Can difficult clients learn decision-making skills? Teach them self-management skills, based on Dialectical Behavior Therapy, for success in family cases.
By Michelle Jensen, Social Worker & Lawyer, and Bill Eddy, Family Lawyer, Mediator & Therapist
When dealing with high-conflict clients who are going through divorce, the legal issues often become overshadowed by their negative behavior, which is harmful to everyone involved and detrimental to the case. Trapped in a cycle of defensive thinking, intense emotions, and extreme behaviors, difficult clients often lack the skills necessary to break free from their dysfunctional thinking and behavior. Additionally, high-conflict clients lack rational decision-making skills – especially under the stress of divorce.
Can Difficult Client Learn Decision-Making Skills?
One approach that legal professionals can consider is teaching clients – especially parents – skills for self-management that will help them remain calm, communicate more effectively, and make better decisions. The concept of teaching self-management skills is based on Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a well-researched treatment method proven to work well with individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (a mental health disorder that reflects all the high-conflict behaviors listed above). Key aspects of this treatment method include teaching skills for reducing one’s sense of distress, managing relationships, and keeping one’s moods in a more normal range. Parents who practice self-management skills can also protect their children from absorbing their negative emotions.
Teaching skills before asking clients to make decisions requires several paradigm shifts for family law professionals – but does not necessitate new laws, as the basis for such counseling and classes is already established in family code. Teaching these skills also requires an interdisciplinary approach, with the collaboration of all professionals involved with the family.
Here are four key skills for your high-conflict clients to learn.
- Timely Preparation. Practicing self-management skills from the start of the case allows parents to be less involving of their children throughout the process and more effective at making small decisions without court involvement. Engaging clients in a positive activity related to decision-making prevents them from becoming “stuck” in the adversarial process. Such an approach should also include advising your client to seek counseling from the start of the case – especially in contentious divorces.
- Developing Skills for Both Parents. Ordering both parents to learn decision-making skills will eliminate the parenting contest, thereby allowing your clients to focus on the future rather than maintaining a defensive role towards the past. Both parents should be encouraged to learn self-management skills that will help them during the divorce case as well as in the future.`
- Shifting Focus. Changing the focus from teaching parenting skills to teaching specific decision-making and self-management skills can empower your clients to make their own decisions regarding divorce, custody, and co-parenting. Clients who are taught positive engagement in the decision-making process are more likely to act in accordance with these decisions and successfully make the smaller choices required to implement a co-parenting plan.
- Realizing Insight Isn’t Effective. Clouded by their defensive thinking, high-conflict clients lack insight into their own behavior. However, trying to argue with their flawed logic only serves to make them more defensive. Rather than attempting to provide them with insight, a high-conflict parent should be encouraged to develop self-management skills. Difficult clients should focus on the future as much as possible, and learning applicable new skills is one effective way to do so.
Parents experiencing divorce-related stress often exhibit defensive behavior that can negatively influence their case. As divorce professionals, we can bring out the best in our clients by assisting them to learn the necessary skills to make reasonable proposals and decisions. Requesting that your client attend counseling early on in a difficult divorce case, learn to practice self-management, and develop stronger decision-making skills will not only allow for a better attorney-client relationship, but will also benefit their family throughout the divorce process.
Michelle Jensen (MSW, JD) is the Program Director for New Ways for Families™, a project of High Conflict Institute. She assists legal and mental health professionals in implementing the New Ways method. Bill Eddy (LCSW, Esq.) is a lawyer, therapist, mediator, and the president of High Conflict Institute. An international expert on managing disputes involving high-conflict personalities, Bill developed the New Ways for Families™ method for application in and out of family court.www.newways4families.com
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