to a child: “I hear what you’re saying and I’ll think about it.” Just those words alone reduce so much tension and open the door to an improved relationship.
Self-awareness is the key to adapting to others enough to meet more of their needs and, therefore, asking them to meet more of your needs. Relationships should be an exchange, not a battleground.
But it takes practice. For those who didn’t get to practice this as a child with a borderline parent, they can practice with friends, a partner or a therapist.
Likewise, self-awareness is also the key to identifying healthy people versus toxic people in your life. If you meet someone and you start feeling even a little bit like you’re that person’s target of blame (they insult you, blame you, slightly hit you, start intense arguments, etc.), that would be a sign of someone to stay away from.
You might feel it before you consciously recognize it. So our gut feelings can help us, but we also need to use our heads and get consultation from others. Self-awareness means openness to change, which is a good thing in all areas of our lives.
SBP: Thank you, Bill! Readers, you can find the book at your preferred retailer or at Bill’s website, www.HighConflictInstitute.com.