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Scorched Earth Clients: Mediating with High Conflict People

You have met them if you have been mediating for any length of time. They enter the room with a blazing smile and gush about how amazed and privileged they are to have someone of your experience and reputation as their mediator. They are certain that you will be able to bring about a settlement. They really want very little, but the other person is just unreasonable and inflexible. They know that you can break the impasse.

During the mediation the same person is impossible to please, makes unreasonable and unbending demands, does their best to manipulate you and everyone else in the room, lies for no reason, threatens to walk out, believes that their way is the only way, is rigid in their thinking, reacts to criticism with intense anger or even rage. . .

If your mediator alarm bells are not going off, they should be. What you have experienced are the attempts of a “high conflict personality” to control everything and everyone. It started with the attempt to influence your thinking and manipulate you, which is called “the seduction.”

 The most common high conflict personality that I have encountered is the narcissist. By that I do not mean someone who simply thinks overly much of himself; I mean someone with a personality disorder. Personality disorders are a specific type of mental illness found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5, 2013) published by the American Psychiatric Association. Collectively termed Cluster B disorders, Cluster B is called the dramatic, emotional, and erratic cluster. It includes: borderline, narcissistic, histrionic, and antisocial/sociopathic personality disorders.

Personality disorders are much more deeply rooted than behavioral problems; they are pathological and incredibly difficult to change. A personality disorder is “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture” (DSM5). Clients with high-conflict personality disorders understand the world differently. Their world bears little resemblance to ours. What they say is their reality, no matter how far from the truth/facts it may be. Others, you included, exist merely to serve them. Collectively, these disorders occur in 10-15% of the population. Another 10%± of people have maladaptive traits that do not qualify as a disorder but are generally negatively affected by it. (Nichols 2007).

Antisocial Personality Disorder (aka Sociopath)

The Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) is characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of other people that often manifests as hostility and/or aggression. Deceit and manipulation are also central features. In addition to reckless disregard for others, they often place themselves in dangerous or risky situations. They frequently act on impulsive urges without considering the consequences. This difficulty with impulse control results in loss of employment, accidents, legal difficulties, and incarceration.

Persons with APD typically do not experience remorse for the harm they cause others. In fact, it has been reported that they have no conscience and see others only as potential targets for manipulation and abuse. However, they can become quite adept at feigning remorse when it is in their best interest to do so (such as when they are with you in mediation) and can be charming and disarming, which they have honed to a fine skill—and weaponized.

They take little to no responsibility for their actions. Instead, they will often blame their victims for "causing" their wrong actions or deserving of their fate. The aggressive features of this personality disorder make it stand out among other personality disorders as it is almost a constant when they are not getting what they want.

Histrionic Personality Disorder

Persons with HPD tend to show excessive and unwarranted emotionality and attention seeking—but there is a hollowness to it. Their lives are in constant turmoil and full of drama (so-called "drama queens"). They are uncomfortable in situations where they are not the center of attention. People with this disorder are often flirtatious or seductive and like to dress in a manner that draws attention to them. They can be flamboyant and theatrical, showing an exaggerated degree of emotional expression.

Yet simultaneously, their emotional expression is vague, shallow, and lacking in detail. This gives them the appearance of being disingenuous and insincere.

The drama and exaggerated emotional expression are tools used to manipulate others into giving them what they want and will be used as a tool to manipulate you in mediation.

They tend to feel depressed when they are not the center of attention. When they are in relationships, they often imagine relationships to be more intimate in nature than they actually are and tend to “come on” to potential romantic partners strongly and inappropriately.

Borderline Personality Disorder (Source: National Institute of Mental Health)

People with BPD may experience mood swings and display uncertainty about how they see themselves and their role in the world. As a result, their interests and values can change quickly.

People with BPD also tend to view things in extremes, such as all good or all bad without any shades of meaning or nuance. Their opinions of other people can also change quickly. An individual who is seen as a friend one day may be considered an enemy or traitor the next. These shifting feelings can lead to intense and unstable “come here – go away” relationships, which drives their romantic partners crazy.

Other signs or symptoms that may come up in mediation may include:

·       A pattern of intense and unstable relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often swinging from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation).

·       Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating.

·       Self-harming behavior, such as cutting

·       Recurring thoughts of suicidal behaviors or threats

·       Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger

·       Difficulty trusting, which is sometimes accompanied by irrational fear of other people’s intentions.

Most of my experience is with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which will be the focus of the remainder of this paper.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Defining NPD (paraphrased from the Mayo Clinic)

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is hallmarked by conceit, boasting or pretentiousness, self-aggrandizement, beliefs of being superior to others and the desire to only associate with other superior people, entitlement, paranoia, claiming credit for the work of others—and lying constantly, even when the facts contradict them. Narcissists monopolize conversations, belittle and mock people perceived as threatening or inferior. “Normals” who challenge the narcissist because of the constant stream of lies will be attacked mercilessly. Many find it difficult to believe that the narcissist will pass a lie detector test about lying, but he (75% are men) will pass with flying colors because he believes what he says when he says it—if he says it, then it must be so!

Narcissists have a strong sense of entitlement and when they don't receive special treatment, they may become impatient or angry. They insist on having "the best" of everything — for instance, the best car, athletic club, clothes. . .

Though appearing to be supremely self-confident, they cannot handle anything that may be perceived as criticism; they react with rage and contempt and cannot let it go; they tend to belittle the other person as a failure, stupid, and so on to make themselves feel better. Deep beneath the façade they have secret and deep feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. Or, they may feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection.

DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder include these features:

·       Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance

·       Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it

·       Exaggerating or lying about their achievements and talents

·       Preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate

·       Believing that they are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people

·       Requiring constant admiration

·       Having a strong sense of entitlement

·       Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with their demands

·       Taking advantage of others to get what they want

·       Having an inability to recognize the needs and feelings of others

·       Being envious of others and believing others envy them

·       Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

·       Paranoia

·       Total lack of empathy

Although some features of NPD may seem like having confidence, it's not the same. NPD crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself above all others. Others, in fact, are useless and expendable if they do not meet the narcissist’s requirements for admiration, etc., known as “narcissistic supply.” It has been said that the worst narcissists see others as nothing more than 3-D cartoon characters.

The problem with all of this is that they rarely are the smartest person in the room, their work product tends to be mediocre, they are lazy, they do not experience empathy for the plights of others, they never forgive (but always take revenge if they can), and they use people and then casually throw them away when no longer useful. They will try to dominate every conversation and proclaim themselves as experts even though they have neither training nor experience in a given field.

NPD’s are attracted to certain power-centric professions such as career military, medicine, law, clergy, and bureaucracy. Williford and Williford list six signs of narcissism in authority figures 1) all decision-making centers on them; 2) impatience or a lack of ability to listen to others; 3) delegating without giving proper authority or with too many limits; 4) feelings of entitlement; 5) feeling threatened or intimidated by other talented staff; and 6) needing to be the best and brightest in the room (2006, 104–110). Kohut includes sexual perversion fantasies or lack of interest in sex, an inability to form and maintain significant relationships, a lack of humor, empathy, or sense of proportion, unaccountable rage and pathological lying. Narcissistic vulnerability leads to defensiveness in the form of belittling others and self-belittling jokes; the narcissist uses sarcasm in place of healthy humor (Kohut 2006, 263).  Every person has narcissistic tendencies, but it is pathological in the NPD, and ultimately highly destructive to everyone in relationship with that person.

Not all narcissists have NPD, but for those who do, life is a constant struggle to achieve without putting in the necessary work, to be seen as the best and brightest in spite of generally mediocre achievements, to associate only with people of high stature and power—and to avoid at all costs anyone seeing the fragile, even brittle and fearful personality underneath. Everything they do is to compensate for their lack of self-worth and even self-loathing. Like the Great and Mighty Oz before going behind the curtain, what you see is not what you get.

Forms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

There are two basic forms of NPD, Overt and Covert. Overt NPD’s are gregarious, forceful, charming, brimming with ideas, make an excellent first impression and easily win over people until they rise to their level of incompetence. Like the Cheshire cat, it’s all smile and little else. Covert NPD’s are introverted, self-effacing (but expecting your praise), and tend to take the spotlight in increments. Where extroverts respond with angry bluster at a perceived slight, the coverts are deeply hurt and ruminate about how cruel it was to treat them so badly. When their rage breaks out, it is as if the offending act has just happened even though it may have been many years ago. Neither type forgets the smallest perceived slight, they never forgive, and they always look for ways to take revenge. As a recent political candidate, Donald Trump said, his favorite verse from the Bible is, “an eye for an eye.”

Both types are full of fear and rage and will attempt to control a mediation session in every way they can devise. They will put down their opponent through innuendo, sarcasm (which they develop into an art form), lies, promises, threats, browbeating, interrupting, smooth talking. . . One victim said that his narcissist tormentor “could weaponize the nicest compliment.” Above all else, they must achieve something that they can see and proclaim as a “win.” Their greatest fear in mediation is losing control and being exposed as the frauds they usually are. Even if they “lose” they will proclaim it a win – and believe it. “Facts” are irrelevant if they do not fit the narcissists “truth.” They are the original creators of “alternative facts.” 

Do not expect them to tell the truth; “truth” is whatever they happen to say at a given moment, even if it directly contradicts what they said only moments before, which they will deny ever saying.

They have no sense of empathy towards the plight of others. None. They can mimic empathy for short periods, but the pretense always collapses when they turn the focus back to themselves, which they always do. Likewise, they generally lack a sense of humor – they do not understand what others find humorous and either do not tell jokes or their jokes fall flat. The only time you will see them in a belly laugh is when it is at the expense of someone else.

Their sense of entitlement having few boundaries their initial demands in mediation are likely to be outrageous. The key is to figure out what they believe are the resources available for them to attain, and what it is that they really need. However, they will often accept a token settlement if it meets their requirements for a “win” and recognizes their “greatness.”

You, the mediator, have a strong deterrent: the narcissist is afraid of you because you have power over him.

In divorce mediations, manipulation, claims of victimization, and rage will be particularly strong. The NPD cannot stand rejection from a spouse, as he has most likely seen the spouse as a possession rather than an independent adult. The spouse may be so thoroughly beaten down and codependent that the mediator may have to resort to shuttle mediation rather than face-to-face.

One of the narcissist's favorite strategies is to couch misdeeds in terms of “concern” for the soon-to-be-ex or their children. Never forget that the one and only person a narcissist cares about is himself. Expressions of caring and concern towards you are a sign that you are being manipulated.

Do’s and Don’ts

Therapist and lawyer Bill Eddy (2008) writes, “First, recognize narcissism for what it is: an unconscious human defense mechanism. Narcissists are preoccupied with their public image because their very shaky self-image is managed by trying to look superior in public. Images of wealth, having honorable status, trophy (and ever younger after divorce) spouses, children in the best schools, etc. often help narcissists cope with a deep underlying sense of powerlessness and inadequacy. When the public image is shattered, many narcissists cannot cope. Some become violent toward others, often those closest to them, who they blame for their own problems in their distorted and dangerous thinking, e.g., “You made me hit you.” Others blame themselves. In either case, violence becomes a much higher risk.”

1.        Set the ground rules clearly at the outset of the session. The narcissist does not like to play by any rules except his own. However, you are the authority in the room so set the rules and enforce them. There will be subtle and overt pushback, so you must always maintain the authority figure role. The more you let him get away with, the more he will attempt and it will eventually spin out of control.

2.       Do not assume that you can influence or change them by modeling good behavior and communication skills. You won’t.

3.       Give them options wherever you can. Beneath their bluster, narcissistic people fear being left out of the loop. They crave control. It’s far better to offer them options to choose from, rather than feeding them ready-made solutions. They’ll tear other people’s decisions to shreds. Giving them options helps them feel respected and in control. It also prevents nasty hissy fits.

4.       Focus on solutions, not problems. When you explain a problem or a challenge to a narcissist, direct their attention to the solution. Don’t allow them to dissect the problem over and over again. Narcissists love drama and revel in the chaos. They’re easily agitated when frustrated. Define problems and present possible solutions, so they don’t smell blood in the water and tear you apart.

5.       Understand that the narcissist does not experience the same emotions as you do. They do not experience empathy for anyone else, they do not experience regret or remorse for the damage they cause (yes, they know the damage they cause, but that’s just part of their fun!), they lie constantly and actually believe what they are saying even if it contradicts what they said three minutes before. The only thing they regret is getting caught.

6.       If you can, make them the hero—but only in private. Narcissists are preoccupied with power and truly believe they are special and unique. They live for attention and admiration. Want them to do something? Tell them how great they are at it and watch them perform. Better yet, praise their performance in front of others. Just keep it real, please.

7.       Do not shy away from explaining negative consequences: Narcissists can’t stop themselves, whether it’s domestic violence or greed. However, when they know that there is a strong enough negative consequence, they can and usually will restrain their behavior.

8.       Female narcissists commonly use the “silent treatment” as punishment. Ask, “You have become silent. Can you tell me what is happening in your mind right now?”

9.       Do not do or say anything the narcissist may interpret as disrespectful, even if he is disrespectful. Remember, he sees himself as superior and not bound by anyone’s rules, plays by his own rules and sees his behavior as normal and acceptable, but only for himself. He finds people acting in the same ways he does as disrespectful and boorish.

10.    Let him claim any and all good ideas as his own. He will do that anyway and confronting him will result in an explosion.  

11.     Do not reveal any more of yourself to the narcissist than is absolutely necessary as he will attempt to use what he learns to manipulate you—and they are experts at manipulation. Otherwise, brace yourself for the guilt trips and disparaging criticism that narcissists often dole out when others explain how they feel.

12.    Get everything in writing with as much detail as possible. The narcissist is an expert at finding loopholes and exploiting them to his own benefit. The tighter the settlement agreement (if you get one), the better for everyone.

13.    Be aware of your own “stuff:” your emotional triggers, your weak spots, your blind spots, and so on. The narcissist will be trying to locate and identify your every weakness the moment he meets you with the intent of using them against you as part of his manipulation strategy.

If this is a divorce case with minor children, be aware of narcissist co-parents.


Suggested Reading:

Vaknin, Sam. 2015. Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited. Narcissus Publications, Czech Republic; Revised edition.

Hotchkiss. Sandy. 2003. Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism. Free Press.

Lerner, R. 2009. The Object of My Affection is in My Reflection: Coping with Narcissists. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Puls, Darrell and R. Glenn Ball. 2017. Let Us Prey: The Plague of Narcissist Pastors and What We Can Do About It. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books

Selected References

American Psychiatric Association. 2013. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders 5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Ball, Glenn, Darrell Puls, and Eric Jones. 2017. The frequency of narcissistic personality disorder in the clergy: A preliminary study. Journal of Christian Psychology. In publication.

Besser, A. & Priel, B. 2010. Grandiose narcissism versus vulnerable narcissism in threatening situations: Emotional reactions to achievement, failure and interpersonal rejection. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29(8), 874–902.

Brown, T., Sautter, J., Littvay, L., Sauter, A. & Bearnes, B. 2010. Ethics and personality: Empathy and narcissism as moderators of ethical decision making in business students. Journal of Education for Business, 85 (July), 203–208, doi: 10.1080/08832320903449501.

Eddy, Bill. 2008. Narcissism and the meltdown. High Conflict Institute. Accessed Jan. 27, 2017.

Greenlee, L. Jr. 1986. Kohut’s self psychology and theory of narcissism: Some implications regarding the fall and restoration of humanity.” Journal of Psychology and Theology, 14(2), 110–116.

Hotchkiss, S. 2003. Why is it always about you? The seven deadly sins of narcissism. New York, NY: Free Press.

Kernberg, O.  & Yeomans, F. 2013. Borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder: Practical differential diagnosis. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 77(1), 1–22.

Lerner, R. 2009. The object of my affection is in my reflection: Coping with narcissists. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Nichols, Kathy. 2007. Breaking impasses: Strategies for working with high conflict personalities. American Journal of Family Law 20(226) (Winter).

Ronningstam, E. & Gunderson, J. 1990. Identifying criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry. 147(7), 918–922.

Schwartz-Salant, N. 1982. Narcissism and character transformation: The psychology of narcissistic character disorders. Toronto, Canada: Inner-City Books.

Vaknin, Sam. Malignant self-love: Narcissism revisited. Narcissus Publications, Czech Republic; Revised edition.

Zondag, H. van Halen, C., & Wojtkowiak, J. 2009. Overt and covert narcissism in Poland and the Netherlands. Psychological Report, 104: 833–843, doi: 10.2466/PRO.104.3.899-846.




Darrell Puls

Darrell Puls is an adjunct professor of conflict management at Trinity Theological Seminary and private practice mediator, trainer, and writer living in Kennewick, Washington. He holds a doctorate in conflict management, specializes in organizational and church conflict resolution, and has worked in the conflict management field since 1976. MORE >

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