04 - High Conflict People and Divorce, with Bill Eddy
Is your partner emotionally explosive, regularly picking fights, and blaming others for all their troubles? Bill Eddy sheds light on how to manage conflict and communication with a high conflict person.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator in San Diego, California. He is the President of the High Conflict Institute. He is on the part-time faculty at the Pepperdine University School of Law and on the part-time faculty of the National Judicial College and is the senior family mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center. He is the developer of the New Ways for Families, a skill-based method for managing high-conflict families in separation and divorce, which is being implemented in court systems in the United States and Canada.
Bill provides training to professionals worldwide on the subject of managing high-conflict personalities and high-conflict disputes. He provides seminars to attorneys, mediators, judges, mental health professionals, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, ombuds, hospital and college administrators, government agencies, law enforcement, homeowners’ association managers and many others. He has presented in over 30 states, several provinces in Canada, and England, France, Sweden, Austria, Australia, Israel, Netherlands and New Zealand.
Mr. Eddy is also the author of several books, including:
- 5 Types of People Who can Ruin Your Life (coming soon)
- Dating Radar: why your Brain Says Yes to the One Who Will Make your Life Hell (with Megan Hunter, MBA)
- High Conflict People in Legal Disputes
- It’s All Your Fault: 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything
- BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People
- So, What’s Your Proposal: Shifting High-Conflict People from Blaming to Problem-Solving in 30 Seconds
Your host, Christina Vinters, is a nationally designated Chartered Mediator on a mission to inspire and facilitate healthy family transitions. She is an “ex” Divorce Lawyer (Non-Practicing Member of the Bar), Author of Pathways to Amicable Divorce, and the DIY Divorce Manual, and Peacemaking Business Consultant.
- Visit www.unhookedmedia.com for Bill Eddy books and products.
Modern Separations Links:
Christina: Hi everybody. Today I'm very lucky to be talking to Bill Eddy, an international leader in the field of conflict resolution with high-conflict people. Bill is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator in San Diego, California. He's also the founder and president of the High Conflict Institute. He teaches part-time at Pepperdine University School of Law, the National Judicial College, as well as private training sessions for professionals worldwide on the subject of managing high-conflict personalities and high-conflict disputes. And there's still more! He has developed a program called New Ways for Families, a skill-based method for managing high-conflict families. And his program has been implemented in several court systems in the United States and Canada. Bill is also the author of several books, really too many in the list here but in our discussion, we talk in some detail about BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People and BIFF stands for brief, informative, friendly, and firm. We talked about his book So What's Your Proposal? Shifting High-Conflict People from Blaming to Problem Solving in Thirty Seconds!, and his newest book Dating Radar. Bill says there are four characteristics of high-conflict people. These are all-or-nothing, black and white type thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors, and preoccupation with blaming others. So if these characteristics sound familiar, whether you're separating from a high-conflict person or you have a high-conflict person in another area of your life, this episode is for you. Here we go.
Christina: Welcome, Bill! It's such an honor to speak to you today.
Bill: Well Christina, I'm really glad to be speaking with you about this.
Christina: Your contributions to the area of resolving really difficult conflict has been prolific over your career. For anyone not yet familiar with Bill's work, I highly recommend that you check out his books and programs. To get started, why don't you tell us about your journey and what brought you to focus on high-conflict people?
Bill: Well, it's interesting. I, for many years, have been a social worker since actually over thirty years since about 1981. I really like working with children and families and I was kind of trying to find the best place for myself. And while I started out practicing as a child and family counselor, I also volunteered at our local mediation center and found that I really like helping resolve disputes between people. And that I liked mediation and decided I would go to law school to primarily do divorce mediation. But in law school, I realized I should probably practice law for a couple of years and so I started dealing with practicing family law after I got my law degree and found that much of it was like, social work. And so I noticed that I was doing divorce mediation with out-of-court couples who were basically able to get along and just needed some guidance and help. And then I go to court in the mornings and one or both people would be very difficult and we would spend months, sometimes years. And what I realized is the high-conflict problems have a lot to do with people's own nature with their own personalities. And so I started writing a lot about high-conflict personalities but also how to deal with people like that, especially if you're going through a divorce or separation. So that's kind of how I ended up here.
Christina: OK, great! And so to clarify for the listeners, how do you define a high-conflict person? And how would somebody be able to tell if they're dealing with a high-conflict person?
Bill: Well in a sense, a lot of feedback I get from working with law clients and social work clients and mediation clients, is that people suddenly go “Oh my goodness, I know I'm dealing with a high-conflict person!” But I'd say there's four characteristics. And sometimes you can get a hint of this even before you separate. That is a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions where the person's emotions just kinda lead them down a lot of different paths where they start yelling and things that doesn't help; extreme behaviors like yelling, throwing things, lyings, taking family money, spreading rumors – all of these kinds of things. But the fourth is the biggest in many ways, and that's the preoccupation with blaming others. And if you're getting divorced from someone like this, you may be and have been and will become their target of blame. And they put all these intense thinking, emotions, behavior on the other person who's their target of blame. And so when people are getting ready to divorce or separate from someone who is like this or may show those behaviors, I encourage caution and planning so that you don't go through too much extreme difficulty becoming that person's target of blame.
Christina: So is it fair to say that most people probably would have noticed some or all of these types of characteristics during the relationship, or does it ever happen that a separation could all of a sudden sort of bring this type of behavior into the fore?
Bill: We see both. I'd say that most people that have a high-conflict divorce have realized during the relationship whether they are married or just living together that the person they're dealing with has extremes from time to time. But I've had people tell me that they really were surprised at how extreme the person became when they did go through divorce. So usually you know you're dealing with some difficulties but sometimes the difficulties during the divorce even gets the person by surprise. So that's why it's good to kind of think about patterns of behavior and there's high-conflict pattern of behavior in advance and to prepare for that possibility.
Christina: What type of preparation do you recommend?
Bill: Well, a few things. First of all, get support. Build a support system. I think it helps to meet with a counselor occasionally and just kind of prepare for what you may go through, 'cause you'll maybe personally attacked, publicly criticized, harassed, etc. Also, get consultation with a family lawyer, whether you'll hire one or not, a lot of family lawyers today will let you consult for half an hour or an hour. And kind of talk about your situation and what some of the problems could be. Another is to kinda collect information. What a lot of people we encourage to do is make sure you find out what all your bank account numbers are. Some people take pictures of all their household furniture, the big items, in case things start disappearing during a divorce. And also keep a journal of extreme events. So let's say there was a pushing and shoving incident happened while you're still living together. You wanna write down exactly what happened ideally on the day it happened. So if six months or a year later, you get blamed for that event, you got some kind of record to say “Wait a minute, this is what happened. I didn't start pushing. The other person started pushing.” You know, whatever it is that happened. So in a sense, it's preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best. And not assuming that the worst will happen, but kinda having your eyes open, having support, having information and keeping some records.
Christina: OK and so part of what I'm hoping to do is to provide people with a range of dispute resolution options and some hope that you don't necessarily have to end up in court. Now a lot of court files are comprised of at least one high-conflict person. But I know that you recommend that mediation can be possible and so that might be surprising for some people. Can you share your view of why mediation is a viable option in such a circumstance?
Bill: Well the reality is that over 90 percent of divorces are resolved by agreement. Even the ones that go to court, some end up finishing by agreement. So there's a really good chance even in a high-conflict case that it's gonna get resolved by agreement. And so I think mediation is really good because it keeps things calm. While two attorneys can negotiate with each other, it may be just the attorneys on their own and slip into being more adversarial. So mediation kinda keeps things calm. And collaborative divorce, if people have two collaborative lawyers, the lawyers can't go to court so they try hard to settle the case. So, something that kind of manages the case, and that's where I see mediation really be effective and that's most of what I do now. I've been a family lawyer for 25 years, but the last ten years I just do mediation. And about a third of my cases are high-conflict cases and people mostly reach an agreement. So what I encourage people do is kind of think a two-track system. One is try hard to negotiate and settle issues and mediation or some other form of negotiation, but keep your records, keep your notes your journal just in case you have to go to court. And the more prepared you are, the less likely the other person is to try to drag you into court. So I very much believe that mediation and I see high-conflict cases work things out. Sometimes it takes longer than it would with a case that wasn't high-conflict but still high-conflict people can settle in mediation so it's definitely worth a try. And it doesn't really hurt to try mediation. So that's why I just encourage people to start with mediation or some negotiation methods first.
Christina: Yeah, for sure. I agree that one of the benefits of mediation is the focus on trying to de-escalate, but I like your point of keeping the records and making sure that you are prepared just in case. But try to keep with the mindset that resolution is going to be the best for the family. And not using those records as a threat to the other.
Bill: Exactly! And there's a saying among lawyers, is used as something as a shield, not as a sword. And I really agree with that. Just protect yourself. And I might mention I have a book called Splitting, which is protecting yourself while divorcing someone with borderline or narcissistic personality disorder. And it's really geared to potentially high-conflict situations and we really emphasize, my co-author and I, Randi Kreger, to be prepared to take notes but also to communicate well. We talk about using the BIFF method – brief, informative, friendly and firm. So that you're really trying to put a positive on things even if it feels like a potentially negative situation.
Christina: I think that BIFF strategy is really helpful. And it can feel overwhelming for people when they're dealing with somebody who wants to engage in conflict all the time, that's exhausting. Are there any other go-to tactics or strategies that people can keep in mind when they are trying to negotiate with a high-conflict spouse? And I'm thinking particularly of co-parenting is part of their arrangement and regular communication is necessary.
Bill: Yeah, there's... it really helps to focus on what you want for the future and not talking and emphasizing what you don't want to happen in the past and people make that mistake all the time is with a potentially high-conflict person. Just say what you want. So rather than say “You never took the kids to their karate class,” is to say “I'd like you to take the kids to their karate class.” And, because what happens is you trigger so much defensiveness that people are busy defending themselves rather than saying “Yes, I can agree to that.” And so think the future. Think proposals. And just so the people know there's other information out there, I also have a little book called So What's Your Proposal? And it talks about a lot, like twenty examples in there of focusing on the future by making a proposal and focusing on it like the other person has a choice that you're willing to discuss with them. Other options so it's a proposal, not a demand. And that's so important in dealing with a high-conflict partner or co-parent because it's easy to just try to tell them what to do or to point out all the mistakes that they've made. And that definitely doesn't help. You just wanna say what you're aiming for. Say, “I would like you to pick up the kids after school for karate twice a week.” rather than “You've been doing it wrong for years.”
Christina: And I find that sometimes it's necessary to repeat those types of questions. For example, “So what's your proposal?” If you take the karate example that you used, “I'd like you to pick up the kids from karate.” Because sometimes, the really high-conflict people will grab on to even a positive statement like that and be defensive. “Well, I always pick up the kids from karate.” And so bringing the conversation back again to that focusing on the positive and the future and that is great. So that's what I'd like you to do.
Bill: Right. Right, right. Just really try to emphasize the positive and that's good to point out things that are working. A lot of times when people dealing with a high-conflict person, they don't give them any positive feedback. They just look at everything that's wrong. And it really helps to say “I appreciate that thing you did last week. That was helpful.” Or “The kids said that they enjoyed doing that activity with you last week. That's great!” Because the more you can do that, you're being kind of a role model for the other parent to do that back. And to say “Well you did something I appreciate. Thank you for that.”
Christina: And then that type of appreciation and role modeling will hopefully inspire similar responses in return.
Bill: Exactly. And what's interesting is, we're talking briefly before about the BIFF response method of emails that are brief, informative, friendly, and firm. And the feedback we're getting is people really like writing their emails that way. 'Cause even if someone's hostile towards them, you're responding in a clean way. You're not being hostile or rude back. And what we're hearing is that the other person starts to respond with a BIFF response as well even though they don't know what a BIFF is. They just try to be brief or more straight in information, friendly, and firm. And so it's contagious, and that's important as people to realize everything you do is contagious, especially in a highly emotional situation like separation or divorce. So what you want the other person to catch from you is calmness, positive feedback. Not anger and resentment and focusing on what went wrong. So you can influence the other person a little bit, not a lot, but somewhat by being positive and not being negative.
Christina: I think it might be really helpful to give the listeners an example of a BIFF response. So let's say that somebody receives an email demanding that the parenting schedule change the following week. What might a BIFF response look like?
Bill: Well actually, let me read one to you from the Splitting book...
Bill: Because it really, it's a classic example. And so let's say this is Joe and Jane and they've been separated for a couple of years – maybe divorced or maybe never married but with a couple of kids. And so Jane actually wants to take the kids Friday afternoon to her boss' birthday party at the office. And so she made that request, simple request. Jane and Joe response:
“Jane, I can't believe you're so stupid as to think I'm going to let you take the children to your boss' birthday party during my parenting time. Have you no memory of the last six conflicts we've had about my parenting time? Or are you having an affair with him? I always knew you would do anything to get ahead. In fact, I remember coming to your office party and witnessing you making a total fool of yourself. Including flirting with everyone from the CEO down to the mail room clerk. Are you high on something? Haven't you got your finances together enough to support yourself yet? Without flinging yourself at every time they can have it, and on and on and on...”
Christina: Oh my gosh that's traumatic just to listen to!
Bill: I know! I know! It's funny I read this to family lawyers and they say “I get these everyday.” So that's not a BIFF response. That's not the way we want people to talk. But if you think of a BIFF response as brief, informative, just straight information, no opinions, criticisms, emotions. Friendly, just a friendly greeting. And firm in that it ends the conversation or it asks for a simple yes or no response. So let me read Jane's response and see if this is a BIFF response.
“Thank you for responding to my request to take the children to my office party. Just to clarify, the party would be from 3 to 5 on Friday at the office and there would be approximately thirty people there, including several other parents and their school-aged children. There'll be no alcohol because that's a family-oriented firm and there'll be family-oriented activities. I think it would be a good experience for the kids to see me at my workplace. Since you've not agreed, and of course I will respect that and withdraw my request because I recognize it is your parenting time.”
Bill: So, that's brief, that's straight information, it's friendly, she says “Thank you for responding...”, and she says “I respect your parenting time...”, and it's firm that it ends the conversation. Now she could have, depending on what she knows about Joe, have ended by saying, “With these information, I hope you'll reconsider. Please let me know by Thursday at 5:00. Yes or No.” So either of those would be a BIFF response. But do you feel the difference in the tone?
Christina: Yeah, I mean it would take a huge amount of mindfulness and maturity to be able to respond that way. Probably if some deep breathing and some time in between reading the first email and sending the BIFF response.
Bill: Right. One thing we encourage is that people have someone else look at it before they send it. So that they can kinda catch if you let anything kinda weak through that is really angry back. But you're right. It's not easy and in many ways, what we teach people is self-management. It's managing their own emotions. It's keeping their thinking flexible. Managing moderate behavior and checking themselves rather than blaming other people. And I might mention we have a method we call New Ways for Families that teaches a lot of skills, like making proposals and BIFF responses. So that people can get more and more comfortable doing these things with practice. And I'll tell you, we just get a lot of good feedback about this method because people feel more in control of themselves. And then the other person has less and less influence on them with their negativity.
Christina: Sure. Because the only person we really can control is ourselves. So when you're dealing with somebody high-conflict, the odds of being able to change their behavior is probably relatively slim. Hopefully, over time, they might take on this BIFF strategy themselves. But it in the meantime, people can affect how they are looking at the situation and choosing to respond.
Bill: Right. It's a learning process, it's a process of patience. I think it's kinda giving yourself encouraging statements, that's something else we teach with our New Ways for Families method. Because you know you're dealing with a hard time. And you can give yourself encouraging statements. You really can focus on what makes you feel good and get less stressed by it all. By getting support as I've said at the very beginning is a big part of that – from friends, family, even a counselor from, if you find it helpful.
Christina: Is the New Ways program, is that online and something anybody can sign up for?
Bill: It's both. It's online, where anyone can go. And actually, I'll give you our website for New Ways. It's newways4families.com. And we use the number 4 as we say new ways, and then the number 4, families.com. And the online version is called Parenting Without Conflict. Now that's kind of an aspiration because there's always gonna be some conflict. We just want it to be low-conflict, not high-conflict.
Christina: Or respectful conflict.
Bill: Exactly. But it's a twelve, basically twelve sessions, twelve hours, and it's approved by various court systems for people required to take a parenting class. But a lot of people just find it really helpful because of the skills that it teaches. We also have some cities where this is available as a counseling program and the judges actually order both parents to get the counseling program method which is six individual sessions for each parent with a separate counselor and a workbook. And then they each have three parent-child sessions to teach the kids the same skills – flexible thinking, managed emotions, moderate behavior, and checking themselves. The online course anybody can take. It's very easy to access that. But what we find is skills really help a lot and the people want skills. They want to know “How do I deal with my own emotions?” and “How do I respond to the other person's emotions?” and how you go through a divorce will really teach your kids how they should solve relationship problems in the future. And so we were really encouraging people kinda practice self-management skills during this time.
Christina: That's a fantastic resource and we will provide the link in the show notes so people can access that.
Bill: Let me mention one other thing is our other website, highconflictinstitute.com can be used to look at a lot of articles. We have a lot of free articles as well as books to pay for and videos. So I'll make sure you know about both of those websites.
Christina: Thank you, we'll post both of those. So taking just a bit of a left turn here, I see that your newest book, Dating Radar is helping people understand why they make the relationship choices that they do. I think the subtitle says it all: 'Why your brain says Yes to the one who'll make your life hell'. Now, I haven't had the chance to read it yet but I'd love to hear a bit of an overview because that sounds like that's really gonna help people hear out why they've made the decisions they have in the past and hopefully help make better decisions in the future.
Bill: I'm so glad you're asking about that 'cause we're really... Megan Hunter and I co-authored it. And we really feel enthusiastic about what we put in there. We did an online survey which helped give us feedback from a lot of people who said they've been through high-conflict relationships and warning signs that they missed. So in this book, we focused on three key things for Dating Radar. First, is know what you're looking for. Learn what the patterns of five high-conflict personality styles are. Then look at how they jam your radar that people get misled or overwhelmed with the goodness. You know, the knight-in-shining-armor image, the super charming man or woman who just sweeps you off your feet – that this isn't real. And that people realize this person is too good to be true. That they act like their favorite most important interests are the same as what they realize yours are. And we call that a fake compatibility that people are misled by. But the third category is your own blind spots, and that's where we look at kind of cultural beliefs about relationships that don't help. And a lot of songs feed this. You know, that you can change your partner “I will be able to fix this person and make them into a more responsible, honest partner. And that's just not true. We have to learn what you see is what you're going to get. And so a lot of people, you know like the day before they get married they go, “You know I'm not so sure but you know, I think time and love will change someone's soul. I'll make him settle down.” Of course, there's the old saying that women marry somebody based on the idea that they can change him and that men marry someone based on the idea that she'll never change.
Bill: So we have a lot of beliefs that trick us up so, that's what it helps with what we really think that so many people, both Megan and I worked in the divorce field for so many years and we see so many people they go, “Why did I do this? And I missed the warning signs.” We wanna help people know the warning signs and not miss them. So that you know, you don't have to go through a high-conflict divorce or separation later on.
Christina: Well that's fantastic. I'm looking forward to reading that. Before we end, do you have any other recommendations for people who find themselves in the situation of separating from a high-conflict person?
Bill: Just basically you know, getting support, getting information... We've got a lot of books. I mentioned BIFF, but I didn't mention that we have a BIFF book that teaches people how to write BIFF response emails and Facebook posts, etc. We have So What's Your Proposal, we have Dating Radar. So another book called Don't Alienate the Kids!, which talks about how we try to help the kids this time. And that's such an important part. People wonder “What do I say? Should I say something? Shouldn't I say something?” And so we recommend a lot of specific things to explain what's going on without badmouthing the other parent. Warning family members and friends, “You may hear terrible things about me. Please check them out with me. Don't hesitate to ask me if something true that you've heard.” Those kinds of things. So overall, it's being prepared, but I would say if someone's facing a high-conflict divorce, just plan ahead before you start the divorce process. Before you even say “I wanna get divorce” or “I'm moving out” is get your dots in a row. And the book Splitting really gives you a whole kinda map for what to expect and what to do.
Christina: This has been a wealth of information for our listeners, Bill. Thank you so much for being here with me today. And thank you for all of your contributions to the field of family law.
Bill: Thank you so much, Christina! And best wishes with your work.
Christina: Thank you.