January 2014 Bar Bulletin
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January 2014 Bar Bulletin

High-Conflict Resolution: Building a Team against the Problem

By Bill Eddy


Whether you are a manager, mediator, lawyer or other type of professional dispute resolver, one of the common problems you face today is how to resolve high-conflict disputes when the disputants have an ongoing relationship such as in the workplace, as parents in a divorce or as family members in an elder mediation.

It's common for a professional to try to meet with the parties separately to resolve all the issues, in order to keep the tension down and to get to a solution as quickly as possible. Another approach is to meet with the parties together, but to be highly controlling of the discussion in order to keep the parties focused on the specific decision(s) at hand.

These approaches have their appeal and work in some cases. However, high-conflict disputes in families and workgroups have a way of prolonging themselves and simmering, rather than actually being resolved by any one decision. In this article, I suggest a slightly different approach, which focuses the dispute resolver on team-building and "managing the conflict," rather than resolving any one specific dispute.

This is especially important when working with high-conflict people who tend to resist dispute "resolution." They often blame the dispute resolver for pressuring them to make decisions and undermine any resolutions as soon as they can.

Why Team-Building Is So Important

High-conflict clients tend to see all relationships as adversarial. They truly "split" people in their minds into those who are all good and those who are all bad. Therefore, unless they buy into the dispute resolution process, they will fight against the process.

Unless they feel a positive connection to the dispute resolver, they will fight the dispute resolver. And unless they are restrained from venting their upset emotions on their usual "targets of blame" in the family or workgroup, they will be preoccupied with blaming and will prevent any constructive work from getting done.

Team building is a good way to manage splitting. If the whole process is structured around working together as a team - and team behavior is required and reinforced - then splitting will be blocked or at least minimized. This emphasis must be made from the start. Each individual and the whole group must see that splitting behavior is redirected into team-building behavior at every step. This doesn't have to be hard, but it does take practice.

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