High-conflict personalities–navigating situations and relationships with CARS (part 2)

Last week, we discussed the characteristics of high-conflict personalities (HCPs), typical challenging behaviours you may encounter, and how to best respond to their negative, aggressive and exaggerated communication tactics using the BIFF method. 

This article will explore another method developed by Bill Eddy, again using a 4-word acronym–making it easy to remember–the CARS approach. CARS will help you manage your relationship and challenging situations with an HCP client, colleague or family member.  It has been designed to structure your responses to people with high-conflict behaviour patterns, with the goal to de-escalate conflict situations, redirect their destructive energies and focus them on positive future choices and consequences – while protecting your own safety and wellbeing.

CARS stands for connecting with empathy, attention and respect; analysing alternatives or choices; responding to misinformation; and setting limits on inappropriate behaviour.

Let’s look at these steps in more detail:

Connect

The first step is about trying to make a positive connection with the other person. While this may not be the first thing you feel like doing when being under attack by an angry, over-reacting or arrogant client, establishing a personal connection can calm down an agitated person and will enable you to move towards problem-solving and more constructive communication. In particular, Eddy recommends using EAR statements to create rapport, as long as you can do this in a genuine and authentic manner.

  • Empathy: signal your empathy and willingness to help in body language and facial expression, and use compassionate language, for example, “I understand how frustrating that must be for you and I want to help.”
  • Attention: demonstrate your interest and your full attention both in your actions (for example, by keeping appropriate eye contact and avoiding distractions) and your words, for example, “please tell me more so I can understand your situation better”.
  • Respect: make the person feel respected for their efforts and any constructive actions they have attempted, for example, “I can see how hard you’ve worked to solve this problem

Analyse

Once you have managed to defuse a potentially conflict-ridden situation by establishing a connection, this step involves the calm analysis of options and alternatives – both theirs and yours.

  • Their options: In regards to discussing your client’s options, the aim is to shift their focus from any perceived wrongs of the past to future-oriented goals and the necessary actions they can start taking in the present. HCPs tend to get stuck in their complaints about the past, but you can help them shift their gaze by reviewing their immediate and long-term options together, explaining possible outcomes and consequences of alternatives, and keep the direction of the conversation forward-looking, not backwards.
  • Your options: Given that you won’t be able to change an HCP’s challenging behaviour patterns or personality, consider your options in a specific situation. For example, if you are dealing with a client, how far down the process are you? Would the client give their agreement to terminate the retainer? Can you get support from a colleague or manager?

If you are dealing with a manager who keeps displaying bullying tendencies or extreme mood swings, can you involve HR? Could you look into options that include being transferred into a different team, or would you consider leaving the organisation altogether? 

Respond

Engaging in intense blaming behaviour, spreading rumours and purposefully misrepresenting what other people have said or done, are hallmarks of high-conflict behaviour patterns. They may be especially evident in rude emails and obnoxious social media blasts, but can also happen in conversations. Instead of getting into arguments with HCPs about their distortions, manipulations and hostility, stick to the BIFF method discussed last week (which suggests you remain brief, informative, friendly and firm in your responses).

Set limits

This can be the most challenging part of dealing with HCPs as they tend to be impulsive and have little self-control and awareness of their impact on others. It is critical that you set strong boundaries in your interactions with them. Carefully manage their expectations by providing clear information on what the limits or rules are, explaining what the consequences will be for violating them (e.g. ending the conversation, having to charge more), and following through with these consequences when necessary.

For example, these boundaries could involve the type of language you want to be used in conversations, when and how they can reach you, what topics or issues you can assist them with and what does not fall into your remit, and what you require from them in order to be able to help them. Having a clear client service agreement which outlines your policies, fee structure and general approach to case management will be helpful in this regard as you can keep referring a challenging client back to them when needed. This will also enable you to use external reasons as justification for why you cannot do certain things, or when you require them to behave in a particular way, for example, “unfortunately our policies do not allow me to do this”. The intention here is to avoid making it look personal, which HCP’s are usually very sensitive about.

In closing, don’t forget that the primary goal is the containment of the high-conflict person’s behaviour in the interaction with you, not to change them or make them understand that the source of most of their problems lies in their own actions. 

If you would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on ethics@qls.com.au or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.

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