Federal Politics

Save
Print

Dealing with high conflict people

A manager publicly blames a staff member for his own mistakes. An employee bullies and threatens a work colleague, then claims it was just a joke. A customer yells abuse at the petrol station checkout. A family member sends nasty emails out to the whole family and friends in a battle with a sibling.

This behaviour is considered ''high conflict'' because it increases conflict instead of reducing or resolving it. It can catch the target by surprise, especially when it is done by someone who seemed reasonable. Most people with these extreme behaviours have a repeated pattern of high-conflict behaviour. It's part of who they are. They didn't just act out of the blue - they have done this before and will do it again.

We think of them as ''high conflict'' people (HCPs). They aren't just difficult. They're the most difficult people, because their pattern includes four key characteristics:

All or Nothing Thinking - they tend to try to control relationships or avoid them. They see others as all good or all bad. Therefore, their relationships are often unrealistic and a frequent crisis for them. They generally want to be secure, but they undermine themselves on a regular basis causing relationship insecurity without even realising why.

Unmanaged Emotions - they tend to react emotionally and to focus on the past. Looking to the future is hard for them because they are so emotionally absorbed in their emotional reactions. They are preoccupied with arguing over who caused the problem, rather than analysing it and looking at options for fixing it.

Preoccupied with Blaming Others - they unconsciously put a spin on how they view other people, the world and problems. They exaggerate the negative or the positive then switch to negative when others don't turn out to be as unrealistically positive as they thought. They take things personally that aren't, then they attack back.

Advertisement

Extreme Behaviour - they tend to become more extreme in their behaviour when things go badly, rather than backing off and trying a different approach. They don't connect their problems to what they are doing, so they try to stop or change other people, rather than themselves. When this doesn't work, they become more frustrated, desperate and intense in their misdirected efforts.

To make matters worse, they lack insight into their own behaviour and how they contribute to their own problems. They sometimes become persuasive blamers, so others actually believe them when they tell everyone it's all someone else's fault or maybe even all your fault! Yes, chances are high that you will eventually become an HCP's target.

When someone treats you that way, you have to learn to deal with them because it's a pattern of behaviour that won't just go away. This is the bad news. The good news however is that most HCPs have a range of behaviour which you can influence with the right methods. You can often bring out the best or worst in them by how you respond.

Yet most of our natural responses to HCPs often backfire and make things worse. Many people under concerted attack may have already discovered this.

As frustrating as they are, HCPs tend to have predictable patterns of behaviour that you can recognise once you learn the warning signs. This means that you can learn effective ways of dealing with them when you recognise their patterns of behaviour. One important point is to never tell the person you think he or she is a high conflict person, or similar. It will make your life much worse if you do. Just keep that judgment to yourself and adjust your strategies for dealing with the person. Once you recognise, or even just suspect, that you are dealing with a high conflict person, there is a four-step method developed by the High Conflict Institute in California that is generally effective at calming their behaviour and focusing them on solving problems. This is the CARS Method and it stands for:

■ Connecting with empathy, attention and respect;

■ Analysing options or choices;

■ Responding to misinformation; and

■ Setting limits on inappropriate behaviour.

The method isn't complicated, but it's often the opposite of what you feel like doing when you are faced with a high conflict person. So practice helps. What is so amazing is that the HCP problem is similar around the world and that this method generally works with all types of people. It even works with those who aren't high conflict people, so you don't have to worry about identifying them.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, social worker and mediator and president of the High Conflict Institute in California, USA. He is the author of It's All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything. Bill will be speaking at a public workshop sponsored by The Institute of Arbitrators and Mediators Australia in Canberra on September 7. www.iama.org.au.