How High-Conflict Politicians Turn Peace into War

[Excerpt from the 2012 book Splitting America by Bill Eddy and Don Saposnek, chapter 4]

©2012 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and Don Saposnek

High conflict people tend to turn peace into war, regardless of the setting they are in. They naturally see the world in highly adversarial terms. They really trust no one except themselves and frequently turn against their own friends and family. However, they can also be extremely charming and persuasive, as we have explained is part of the splitting dynamic.

They repeatedly sound the alarm of great danger and then persuade many people that they are the only heroes who can rescue them (or the children in high-conflict divorce, or the voters in high conflict elections) from this great danger. The only problem is that the great danger may be non-existent, or quite exaggerated. Moreover, rather than actually being great heroes, they tend to have serious problems of their own which they don’t recognize. Whether in divorce or in politics, beware of the charm and the “I’ll-fight-for-you” statements proclaimed by the HCPs.  Always ask: Is it really a crisis? Is this really a hero?

Relationship Conflict Skills

In a relationship, the skills you use to resolve conflicts require the ability to protect both the relationship and yourself. You need to have a balance. If you blow a hole in the other person’s end of the boat, you’ll both sink. Think of it as relationships needing a “surge protector,” similar to the one you have for your computer. They function to protect you from getting fried by a sudden power surge. You can be angry at your partner, but you can’t be too angry for too long. You can say awful things in the heat of the argument, but you better make up soon or you risk destroying your future security with this friend or family member.

This issue has been studied by marriage researchers. Two of the most respected and well-known experts on this subject are John and Julia Gottman.. They have studied what makes marriages succeed or fail. After only a 15-minute video interview with married couples who are hooked up to monitors that measure heart rate and electrical conductivity of the skin, The Gottman’s can predict with over 90% accuracy whether the marriage is likely to end in divorce.  They have discovered that one of the characteristics of a healthy marriage is that there is a five-to-one (5:1) ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions. This apparently holds true both for couples who bicker a lot, and for quiet couples who rarely seem to argue.Because the happily married bickerers have so many more positive interactions, they can tolerate their many petty arguments (5:1). The quiet couples don’t seem to argue much, but their ratio is apparently 5:1, as well. They don’t seem to need as many positive interactions as the bickerers, because they don’t have as many of the negative interactions to counteract (Gottman, 1994).

When high conflict couples get divorced, however, the high-conflict person (HCP) often switches to putting out no positive and 100% negative interactions, comments and behaviors. This significantly escalates the conflict and prevents it from being resolved or resolvable. Much of the difficulty of high-conflict divorce is getting the HCP (or two HCPs) to see enough positive in the other person to be able to reach agreements and let go of the conflicts.

This reasonable awareness is not natural for HCPs, once they are in a highly defensive state (right brain defensiveness). Instead, they have the all-or-nothing thinking associated with this defensiveness. They often cannot calm themselves enough to reach their left-brain problem-solving abilities, so they, instead, remain stuck in their fight, flight or freeze defensiveness. HCPs are the ones who take the fight, rather than the flight or freeze, approach.

In politics, this turns into entirely negative statements about the other candidate or party, so that those who only listen to one side grow to hate the evil-other. If the politicians have nothing positive to say, then the other side must be extreme and self-protective. The message is consistently one of crisis, so that the listener’s fear and anger response will override and shut down their logical analysis and block any search for real information.

The Issue is Not the Issue

As we mentioned in Chapter Two, some high conflict disputes have one high-conflict person (HCP), while others have two HCPs, and still others have two ordinarily “reasonable” people who become caught up in a high-conflict environment that pushes them into high-conflict behavior.  This behavior may be foreign to them, but it feels necessary to them and to those around them. Politicians seem to fit into these same three categories.

With HCPs, the issue is not the issue – their personality is the issue. If you solve one problem in dealing with them, another will just take its place. The high-conflict person will just keep fighting, blaming, thinking only of him or herself, and contributing more to the problem than to the solution. HCPs don’t seem to learn from their mistakes. This appears to be true, regardless of the setting. When you’re dealing with an HCP, this is the predictable dynamic, once you know what to look for, whether it’s in divorce or in politics.

In divorce and other legal disputes, a high conflict person (HCP) tends to have the following 10 characteristics that drive the conflict higher and higher, rather than that reduce or resolve it (Eddy, 2006):

1) is rigid and uncompromising.

2) repeats failed strategies.

3) is unable to accept and heal loss.

4) makes everything personal.

5) has emotions that dominate his or her thinking.

6) is unable to reflect on his or her own behavior.

7) avoids responsibility for the problem or solution.

8) is preoccupied with blaming others.

9) draws others into the disputes (“negative advocates”).

10) can look really good for a few months (intelligent, attractive, charming, persuasive).

Do any (or all) of these fit politicians? Let’s look at some recent examples:

In 2006, the District Attorney near Duke University, Michael Nifong, loudly accused three students of raping a young woman from the nearby neighborhood, in a high profile case (he was running for re-election at the time) and he blamed Duke for tolerating this behavior among its athletes. Soon, everyone was angry at Duke and its athletes. Rallies were held. This D.A. was extremely loud, blaming,—and wrong! He ignored the forensic evidence that showed it could not have been the students, and eventually he lost his license to practice law in North Carolina because of his extremely unethical and high-conflict behavior.

In New York, in 2008, Eliot Spitzer, a governor with a reputation for being extremely difficult to work with, stepped down after it was revealed that he was a client in a prostitution ring. He might have escaped having to resign his office, except that he had alienated far too many people with his high-conflict behavior in his first year as Governor and previously as the New York Attorney General.

More recently, in 2009, there was the Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached and thrown out of office by a unanimous vote of the state legislature. He was convicted of corruption charges and sent to prison. He demonstrated the arrogance of an office-holder who didn’t seem to believe that the rules applied to him. This reminds us of the narcissism research described in the last chapter.

BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and chief innovation officer of the High Conflict Institute. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He is the author of 20+ books and has a popular podcast and a blog on Psychology Today.

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