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Double Trouble: Managing the High Conflict Personality Client’s Enabler

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by Paul Fisher

Beware the enabler. This is a person who is often present in meetings with you and your client and who participates as much, or more. It may feel like there is a barrier or filter between you and your client. The enabler makes it feel like your job as the attorney is much more difficult than it should be. You may have double trouble: a high-conflict personality client and their enabler. Imagine trying to tame a two-headed dragon. Ignore one head and you will get burned.

An enabler aids another in persistent self-destructive behavior by providing excuses or helping that individual avoid the consequences of his or her behavior (Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary, 2007). “Enabler” is a term coined in the alcohol recovery movement, referring to a person who enables a spouse, parent, child or friend to continue either a substance or process addiction. (Brian Luke Seaward, “Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Wellbeing,” Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2006). The enabler is sometimes referred to as a “negative advocate,” one who advocates continued negative behavior.

Enablers may protect high conflict personality persons either passively by not challenging the self-destructive behavior, or actively by protecting the person from the consequences of their actions. Enablers help high conflict personality people by covering up for them, allegedly out of concern, loyalty, and love. But the real reason is because the enabler wants to be needed. Thus enablers may have an addictive nature, motivated by a desire to avoid arguments and conflict, and sometimes financial or emotional dependence on the other person. (Theodore Millon, Seth Grossman, “Personality Disorders in Modern Life,” John Wiley and Sons, 2004).

Psychiatrist Christine D. Forest portrays the enabler as fearful of confronting reality and too afraid to look at the tragic picture. They do not know how to address the problem, and so they chose denial and become enablers. When there is a person with your client that is zealously covering up a problem and taking an illogical position that does not make sense to you, this is the red flag warning of an enabler. The enabler’s “helpfulness” is part of the problem, not the solution. Their attempts to help maintain the problem by minimizing consequences, makes it easier for the high conflict person to continue their behavior. (Katie Evans, J. Michael Sullivan, “Treating Addicted Survivors Trauma,” Guilford Press, 1995)

Enablers, intentionally or unintentionally, advocate for the negative behavior of the high conflict person. Enablers adopt or agree with the high conflict person’s distorted view of reality. Being supportive of the high conflict person, they focus attention on others’ purported behavior. They adopt the high conflict person’s emotional reasoning and pretend nothing is wrong (Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., “High Conflict People in Legal Disputes,” HCI Press, 2005.) When enablers support the high-conflict person’s distorted view of the world, the high-conflict person becomes more confident in their position. The high conflict person becomes emboldened to blame someone else for his or her own acts. This can lead to legal entanglements.

A more detached person might ask a high conflict person, “What is the other party’s role in this? What is your role?” An enabler, who is in denial and thus unconsciously ignores the facts, may tell the high conflict person, “Why don’t you sue?”

Some attorneys are taken in by high conflict people. It is easy to be misled by these convincing and emotional clients. Their goal is to get the attorney to adopt their view of the dispute, even if they helped create it. Some attorneys may also be enablers. They do not carefully examine facts, documents and other proof they need to successfully try the case. In a small number of my mediations, I am the first person who breaks the news to a high conflict person that there are problems with their position. Before that moment, their attorney has not helped the high conflict person objectively analyze the issues of law and fact and the risks of trial. This can be quite a shock to the high conflict person. Occasionally, this moment is also a shock to the attorney who bought their client’s story without sufficiently verifying the claims or defenses.

To manage the enabler, be empathic and supportive of the enabler, but not supportive of their position. Supporting unverified claims validates high conflict behavior and the enabler. Provide consistent emotional support. If the client or enabler feel you are pulling away, it can be seen as rejection and lead to retaliation against you.

Do not openly confront their denial of the facts. Try to give them a new perspective of reality; i.e. “Have you considered…” or “Could the judge or jury conclude…” Do not get pulled into their world. Set limits on when and how you communicate. Do not believe everything they tell you. Verify what your client and their enabler tell you before acting on it. Encourage the enabler to let the high conflict person independently do all preparation work for you rather than the enabler doing that work. Assist the enabler in letting the high conflict person experience consequences, responsibility and pain of litigation, rather than the enabler absorbing it. Be supportive of the enabler in referring the high conflict person to psychological counseling to help with the stress of conflict, not as a means of addressing their personality.

Recognize that in some cases, the personality disorder may be too severe to manage. Attempting to represent someone who will not follow legal advice, will not consider reasonable offers and repeatedly makes life miserable for the attorney can be enormously frustrating to the point of anguish. Consider withdrawing from the representation (Sherrie Bourg Carter, “Representing Mentally and Emotionally Disturbed Clients in Family Law Practice,” 22 American Journal of Family Law 128 (Fall 2008)).

There is an adage, “Ten percent of your clients cause 90 percent of your problems. Get rid of them.” Do this sooner rather than later. The closer the case is to a dispositive motion or trial, the more difficult it will be to withdraw on motion to the court, and the easier it will be for the soon-to-be ex-client to retain another attorney. Before you fire this client, however, read the next and final chapter in this series, which discusses the issue of terminating representation.