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January 2, 2023

What Makes People Tick?

By David A. Hoffman

When I first started practicing law in 1985, I was surprised to see what an outsized role emotion played in my clients’ views of their cases.  Nothing in my legal training had prepared me to understand, much less manage, the emotional dimensions of conflict.

In 1992, I got trained as a mediator, and I began to feel even more the need for training in psychology.

I remember asking my late wife Beth Andrews, who was a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, about a particularly challenging mediation client.  He had been a high-level manager in an energy company, and he had been fired after engaging in a blast email campaign of exceptionally harsh, all-caps criticism of upper management.  He filed a wrongful termination claim, and in the mediation, he was unrepentant, arrogant, and grandiose, with an air of entitlement and self-importance that alienated the president of the company to such a degree that settlement seemed unlikely.

When I described this situation to Beth (taking care to disguise all identifying information about the parties), she showed me her well-worn copy of the “DSM” – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association – which she opened to the section on narcissistic personality disorder.

“Aha,” I thought.  “There’s the answer I have been looking for.”  The terminated manager’s behavior fit the description of a narcissist to a “T”.  I began to read about the techniques that therapists use in working with people who have the various diagnoses listed in the DSM.

Within a few years, however, I learned about a different school of psychology – the Internal Family Systems (“IFS”) model, created by Dr. Richard Schwartz – which seemed more promising than looking at clients through the lens of a clinical diagnosis.  Again it was Beth who alerted me to this model, and she also introduced me to Dick Schwartz, who had trained her in the use of IFS.

The IFS model is based on the idea that we all have “parts” (or what some clinicians might call “subpersonalities” or “inner voices”), all of which try to serve us in some way.  Each of us, according to this model, also has a core of consciousness, known as “Self energy” in the IFS model, and sometimes referred to as “spirit” or “soul” in various wisdom traditions.  Our Self energy has no agenda other than healthy and harmonious functioning of our various parts.

Using this lens, I could see how my clients’ parts would sometimes get out of kilter as a result of a divorce, business breakup, employment termination, or major injury.  My clients’ angry or wounded parts often led them to act in self-defeating ways (this was certainly true of the terminated manager described above).

For example, in mediations and other negotiations, I often see people so flooded with emotion that they say something intemperate or so harshly accusatory that, when I ask them privately about it, they express embarrassment about what they said.  “That wasn’t the real me talking,” they might say.  “I don’t know what came over me.”

The IFS model helps me understand those moments not only when my clients experience them but also when I do.  It’s as if, in the boardroom inside our heads, the CEO stepped away from the meeting for a moment and an irate board member took over the CEO’s role and issued an order to take some rash action.  What’s missing in those situations is Self-leadership – in other words, bringing our highest and best self back to the boardroom to guide our action.

One of the advantages of the IFS model is that it’s intuitive – we can all relate to the idea that “a part of me wants this, and a part of me wants that.”   The model is also non-pathologizing – we all have parts.  And finally, the model is empowering – we all have Self energy that, with practice, we can mobilize to help our parts manage their internal negotiation.

If you’re interested in reading more about how this model can be helpful in negotiations and mediations, here are links to a couple of articles – one long and one short.  And here’s a link to a video of a presentation (entitled “The Self-Led Mediator: Using IFS in Dispute Resolution”) from the annual IFS Institute conference in 2022.  If you watch the video or take a look at either of the articles, I would be very interested in hearing whether you have questions about them, and also any reactions you might have regarding the applicability of the IFS model for the work that you do.  I can be reached at  Thanks!!


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