Saturday, September 16, 2006

It's All Your Fault ... (And never mine)

What follows is a highly edited version of the first chapter of "It's All Your Fault! - Working With High Conflict Personalities" by William A. Eddy. Eddy is an attorney and licensed clinical social worker who is doing groundbreaking work in the application of phsychological analysis to legal conflicts.


I used to think that disputes were about issues – that bigger issues drove bigger, more difficult conflicts. Wouldn’t a million dollar dispute be harder to resolve than a conflict over $5,000? Wouldn’t an argument over a small family inheritance be simpler to settle than the terms of an international business contract? Not necessarily. (In many cases the client’s) high conflict personality determines the direction of the entire case.

High Conflict Personalities stand out. Their emotions are often exaggerated. Their behavior is repeatedly inappropriate. Minor problems become major disputes. They persist long after others let go. There is an urgency and drama to their daily lives. And they always have someone to blame. Some High Conflict Personalities are more difficult than others, but they tend to share a similar preoccupation with blame – a pattern of blame – that is embedded in their personalities. This preoccupation drives them constantly into one dispute after another, and enables them to avoid ever looking at themselves or changing their own behavior. …

One High Conflict Personality can completely drive the direction of a legal dispute. … Another characteristic of these case examples is how self-sabotaging these personalities can be. … This is one of the most striking characteristics of High Conflict Personalities – their actions are so self-sabotaging and out of proportion with external events that they seem beyond comprehension. However, there is logic to their behavior if the personality patterns can be identified. The importance of looking for the pattern in understanding personalities – to analyze past behavior and predict future problems. … The fundamental characteristics of personality disorders lead many into high conflict disputes:
• An enduring pattern of behavior.
• This pattern exists from early adulthood.
• This pattern is rigid and unchanging.
• It leads to significant distress or impairment.
• It exists well outside the person’s cultural norms.
Paraphrased from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 1994. …

Mental health researchers have studied cognitive distortions for many years. Common cognitive distortions that appear in high conflict cases include:
• All or Nothing Thinking
• Emotional Reasoning
• Minimizing the Positive
• Maximizing the Negative
• Overgeneralization
• Personalization
• Projection

Since the cognitive distortions of those with personality disorders generally cause them to interpret events as all external, they desperately seek something or someone else to blame. It is a psychological process of diverting attention from one’s own unacceptable behavior onto the behavior of another. It appears to be a sincere, but misplaced, effort to change the cause of their distress and problems.

I call persons with these personality disorders or traits in legal disputes, “Persuasive Blamers.” They convince others to see things through their cognitive distortions, especially in the courts and other dispute resolution settings. They help generate an Enduring Pattern of Blame, with identifiable characteristics in many disputes. … There appears to be a consistent pattern of those with these High Conflict Personalities (“HCPs”) when they engage in legal disputes.

In most high conflict cases, the Target is someone with whom the HCP has or had a close relationship. This is often a spouse, former spouse, neighbor, coworker, business partner, or professional – especially one with whom the HCP had an emotionally close relationship, such as a doctor, lawyer, minister or priest. Any of these persons can become Targets because of some misunderstanding … which triggered rejection feelings which “deserved” an attack. …

While the average person spends some of their emotional energy on reflection and self-change, HCPs appear to put all of their emotions into attacking their Target – to try to get them to change, to stop doing something, to compensate them for their troubles, or simply to divert attention from their own bad behavior. Not surprisingly, Targets don’t respond positively to these emotional demands. Therefore, the HCP starts pursuing others to help blame the Target. Essentially, they are seeking family, friends, and/or professionals who will help advocate for their cognitive distortions.

HCPs are not seeking help for problem-solving ideas and general support. When High Conflict Personalities are in a conflict, there is nothing to discuss or negotiate. Problem-solving ideas are irrelevant. They are seeking Advocates of Blame. When most people try to give them problem-solving ideas, it is not what they want. It makes them feel disbelieved or partly responsible. Since the HCP cannot tolerate the idea that they might be part of the problem, they will keep searching until they find Advocates who agree with them that they are totally blameless. In order to be totally blameless, they must get Advocates to agree that there is a Target who is totally blameworthy.

Such Advocates can be family members, friends, or professionals. Attorneys and mental health professionals are particularly thought of as attractive Advocates because attorneys “have to represent you” and therapists “have to like you.” At least, that’s how HCPs seem to think – and this appears to be the general public perception.
When potential Advocates don’t believe the HCP (which is very common initially), then the HCP escalates her emotions even higher: louder voice, higher pitch, she gets in the listener’s face, she blames the listener for not caring, and comes up with ever more dramatic allegations against her Target. She might become more manipulative – behaving seductively, tearful, helpless, and offering rewards. Or she might give up and look elsewhere for another Advocate. The goal of releasing their internal distress gives HCPs enormous energy with which to engage in an ever-escalating, high conflict dispute….

While most potential Advocates may feel empathy for the emotional distress expressed by the HCP, they are not persuaded by the real facts of the dispute. It will take more persuasive facts to win them over. Thus, those with High Conflict Personalities begin to generate distorted information that fits how they feel. Their feelings create their facts. While mental health professionals often recognize this, most businesspersons and legal professionals truly do not understand. Thus, they become absorbed in trying to determine who is lying, or investigating fictional information for days, months, or years in the structured legal process.

Much of today’s legal disputes are about what I call Emotional Facts – emotionally-generated false information accepted as true and appearing to require emergency legal action…. If persuaded of the Emotional Facts against the Target, the Advocate will feel a sense of urgency and feel compelled to do things on behalf of the HCP. The Advocate will persuade new Advocates. They will persuade each other. Advocates will start generating new Emotional Facts themselves, and the case will escalate, much like rumors that demand urgent action.

Of course, the Target generally has two choices: Give in to the mounting attack – which many victims of domestic violence and small businesses do – or fight back and also obtain Advocates. Interestingly, many Targets are not HCPs themselves and do not have practical experience at the adversarial approach to problem-solving. They are not by nature highly persuasive. They generally are trusting – sometimes over-trusting – of others, and therefore believe that others will see the truth without the need for persuasion. The Target may decide to involve a dispute resolver – mediator, ombudsman, arbitrator, court – or may decide to wait and see if the HCP calms down or goes away.

Inevitably, many HCP disputes escalate to involve a dispute resolver. This is often the court. As the cases in the following chapters demonstrate, this can be either because the HCP brings the case to court as a plaintiff or the Target takes the HCP to court as a defendant.

Some high conflict disputes resolve in mediation, if the mediator is able to handle the mediation in a way that satisfies the High Conflict Personality. This may involve some emotional or financial concessions that are acceptable to the Target. However, the HCP may be unwilling to negotiate meaningfully regardless of what the mediator does. If the Target is an insurance company or other large organization, it may have a policy of not settling cases with little or no hard evidence. So, the case goes to trial.

In court cases, those with personality disorders or traits start out very convincingly about their cognitive distortions. They are usually much more aggressive than their Targets. They know right away that this is an adversarial process. Some Targets are shocked by the emotional intensity and Emotional Facts generated by their former spouse, neighbor, coworker, or client. They didn’t know this adversarial side of the HCP because they were previously in a collaborative relationship. Other Targets know exactly what to expect because of previous blaming.

Targets are generally at a disadvantage in court. They trust the court to be a finder of fact; they know the facts are in their favor, so they are confident they will prevail. They start out trying not to escalate the dispute, and generally take a problem-solving and settlement-oriented approach. They behave respectfully in court and defer to the all-knowing authorities.

Unfortunately, the authorities aren’t really all-knowing and can only base their decisions on the information the parties provide. The court system – an adversarial system – has many procedures that control the information presented. In many cases, this works very well. However, in the case of High Conflict Personalities, the process may be easily manipulated if the professionals and decision-makers are not aware of cognitive distortions and emotional persuasion.
Cognitive Distortions And Litigation

Few legal professionals understand the attraction of those with personality disorders or traits to the legal process. Yet a comparison of characteristics shows a perfect fit, which may explain why they increasingly show up in court as High Conflict

Characteristics of HCPs Characteristics of Court Process
Lifetime Preoccupation Blaming Others - Court Purpose: Deciding who is to blame, who’s guilty
Avoid taking responsibility - Court will hold someone else responsible
All-or-nothing thinking - Guilty or not guilty are usually the choices
Seek attention and sympathy - One can be center of much attention
Aggressively seek allies - Gather and bring many advocates to court
Speak in dramatic and emotional extremes - Argue or testify in dramatic and emotional extremes
Focus intensely on other’s past behaviors - Hear or give testimony on other’s past behaviors
Punish those guilty of “harming” you - Court is the most powerful place to impose punishment in our society
Try to get others to solve your problems - Many professionals will work hard to solve your problems
Its okay to lie if you feel desperate - In reality, the court rarely acknowledges or punishes lying (perjury)


Because the thought structure of HCPs and the adversarial court process are such a perfect fit, HCPs are often effective at making innocent people look “guilty,” while at the same time they are skilled at looking “innocent” themselves. With their desperate charm and aggressive drive, they often succeed.

Diagnosis and treatment are the fundamentals of the health care and mental health professions. An accurate diagnosis of the problem is essential to provide the proper treatment. However, in court the process is based on persuasion, not diagnosis.
A good diagnostic process considers several theories of a case, with the burden of making an accurate assessment on the therapist or investigator, who must know all relevant diagnostic criteria and who must test the evidence against each plausible theory. In court, the process of persuasion is centered on proving or disproving just one theory of the case. The judge or jury is the decision-maker, not an investigator. The burden of gathering evidence, knowing all relevant theories, and presenting it is on the parties (and their attorneys). The judge or jury must decide who is most persuasive – usually with many restrictions on the information they are allowed to see and consider.

For decades, social scientists have studied two basic paths to persuasion, called the central route of persuasion and the peripheral route of persuasion. (Lewicki, 1994, pp. 205-215, citing research of Chaiken, 1987, and Petty and Cacioppo, 1986) Each route affects our processing of information and judgment in a different manner.

(Generally a Conscious Process)

(Generally outside of conscious awareness)
Attractiveness of the messenger
Aggressiveness of the messenger
Confidence displayed
Number of arguments made
Language Intensity
Shorter Sentences and Simpler Messages
Use of Distractions
Relationship to the Listener
Social Role and Group Identification
Emotional Appeal

Interestingly, those with personality disorders or maladaptive personality traits tend to be those who rely more heavily on peripheral persuasion in daily life. This often becomes their primary problem-solving method, as they attempt to influence others to take action for them. Those with personality disorders often have a loose grip on the facts, so they rely more easily on emotions to persuade people. Unfortunately, many Persuasive Blamers have developed highly effective skills of short-term emotional persuasion, including charm, heightened emotions, and the ability to persuade others that they are victims – even when they are the perpetrators.

In court – especially with interpersonal disputes – the factual information is often skimpy and directly in conflict. The primary source of evidence is what each party says about the other: “He said, she said.” Important information may be excluded by legal objections, and the decision-makers usually do not see the parties interact – the most useful information about interpersonal disputes, aggressive behavior, and personalities.

There are significant rewards for winning in court (getting money, staying out of jail). Consequences for lying are rare. Persuading the court to adopt one’s own point of view (no matter how distorted it may be) becomes the primary goal.

In the absence or conflict of factual information, the peripheral route can dominate decision-making. Jury research shows that parties who appear more confident and attractive are more persuasive. Additional research on jury verdicts shows that attorneys who use an aggressive style are perceived as more effective, although the assertive style was equally successful in obtaining favorable verdicts. (Reike & Stutman, p.124, citing research by Sigal, Braden-MaGuire, Hayden, and Mosley, 1985)
A more emotionally aggressive party (or his or her attorney) may be more successful in capturing the attention and sympathies of the judge and jury. The first side to cry victim may be able to trigger suspicion and anger toward the other side. A more emotionally reasonable or passive party (many a true victim) can appear less persuasive – even though more truthful and flexible in out-of-court problem-solving. Ironically, studies show that courts are more accurate when considering written information and documents only – screening out visual and verbal peripheral distractions. (Reike & Stutman, p. 125)

We have all witnessed in the news and courtroom dramas the fact that a persuasive, aggressive person can “win” in court even though the facts of the case clearly indicate that they should not. Ironically, it appears that the Courts of Appeals are often the ones to more accurately and objectively understand these cases, while trial courts seem to be more affected by peripheral persuasion. Perhaps this explains why the Bar Court in the Gossage case seemed so forgiving of so many misdeeds, while the Supreme Court seems to have taken a more objective approach and observed the enduring pattern.


The Central Route of Persuasion would appear to be the proper focus for litigation. Interestingly, the adversarial court process makes many efforts to screen out peripheral persuasion. “Evidentiary Objections” are built in to safeguard against the intrusion of inappropriate, often highly emotional, information. Objections can be used as a shield against unreasonable and unfair information that is unreliable. They can also be used to protect citizens against evidence obtained improperly by an overreaching government (improper searches, seizures, and intrusions into citizen’s homes, cars) even if it suggests guilt.

However, objections can also interfere with the Central Route of persuasion. There was a clever commentary on objections in the movie, A Civil Action, in which Robert Duvall teaches law students how to use objections to repeatedly interrupt the decision-maker’s train of thought when the facts were going against his client.
From my observations, most high conflict cases are not resolved until the Central Route of factual information finally prevails over the Peripheral Route of emotions and dramatics. Because of court procedures, this often takes quite a long time. It may not be until the second retrial (Betty Broderick case), or the Civil Trial (O. J. Simpson case), or an appeal (Gossage case), that the facts prevail, the overall patterns become clear, and justice is somewhat done. Of course, many high conflict cases simply end when the Targets give up and decide to do something else with their lives. For the High Conflict Personality, dramatic interpersonal conflict is his life, so giving up is much less likely.

HCPs in court cases present a triple threat: Cognitive Distortions plus an emphasis on Peripheral Persuasion plus court limitations on Central Route persuasion.
When High Conflict Personalities Go to Court:
• Significant Cognitive Distortions
• Emphasis on Peripheral Route Persuasion
• Limitations on Evidence/Central Route Persuasion
• High Conflict Litigation

The resulting escalation of emotions and legal activity can involve many others, and a great deal of time and money. This suggests an opportunity for mental health professionals to educate courts, businesses, governmental agencies, and families on the misunderstood dynamics of High Conflict Personalities. Without understanding High Conflict Personalities and their Enduring Pattern of Blame, we will face ever-escalating costs as their disputes escalate into high conflict. ... Thus, HCPs avoid accountability and do not change their own behavior. The real problems are unaddressed and conflicts endlessly escalate

• COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS Cause Internal Distress
• EXTERNAL TARGET is Blamed for the Distress
• ADVOCATES are Sought to help Blame TARGET
• EMOTIONAL FACTS are Created against TARGET
• ADVOCATES Persuade New Advocates