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How to work with difficult people

How to work with difficult people

By Laura Ann Wilson


Tips for new lawyers on how to recognise and manage working with high conflict personalities in the legal environment.

Lawyers frequently encounter people with high conflict personalities (HCP). Both colleagues and clients may present with HCP traits.

“Maggie” came to the legal service where I was undertaking a law student placement, seeking assistance in filing a divorce application. On the surface it was a straightforward matter. There were no dependent children involved. Maggie and her husband both wanted a divorce.

In the first client-lawyer meeting, Maggie yelled across the table: “I have been to hell and back with this matter. I am not going to be dragged through the dirt by you people too”. In subsequent interactions, Maggie accused the service of cruel and degrading treatment. She yelled down the phone at the receptionist: “You’re all incompetent”. Maggie frequently threatened to lodge complaints against the legal service (although she never did).

The staff dreaded interacting with her. She was a vortex; sucking the unsuspecting and well-intentioned staff into her drama. Maggie drained energy. She exhausted the most patient and caring staff of their empathy.

Unfortunately, the Maggie vignette is one of the milder difficult clients stories – and we have all got them. Maggie may be an example of a person who is a high conflict personality. HCP is a term that refers to people with certain behaviour clusters.1 Research demonstrates that people with personality disorders have specific ways of thinking, which adversely impact on their ability to function in everyday life.2 HCP types tend to demonstrate hostile and provocative behaviours; escalating rather than minimising conflict situations. There is an association between people with HCP traits and legal disputes.

Lawyer, therapist and mediator Bill Eddy, runs the High Conflict Institute in San Diego. He has written extensively on how to manage HCP in the legal context and is also a senior fellow in the Faculty of Law at Monash University, teaching an elective subject on managing HCP in legal disputes. He delivers training to law students and barristers on how to manage HCP in the workplace.

The Maggie vignette is one that I reflected on in the journal that I kept during my law school placement.

Lawyers, like all professionals working in the client focused human services sector, need to have exceptional communication and conflict management skills. The ability to communicate and appropriately manage conflict situations has a significant impact on the effectiveness of lawyer-client interactions. The ability to effectively manage HCP may improve communication between lawyers and their clients, in turn reducing client complaints against lawyers, and reducing workplace stress. This was a valuable academic lesson, which certainly became extremely apparent to me when I started working as a lawyer.

The reality of lawyering is that, like any professional in the human-services sector, lawyers will at times work with difficult people. This will most likely cause new lawyers stress. However, being able to recognise HCP traits and having tools in the tool kit to work with HCP may better equip new lawyers to manage conflict situations. Many everyday people will need to access the legal system during their life. HCP types are over represented in needing to access lawyers – so all the more reason that lawyers need to acquire skills in being able to effectively manage HCP.

High conflict personalities

People with HCP often have personality disorders. Personality disorders are characterised by enduring and rigid patterns of emotion, behaviours and interpersonal problems.3 Eddy (2008) has identified that HCP can have repetitive patterns of behaviour including:

  • chronic feelings of internal distress
  • the belief that the cause of their distress is external
  • behaving inappropriately to relieve their distress
  • their discomfort continues despite their efforts to relieve their distress
  • their behaviour escalates when they are reprimanded about their inappropriate behaviour.

HCP have a tendency towards hostile and provocative behaviours and escalate rather than minimise conflict situations. There is a connection between HCP poor conflict resolution skills, fear of abandonment, anger and frustration, lack of self-control, and the tendency to blame others. This combination makes HCP prone to disputes.

New lawyers can develop skills to manage working with HCP clients.

Training lawyers in managing high conflict personalities

Training for lawyers in the management of HCP should focus on how to identify people with HCP traits. Lawyers can be trained to understand that people with HCP often have an underlying personality disorder. Lawyers can be trained to recognise (not diagnose) the characteristics of these personality types:

  • borderline personality: mood swings, self-destructive behaviour, all or nothing thinking, fear of abandonment, manipulative behaviour, difficulties with problem solving and developing alternative strategies
  • antisocial personality: total disregard for society’s rules, total lack of empathy and remorse, willingness to exploit others for self-gain
  • narcissistic personality: extreme self-love, extreme sense of entitlement, preoccupation with success
  • histrionic personality: extremely dramatic behaviour, flamboyant, extreme need for attention, fear of not being the centre of attention.

Lawyers should be encouraged to understand that people with personality disorders have cognitive distortions, which are frequently the consequence of childhood experiences of abuse or dysfunctional family upbringing. People with personality disorders engage in cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions involve the person re-thinking the external reality to suit their emotional needs. People with personality disorders may also engage in denial, projection of blame onto others, emotional reasoning, and all or nothing thinking.

People with HCP have exceptional bonding skills. Lawyers must take care to corroborate all facts. Unassuming, overly caring or naïve lawyers may be at risk of being sucked in to the HCP with high intensity emotions, and risk becoming a negative advocate.

Eddy explains that a negative advocate refers to when a lawyer accepts and advocates their client’s negative behaviour/thinking/emotion, and effectively becomes an enabler of that conduct.

New lawyers can be aware of the following to avoid becoming a negative advocate:

  • avoid assumptions – investigate first
  • avoid taking responsibility for others’ behaviour
  • avoid doing more of the work than the HCP
  • do not try to save the HCP from themselves
  • seek corroborating evidence
  • explain consequences of future misconduct
  • allow the HCP to experience pain and consequences
  • refer HCP to professionals who are positive advocates.

These techniques may assist new lawyers to be able to better identify and respond to HCP, and to be aware of skills they can use to ensure that they are better equipped to manage HCP in the workplace. Don’t worry if you see some of yourself in these traits – reflecting on your skills as a lawyer is an important part of learning and growing.

As a final note, the importance of self-care when working with HCP to prevent burn out cannot be understated.

LAURA ANN WILSON is a Victorian lawyer. She has worked in legal, research/policy and advisory roles across the Victorian Public Service, university and community legal sectors.

1. Bill Eddy, High Conflict People in Legal Disputes (HCI Press, 2008); Duncan McLean, ‘Strategies and methods in mediation and communication with high conflict people’ (2013) High Conflict Behaviours. Paper 2 <
2. American Psychiatric Association, Personality Disorders (American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013)
3. James I Gerhart, George F Ronan, Eric Russ and Bailey Seymour, “The Moderating Effects of Cluster B Personality Traits on Violence Reduction Training: A Mixed-Model Analysis” (2013) 28 Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 45, 46

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