High conflict mediations present with very high emotion coupled with blaming accusations and little self-awareness or interest in listening. Divorce, employment situations, elder mediation, even business situations are all examples of high conflict mediations.
Working with high conflict people requires skill that goes well beyond facilitating a conversation or simply caucusing the parties. We have learned that these situations require tighter management of the process itself. People in high conflict have lost their ability to self-manage and by designing a process with more structure and more rules, there is a far better chance of causing self-management to occur. Furthermore, the tight process calms people down which gives them a chance to listen not only to the other side but to the mediator. And if they have a good mediator he/she is most likely reframing the problem or offering creative or unique ways to see and solve the problem.
Parents – if this sounds like you dealing with an unruly child, that’s because the same techniques are used. Honestly speaking, people in high conflict can be like little kids who are out of control. What do we do with those kids? We make their world smaller and tighter – with more rules. That gives the child a sense of security because the boundaries are clear. We do the same thing with high conflict people in mediation. When we tighten the boundaries – keeping them clear and holding the parties to them – we see the parties able to move forward because they are secure in understanding the process and not feeling like they will either not be heard, talked over, or taken advantage of. They see that we as the Mediators – with a capital M – are in control and it builds trust and confidence in the process.
Not all high conflict situations can be brought to the mediation table. Good mediators know when to say no – especially where it is clear that one or both parties are intentionally unwilling to work with the other. That is an entirely different situation than simply being “convinced” in your own mind that nothing can be done. We hear a lot of the latter situation and people are then amazed at what happens during the process.
Read Ann Begler’s article, High Conflict and Ethics from which this post was developed.