Often, in family law proceedings, emotions are heightened, which can bring out the worst in a person. As family lawyers, we have seen firsthand behavioural shifts in individuals when a dispute arises. These can often escalate the disputes and make it more difficult to communicate with the person who is also being difficult. There is a pattern to the behaviours of difficult people. Recognising those patterns can help us choose how to respond to a person and a situation.

Special Counsel, Matthew Shepherd summarises his presentation and gives a step-by-step analysis of his recently presented paper at the LegalWise Conference on what causes challenging behaviour in family law disputes and strategies to overcome it. In this article, Matthew summaries his presentation and gives a step-by-step analysis of each strategy he discussed.

Lawyers spend much time managing difficult people and high conflict behaviours. It might be their clients, the party on the other side, lawyers on the other side, court officers, staff, perhaps themselves. There is a pattern to the behaviours of difficult people. Recognising those patterns can help us choose how to respond.

Strategy 1 – Don’t deal with them

Identify them early on and decide if you need and want to deal with them. To identify them – click here for the full version of Matthew’s paper.

Strategy 2  – If you choose to deal with them, don’t be like them

If you do choose to deal with them, try to avoid using some of their cognitive distortions. Do not engage in own all-or-nothing thinking by essentialising the person down to a simplisticly difficult person type. Think about the person not as a psychological type but as a real person driven by fears.  Think about their circumstances rather than their personality. Avoid mind-reading – do not presume you know what they are thinking.

 Strategy 3 – Do not think of them as being angry

Do not think of them as being angry. Anger is a masking or secondary emotion – and what it typically masks is fear and anxiety. Rather than thinking, “They seem angry, what are they angry about?” instead, think “they seem angry. I wonder what they are scared or fearful about.”

Dealing with someone you perceive as being scared is easier than dealing with someone you think of as angry.

Strategy 4 – Do not think of them as being powerful.

Do not think their anger comes from a sense of power or confidence. It probably comes from their sense of lacking control.  They certainly do not have all the power. If they had all the power they would not have to deal with you. The fact they are dealing with you means there is something you have that they think they need. In a negotiation context, that’s what you want to discover – what they need and think is important. Hopefully, there are some things important to them that are less important to you or your client, which you can trade off for what is more important to you.

In dealing with the other side, reframe their angry demands into being things they need from you. It repositions them to being the needy party rather than the powerful one.

Strategy 5 – dealing with their fears.

Respond differently to how they are dealing with you. Two ways are active listening and reframing.

Active listening

Let them speak for at least a few minutes. Listening is part of what they want, but listening does not mean you agree with them. Listen to them positively and respectfully. Show them you are listening.

Do not think about what you are going to say – you do not need to prepare a response yet. When they pause, repeat back their last two or three words with a rising intonation. They will hear it as an enquiry and keep talking. If they keep repeating something, it is because they do not feel heard. Just repeat it back to them two or three times using the exact words (including any obscenities).  “I think you just said [repeat their words] … can I check that you said …[repeat their words]… Have I got that right? “


Reframing is re-expressing their statements to change their focus. Please do not attempt this until after they feel heard through your active listening. Their statements can be reframed in a number of ways:

(a)       From past to future

“It sounds like last year was not good for you. Would you like to discuss ways things might work better in the future?”

(b)       From what does not work to what might work

“It sounds like things have not been working. Can we discuss options for how it might work better?”

(c)        From negative complaints to positive requests

If you tell a high conflict person what you do not want them to do, they will hear it as a criticism and respond by denying they do it. Instead, try:

“You have told me what you do not want me/the company/the other person etc to do. Can you explain what you want me/we/the other person etc to do?”

(d)       From big to little or little to big.

If they are bogged down in details, zoom out. “It sounds very  now. How would you like it to be in a month/year, etc.?”

If they are all-or-nothing, zoom down. “I wonder what is the smallest first thing I/we/they can do right now that will help the situation a bit for you?” This also sets up a potential follow-up question – “I wonder what the smallest thing might be you think you might be able to do right now that might help the situation just a bit?”

(e)       Externalise from internal personalities to circumstances.

“It sounds like the relationship and communications between you two have let you down…. It sounds like the uncertain real estate prices, share market, court delays, etc. have made it difficult to sort this out.”

Strategy 5 – Present them with choices and options – rather than demands

If a difficult person is told, “You have to do XYZ,” they will not consider the reasonableness of the underlying request. They will just hear “you have to…” and react to that. Instead, reframe a single demand into choices and options. Give them more than one option (and ideally more than two—both good and bad ones, including doing nothing and letting the current situation continue).

Explain what you can and cannot do. Then ask them, “What would you like to do now?” Do not insist on an answer on the spot.

Ramsden Family Law – How We Can Help You

Conflict is not chaos. The behaviour of difficult people has structures and patterns. Understanding those structures and patterns gives choices and strategies for engaging with them and how to do so.

Here at Ramsden Family Law, collectively, we have a diverse range of skills and mindsets when dealing with difficult people. We have seen many times difficult behaviour and are here to assist you in any family law matter that involves a difficult person. If you would like to speak with one of our family lawyers regarding your personal family law situation, please do not hesitate to contact us for an obligation free initial consultation.