The 12th Annual Collaborative Course, titled Avoid Breaking Bad When Breaking Up, was held March 7-8, 2019, in Dallas. The course featured several interesting topics, including dealing with high-conflict personalities, communication breakdown, and guiding clients through difficult situations.
Certain personality disorders create conflict and it’s important that the collaborative team recognize and deal with these difficult clients effectively. Generally, high-conflict clients have addiction problems or personal disorders that make it difficult for them to be reasonable and realistic. There are five major personality disorders that collaborative teams may encounter, including paranoid, borderline, narcissistic, histrionic, and antisocial. Each type presents unique challenges.
Paranoid Personality Disorder
A client with paranoid personality disorder was raised by cruel inconsistent parents who were rejecting and critical. Paranoid clients are mistrustful, fearful, and defensive. The best way to handle a paranoid client is to set clear boundaries and be consistent during the divorce. It’s important to do what you promise with these clients or they will withdraw and terminate the process.
Borderline Personality Disorder
A client with borderline personality disorder is characterized by fear of abandonment, significant mood swings, violent anger, and suicidal thoughts. The best way to deal with the borderline client is to be consistent and avoid trying to rescue him or her from self-imposed difficulties.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
The narcissistic client is characterized by grandiose feelings of entitlement and a lack of empathy. Avoid criticizing these clients, set firm boundaries, and be consistent with them at all times.
Histrionic Personality Disorder
The histrionic client is dramatic, self-centered, seductive, and can’t tell the truth. The best way to deal with the histrionic client is to set boundaries, don’t get seduced into their fantasies, make certain you are paid, and focus on reality and lowering their unrealistic expectations.
Antisocial Personality Disorder
The antisocial client is cruel, charming, criminal, aggressive, and a risk taker. The team needs to set clear boundaries and lower their expectations about changing these clients. Antisocial clients are resistant to counseling and difficult to handle.
Sometimes the collaborative team will have difficulty dealing with a high-conflict client because one or more professionals have experienced the same childhood traumas as their clients and are vulnerable to becoming over involved in their client’s disorder. Examples of professional vulnerabilities include a history of addiction, dualistic (good-evil or them vs us) thinking, feelings of guilt or shame, and situational stress. Signs of professional stress include arousal, alienation, denial, and scapegoating. The major risks to professionals include suicide, disassociation, isolation, addition, and boundary violations.
Being Collaborative with High-Conflict Clients
It’s challenging to be collaborative when you are dealing with a high conflict client, but don’t despair, it’s possible to settle even the most challenging case if you are patient and persistent. Try to move the high-conflict client away from being selfish toward a win-win mind set. Remember these clients need safety and respect during the divorce process. The collaborative team should set clear boundaries, remain calm, praise the high-conflict client, and be firm when he or she begins to act out. It will help the collaborative team of they remember they are competent professionals who have the skills to handle high-conflict cases. Also, be aware that high-conflict clients create fantasy crises and attribute blame to others. The best way to deal with these clients is to set limits, ask yourself if there is a real crisis, and do the opposite of what you are feeling. For example, if you feel anxious, act in a calm manner and deal with the issue objectively and reasonably.
It’s important to pay attention to the interpersonal dynamics between clients, among professionals and clients, and between professionals to be effective in a collaborative case. Focus on emotions, communication patterns, power structures, and the goals of the clients when planning how to proceed. Pay particular attention to personal biases and counter-transferences between professionals and clients. These unconscious feelings can derail the collaborative process and produce an impasse. It’s also important to focus on different views of facts and issues shown by the clients and professionals during the process.
Guiding Clients Through Difficulties
The most frequent difficulties encountered in collaborative cases are clients who have difficulty cooperating, clients who act unilaterally, clients who have unrealistic expectations, mistrustful clients, and clients who are not empathetic. If you see two or more of these characteristics in a client, think carefully about whether they are a good candidate for the collaborative process. However, give them the benefit of the doubt, because even among high-conflict cases, over 85 percent settle. It helps to ask both clients to consider the goals and interests of their spouse and manage client’s unrealistic expectations. If your client is mistrustful, work at developing rapport and being transparent. When clients take rigid positions and won’t move off their position, be patient because it takes time for clients to change their minds. Raise positive points about the situation and take small steps toward a final solution. Collaborative settlements take time.
When you are negotiating an agreement, treat both clients with respect, be open and transparent, avoid disputes about where to hold joint meetings, and create agendas together to develop cooperation. If a client raises the ides of termination, take them to the court house to see an actual trial. It helps to acknowledge concessions from the other side, say thank you for difficult decisions, apologize for any delay, and leave money on the table rather than trying to win every dollar. Never pressure the other side to settle, don’t make threats, give reciprocal concessions, don’t be fearful, and discussion termination if the clients raise the issue. Tell them how it works, point out that they have a right to terminate if they wish, and invite a litigation attorney to a meeting to discuss the alternatives to a collaborative divorce.