The field of dispute resolution has a lot to offer educators, parents and other care givers beyond peer mediation programs. Young people can benefit from an application of this knowledge as a preventative measure before they become someone Bill Eddy might define as having a high-conflict personality (HCP), his area of specialty in the field. Eddy’s definition of someone with a high-conflict personality is as follows:
Basically, when a person has a high-conflict personality, he or she is stuck in conflict. It’s part of who they are. The issue’s not the issue. They will just find another issue to fight about the same way. It’s how they routinely think, feel, and act. Because it’s part of their personality, they can’t see it. They can’t see that their behavior is out of line or “over-the-top.” It feels necessary and normal to them even though everyone around them can see that the person—who I call an HCP—is acting very inappropriately. It’s hard to believe, but they really lack self-awareness of how inappropriate they are. And you can’t “make” them see it like you can’t make a blind person see. HCPs just get defensive when you give them negative feedback, and often escalate the conflict even more. The biggest sign is whether they can turn their aggressive behavior on and off to appropriately fit the circumstances. If they are always aggressive—even when it hurts their client or themselves—that is a sign they can’t stop themselves. It’s this lack of self-awareness that’s key; e.g., if you can’t even talk to them reasonably on the phone; if they always make it personal with personal attacks or public rebukes of you or your client; if they have emotional outbursts they can’t control; when they can’t even make a settlement proposal or respond to one; if they “project” their own behavior onto you and blame you for acting in ways that they are really acting; or if they tell the judge that you’re being uncooperative or not communicating. These are all signs of a high-conflict personality and predictive of future uncivil behavior. (Interview with Deborah Bayus, President, NorthCounty Bar Association, The Magazine of the North County Bar Association, Vol.25, No. 10, October 2008)
I first heard Eddy present at the Academy of Professional Family Mediators annual conference a year ago in Denver (I recently posted about this year's conference in San Diego). There’s clarity and practicality to his writing and speaking that is immediately applicable to working with clients. It turns out that the language Eddy uses to describe HCPs resonated for me when interacting with preschoolers as well so I thought I'd attempt to more formally apply his ideas to that population.
In July I wrote a post, Negotiating: preschool years and perhaps I made it sound easy, which it is not. I didn't really address what to do when the preschooler‘s emotions have completely consumed him to the point of intense expressions of anger (throwing objects, hitting, demanding), sadness (withdrawal, inconsolable sobbing), or both. Once those emotions set in they often continue to escalate and ultimately peak (minutes, hours later) then gradually subside. It’s hard to prevent a preschooler from climbing to that emotional peak, and perhaps best not to interfere with that if it’s a natural progression of an emotional release. Often once on the other side the child is relieved, relaxed and finally able to express herself verbally. Sometimes, though, the child appears to be actually suffering from his own loss of emotional control.
Young people are obviously born highly emotional beings that ultimately learn how to reason. Eddy is not the first to talk about the functioning of different parts of the brain but he does it very well and adds layers of value to existing knowledge. In summary, Eddy tells us that HCP’s have a really difficult time shifting from an emotional state to a problem-solving place. Deep seated fear (the origins of which – usually from childhood –can be any number of things), and experiencing everything from this place of fear, results in a fight or flight response which projects outward as defensiveness, lack of personal insight or responsibility and an inability to problem-solve (APFM Conference, San Diego October 16-19). Similarly, Andra Medea, an alternative dispute resolution researcher and writer, describes an individual’s intense escalation of emotion as “flooding” and she talks about “shifting to healthy conflict” in her book, ConflictUnraveled. Toddlers flood easily (what many would call "tantrums") and preschoolers, while less prone to this, still struggle to make this shift.
Children who don’t learn how, at crucial moments, to move from a place of intense emotion into problem solving could become adults who are personally challenged in such a way. The ability to shift from a place of intense, unhealthy expressions of emotion to a place of healthy expressions of emotion and problem solving requires practice and actual learned behavior to create a physical change in the brain. If we don’t teach children how to do this, they risk becoming an adult HCP.
Medea suggests that when someone is “flooding” give them a mundane task or a physical objective, such as repeating their address, or having them carry a large object (Safe Within These Walls, Medea 2014). These tasks force someone who is overcome by intense emotion to relax their primordial fight or flight response and bring down the level of adrenaline coursing through their body. Similarly, asking questions of a preschooler in the grips of flooding such as “What day of the week is today?” or “How many different kinds of trains are there?” creates enough of an internal shift that he becomes capable of providing answers between ever-calming exhalations of breath. On another day, if those questions are asked, that same preschooler may throw his train across the room.
Eddy suggests using a process he named “E.A.R” which stands for Empathy, Attention & Respect and by providing structure. E.A.R. decreases the individual’s defensive response by connecting in a non-threatening way; “Calm them down first, so they can hear you”, Eddy says (APFM Conference, Oct 16-19, San Diego). Preschoolers, like HCPs, can be emotionally sensitive. Whether intuitive to others’ emotions or not, they can also be highly reactive. For some preschoolers, E.A.R. may be an effective first step toward tempering what a child may be experiencing as an unwelcome flood of emotion. A preschooler may melt into open arms when a caregiver provides empathy with full attention and respectful language such as “I see you’re having some big feelings about that. I’m right here with you. I know we can figure this out together.” Other times it may set off a reaction from the preschooler of: “I’m not having big feelings! Go away! Don’t say that!”
No matter what, requesting that a person—adult or child—respond from a place of reason when they are in a place of high emotion, almost always backfires. Helping a child internalize calming skills undoubtedly takes practice and patience and creative thinking as a child ages and develops. Once they’re in a calmer place, successful processes and solutions become more possible.
After helping a person feel calmer and less threatened (they are not in a state of flooding) providing a structured process for discussion allows the potential for a positive outcome to most any conflict. Since HCPs flood easily (as do preschoolers) Eddy suggests having HCPs in mediation set the agenda because that requires that they define the problem and take personal responsibility for solving it. Similarly, a preschooler could be asked: “I think there’s a problem here but I need help in naming it. How would you describe the problem right now?” This gives the preschooler the opportunity to “set the agenda” so to speak.
When dealing with an HCP one-on-one (even if that person is flooding), Eddy suggests asking “So, what’s your proposal” thus speaking to that person from a problem-solving place, getting them engaged in taking responsibility for a solution, and providing structure for the discussion. When working with a preschooler, whether or not the problem is already defined, a caregiver might ask: “Okay, so what do you think we should do about it?” A caregiver could even teach a preschooler what “propose” means and how to do it, likely surprising you both by his insatiable interest in coming up with creative solutions. When we define it, it becomes our problem and teaches cooperative problem solving skills while simultaneously empowering her as her own agent capable of proposing—and ultimately implementing—solutions. From there, the process I outlined in my previous post may flow more naturally.
Expanding our use of dispute resolution knowledge to preschoolers allows us to potentially preempt needing to use such skills on them as adults. In this case, Eddy’s and Medea’s understanding and approach can allow caregivers to develop opportunities for the firing of neurons in preschoolers , thus nurturing the connection between the emotional and problem solving parts of young brains. We may teach preschoolers how to recognize their own signs of flooding and how to internalize important calming mechanisms. We can help them engage in becoming solution-makers and sharers of life’s big and small challenges. Or at the very least, preschoolers may stop throwing objects, hitting caregivers or friends, or making irrational demands long enough to melt into a body-changing hug, and from there, the work of true collaboration begins.
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