Is it possible to deal with High Conflict People?

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By Dr. Ellen Anderson

Is it possible to deal with high conflict people in a family law dispute using a collaborative team approach? Bill Eddy, an American lawyer, mediator and clinical social worker, thinks it is. He’s written an outstanding book called High Conflict People in legal disputes which draws upon his expertise in all his areas of training.

Eddy tells us it will help to identify what kind of high-conflict personality is involved,
so that team members understand that person’s particular fears and behaviours.  Then the
team can structure the particular collaborative process to take into consideration what is
driving that person’s behaviours beneath the surface issues.

Sometimes there is more than one high conflict personality in the room. Perhaps
both of the spouses have high conflict personalities. Perhaps one of the lawyers has been
drawn into alignment with his or her client’s high conflict personality. And what about a
high conflict personality not physically present? Perhaps there’s a third party (a
grandparent, a new partner) who is helping fuel a high degree of conflict.

That’s why it is so essential to engage a neutral family specialist as part of the
collaborative team. Of course the family specialist can assist with a parenting plan, but a
family specialist is much more than a parenting coach.

The family specialist has the expertise to help identify high conflict personalities.
The family specialist knows how to bond with a high conflict personality without losing
neutrality, and can suggest how the particular collaborative team process can be best
structured to meet the needs of all the persons involved. The family specialist can serve
as a case manager throughout the entire process. The family specialist understands how
the legal and emotional and financial issues are all intertwined, providing a holistic
perspective to the collaborative team.

Eddy tells us that a united approach is most effective in dealing with a high conflict
personality, because too often a high conflict personality will resist or avoid resolving the

A high conflict personality who really doesn’t want resolution may even prefer a
collaborative approach, because he or she believes that the exclusion clause (the
commitment in the collaborative participation agreement that the lawyers won’t go to court)
can result in indefinite delay. For that reason, a collaborative team dealing with a high
conflict personality may require a participation agreement to include a mediation/arbitration
clause so that there is a “safe container” and consequences for continued high conflict

If you suspect there is a chance high conflict behaviour might derail a collaborative
process, raise the issue early with your collaboratively trained lawyer. Ensure that you are
working with a collaborative family specialist who understands this dynamic. Inquire about
the possibility of a mediation/arbitration clause in the participation agreement. A high
conflict personality will be challenging within the court system too and court’s adversarial
process may even escalate adversarial behaviour. A collaborative team approach can
identify, manage and structure high conflict personality disputes to provide appropriate
consequences and safeguards for everyone.


Dr. Ellen Anderson
Anderson Adams Lawyers