On Tuesday 7 April 2020 and Thursday 9 April 2020 the Family Law Pathways Network’s across Australia hosted a free webinar on ‘Flipping the Script on the Most Difficult People During Difficult Times’. This webinar was presented by International Expert and co-founder of the High Conflict Institute, Megan Hunter, through a YouTube live stream. Over 2,000 FLPN members across Australia registered to attend this webinar.
The webinar explored the driving reasons behind high-conflict behaviours, and offered tips for implementing practical skills that assist to plan for structure and setting limits. Megan shared her insights about the High Conflict Operating System and how practitioners can predict the seemingly unpredictable behaviour that high conflict people are prone to. Audience members were taught how to take actions to calm the difficult person and shift them into a problem solving rather than ranting and blaming space. The audience was able to utilise the live chat to ask questions throughout the presentation, which Megan answered at the end.
The webinar began with an introduction to the neuroscience of high conflict personalities. High conflict personalities usually emit four types of behaviours:
1. Unmanaged emotions
2. Extreme behaviours
3. All or nothing thinking
4. Blaming tendencies
These behaviours can flare up when people are feeling attacked or threatened. They feel unsafe, and become rigid and uncompromising – and difficult to work with. People in this state will have a hard time seeing situations from another point of view – their feelings are too strong. Usually in these people, what they’re presenting with as the ‘issue’ is not really the actual issue.
Megan explained how the CARS Method can be used for effectively handling people when they are exhibiting high-conflict behaviours. Once you suspect that you are dealing with a high conflict personality, you can utilise the CARS method which is generally effective at calming their behaviour and focusing them on solving problems.
Connecting with empathy, attention and respect
Analysing alternatives or choices
Responding to incorrect information
Setting limits on inappropriate behaviour
The CARS Method is designed to help practitioners organise their responses to reinforce client’s best behaviour, to calm them down and to redirect their energies. This assists clients to approach the problem from a ‘thinking’ perspective, rather than emotional and high conflict.
This includes utilising techniques such as EAR Statements and BIFF Responses. Megan explained the first step is to attempt to calm the high conflict personality by forming a brief positive connection with the person. This involves using empathy, respect, body language, tone of voice, and appropriate choice of words. Responding with an EAR statement is to respond with a statement that shows empathy, attention, and/or respect. At the request of an audience member, Megan gave some examples as to how to use EAR statements without sounding condescending or drifting into a passive approach. Megan noted that it can be helpful to try and be a little more expressive when giving EAR statements and said that EAR statements need to be genuine in order to not appear condescending. This also applies when practitioners do not want to appear to be colluding with a high conflict personality – Megan suggested that the trick here is to acknowledge, but not necessarily agree. It can also be helpful to shift high conflict personalities into a ‘thinking’ space by asking them to write lists focusing on solution and options. This helps to redirect the client’s energies where they are not responding to EAR statements, or where practitioners are having trouble communicating a genuine EAR statement. Within the question and answer portion of the event, Megan was asked how to deal with negative responses to EAR statements (such as: “I understand” and the client responds with “no you don’t” and becomes defensive). Megan suggested that in these instances practitioners should try and change strategy – this can be by giving them empathy through giving space or asking them to tell you more, it depends on the client and individual circumstances. It can also be helpful at this point to redirect their energies towards thinking by asking them to write a list of options or solutions.
BIFF responses are a tool designed for written communications with high conflict personalities, but it can also be used in person-to-person verbal confrontations.
BIFF responses to hostile communications should be kept brief, as this leave much less for the other person to react to and is often sufficient to get your main point across. Factual, straight information should be included in BIFF responses, rather than emotions, opinions, defences or arguments. A BIFF response is not so much an opportunity to defend yourself on an emotional level, but an opportunity to provide relevant information and show you have attempted to resolve the communication. An audience member asked Megan how can BIFF work when false or incorrect accusations are made and legally, or for other reasons, it is important they respond with correct facts? Megan answered by saying that it is ok to write a BIFF response that has facts. However, it needs to be kept brief, and really focused on the facts, and not delve into defensive explanations. Megan noted the importance of remaining friendly in a BIFF response, so as to stop the situation from escalating. Keeping BIFF’s firm means that you end the conversation rather than keep the communication line open to more hostilities. Where you require a response from the other person, asking a closed question with a straightforward answer assists to keep the BIFF firm.
Megan rounded out the webinar by discussing techniques for self-care, particularly in these uncertain times. She stressed the importance of remembering that ‘it’s not about you’. A high conflict personality is coming from a place of fear and anxiety, which may escalate during these times. It is important to manage your own anxiety, know when a situation is too much, and be able to ask for help. This includes staying connected with colleagues to discuss how others are managing the added stresses we are dealing with.
The audience was highly involved in the presentation, posting live comments and questions throughout the webinar. An audience member commented that in their experience, high conflict people do not want to stop talking and they find it difficult to control other than reminding parties they must provide equal time. Megan suggested that it is important to set up boundaries and limits in the beginning, or even prior to a mediation session. Setting limits and bringing people back to the limits they have agreed to can work as a powerful tool to manage mediation sessions.
It was also asked how these techniques can be adapted to telephone only communications – a method many practitioners are now utilising due to COVID-19 restrictions. Megan acknowledged that this can be harder as you do not have in-person benefits of body language and eye contact. She suggested focusing more on genuine EAR statements, and making sure your tone of voice remains calm. She also noted the importance of letting people talk and say what they need to say without offering lots of explanations, and only responding with clear and simple facts. Similar to mediation, having the opportunity to set up a structure beforehand is very helpful, but not always possible. The same methods still apply for telephone communications, but in an altered state. Where EAR statements fail, Megan reminded the audience that transferring the client into a ‘thinking’ state where they are thinking of options and next steps can help move the process along.
The feedback obtained from the comments was overwhelmingly positive. Audience members agreed the content was highly insightful, with lots of good anecdotal tips and useful strategies practitioners could take away and utilise in practice.
The FLPN would like to thank Megan Hunter and the High Conflict Institute for presenting this webinar to our networks.